In 1999, the co-writer of Alien, the late Dan O’Bannon, told me that once you’ve seen the movie, you should never watch it again. “It simply cannot be as effective,” he said. “We are afraid of the unknown. When it is known, it’s not as scary.” But O’Bannon might’ve changed his mind if he’d gotten to play Alien Isolation, a very scary first-person stealth action survival horror from Creative Assembly that Sega are bringing to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.
Set in 2137, fifteen years after the events of the movie, Alien Isolation casts you as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley. Still trying to figure out what happened to your momma, you find yourself on a space station called the Sevastopol, where you’re hoping to get a look at the flight recorder from your mother’s spaceship, the Nostromo. But apparently you’re not the only one who misses your mommy, as a friend of a friend of your mom has made his way to the Sevastopol as well.
From the get-go, it’s obvious that Alien Isolation is very different from other stealth action and survival horror games. It’s kind of like playing Dead Space or Splinter Cell if there was only one enemy, and while he’s impossible to kill and has great hearing and situational awareness, he only comes after you if you make a lot of noise.
Not that the titular xenomorph is the only thing in Alien Isolation trying to kill you. Apparently the staff of the Sevastopol are all jerks, because they’ll also try to kill you if they see you, as will these crash test dummy-looking service robots who clearly never studied Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics.
Then again, you don’t have much in the way of weaponry, anyway. While you do have a gun, you only have a handful bullets at any one time, while most of your grenades are of the defensive smoke and flash variety. And there’s the whole “you can’t kill the alien” thing, of course.
But then, Alien Isolation isn’t just about surviving this horror. You also have to figure out where to go next, and often have to solve situational problems and even some puzzles to get there. You also have to do some scavenging and crafting, though never to the point where this becomes like Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Make no mistake, though, while Alien Isolation isn’t just about surviving, it is certainly a horror. Granted, some of that horror comes from what we know about the alien, which — even after so many movies, games, even plushies — is still one of the scariest creatures in any fiction. But it also helps that Alien Isolation has exemplary sound design, easily the best since the first Dead Space. Not only does it takes use silence to its advantage, but it uses volume to make things sound far away. Hearing the quiet broken by a creaking bulkhead in the distance can be quite effective. But the best part is how you can sometimes hear the alien scurrying around the vents above you. It really keeps you on edge.
Even the music in Alien Isolation works well, as only comes in sporadically, when it can really heighten the tension, and has the same off-kilter mix of strings that worked so well in the original movie.
Which is just one of many reasons why Alien Isolation feels like a true sequel to that classic sci-fi horror film. Not only is the architecture of the Sebastopol consistent with what we saw of the Nostromo in the movie, as are the computer screens and all the knickknacks that are lying around, but so to are the sound effects, such as the click-clacking of the computers. It even mirrors the feel of the original movie by being methodical in its pacing, which further ratchets up the tension. They even made set the perspective in such a way that it makes you seem like you’re rather tall. Like Sigourney Weaver tall.
All of which is why Alien Isolation not only grabbed me from the opening moments, but it also scared the bejezzus out of me, repeatedly. Though I really, really wanted to know where it was going, I still couldn’t play it late at night, nor could I play it for long stretches at a time. It unnerved me that much.
Much as I may love Alien Isolation, and I do, the game isn’t perfect. Thankfully, none of its problems are fatal; they’re more just minor irritations.
For starters, while we’ve conquered space travel in this future, they can’t make batteries worth a damn, nor can you jump over even the smallest piles of luggage. Alien Isolation also does that annoying thing where it won’t let you have something until it says so. Even though I took out a guy who was shooting at me, and could kick his gun around the floor, I still couldn’t pick it up and use it. I had to wait until it was time for me to have the gun.
Alien Isolation also has a problem that’s so common these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do (seriously, go check): some of the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading the in-game tips and the captions, while the messages on the terminals are hard to read as well.
But the biggest problem with Alien Isolation is also the least problematic: the controls. Played at the default setting, movement is so loose it’s like the Sevastopol’s floors are covered in ice and you’re an Olympic figure skating champion. Thankfully, they included a slider to adjust this. Which is why this isn’t really a problem, and this paragraph is more of a warning.
In the end, Alien Isolation is easily the scariest game since the original Dead Space, and is on par with the best Silent Hill and F.E.A.R. games on the freak-o-meter (patent pending). But it’s also one of the best stealth action games since the early installments of the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid games, and best movie game since 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (it might actually be the best one since last week’s Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor, but I haven’t played that yet). Which is why Alien Isolation is easily one of the best games of this year. Despite what a certain Mr. O’Bannon might’ve thought.