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Alien: Isolation

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2014 (US), Oct. 10, 2014 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Alien: Isolation'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 14, 2014 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror experience that will focus on capturing the horror and tension evoked by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic film.

Alien: Isolation is set a few years after the end of the original "Alien" film. Ellen Ripley, the series' iconic protagonist, is still in the middle of her 57-year hypersleep journey. Her daughter, Amanda Ripley, has no idea what happened to her. She's now an adult and working as an engineer in the space sector where her mother's ship vanished. When a rumor comes along that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been found and is being stored on the space station Sevastopol, Ripley jumps at the chance to find out what happened to her mother. Unfortunately, her arrival at Sevastopol turns into disaster. An accident leaves her stranded and alone in the station, which is decaying and close to decommission. The few survivors onboard are struggling to find supplies and are hostile to newcomers. As if that weren't bad enough, something is lurking around the station and picking off the survivors one by one.

Isolation is easily the most atmospheric game I've played this year. It hearkens back to System Shock 2 in the best ways. Sevastopol is run-down, dingy, and decaying. The variety of survivors lurking around, the creepy synthetic androids, and the state of the station all contribute to the atmosphere. Progress is largely blocked by plot-mandated tools that you collect to open doors, hack locks, or alter the environment. Some are as simple as flares and flashbangs while others open doors or let you turn off cameras or change available routes. The atmosphere captures the working-class oil-rig feel of "Alien" better than any of the other games. At times, it's overly linear and relies on backtracking or "house of horror" scares to do its job, but it usually works. Even when Isolation feels like an amusement park ride, it's an absolute thrill.

Unfortunately, the game isn't just about exploring the space station. You'll encounter a number of dangers throughout the environment. Human survivors and rogue synthetics are both gunning for Amanda. While combat is an option, it isn't a very good one. She isn't a super soldier, and even with a gun, you'll be taken down pretty quickly by your foes. As such, stealth is the name of the game. You have some basic stealth abilities, such as hiding behind objects, ducking into vents, and sneaking up on your foes. Line of sight is the most important factor, and if an enemy can't see you, you're pretty safe. There isn't a large variety of enemy types, since you'll rarely engage in a straight-up fight. Humans are weaker but almost always armed with guns, making them deadly foes. The androids who wander the station are almost immune to melee attacks, and trying to fight them will replicate the scene in "Alien" where Ellen desperately tries to fight off Ash. They'll catch your attacks and be daunting foes unless you find a way to stun them or catch them off guard.

The stealth mechanics suffer a bit because the AI isn't very smart. Most of the time, enemies wander around aimlessly, and occasionally, they'll catch glimpses of your head and instantly make a beeline for you. The stealth gameplay becomes more engaging as you unlock new gadgets, but it's never particularly fun, especially against human enemies. The androids are more interesting because they are creepier and feel more deadly, but even they become pretty rote and boring. There are various tools you can use to make it easier, but relying on the poor AI is often more effective than trying to trick it.

Video games have long since reduced the titular alien to a disposable foe. You mow them down in huge numbers, and the most dangerous thing about them is their acid blood. Isolation seeks to undo that. The alien is a singular predator here, and it's fast, powerful and can kill you in a single hit. Weaponry is almost useless against it. You may be able to shoot it, but it will just close in and destroy you. The only thing it truly fears is the flamethrower, and even that only temporarily drives it back. Perhaps more importantly, it's a semi-randomized encounter. The creature hunts you, with an increasingly intelligent set of mannerisms based on plot progress and difficulty level. It's attracted to sound and follows Amanda around the station. There are certain places it won't appear, but it doesn't play entirely fair. It lurks in vents to ambush you from above, and if you're hiding, it can find you unless you stay on the move.

Isolation succeeds in making the alien scary again. After years of killing aliens and alien knock-offs in video games, I found it hard to buy that the original creature could instill the same sense of fear, but the developers pull it off masterfully by setting an appropriate level of tension. Most of the time, your only warning that the alien is nearby is the motion tracker beeping, forcing you to decide if you should hide, flee, or stand still and hope it goes away. The deaths it can provide are incredibly unnerving. My favorite is a clawed hand slipping over your character's face and dragging you into darkness. It's simple, clean and infinitely more terrifying since it leaves everything up to the imagination. Even when you acquire more tools, they don't help you feel like you stand a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, Isolation is perhaps a prime example of why a slasher movie villain doesn't always work in a video game. The alien it is a pitch-perfect replication of the iconic creature. It's fast, terrifying, brutal and can often seem to disobey the laws of physics in its efforts to terrorize you. All of this is effective and cool in a movie, but in a game, it is less so. The alien rarely hits the mark of feeling scary without feeling frustrating. When it works, it's fantastic. When you're hiding in a cubbyhole and watching the beast walk by while you pray it won't turn and see you, that's about as close as any game has come to replicating the feeling of the film.

More often than not, though, it fails. Sometimes the AI feels dumb, turning the monster into an almost comical threat. Other times, it's too effective in a way that doesn't feel fun. The alien teleporting by screaming across half the room quickly builds up the frustration level. Perhaps worst of all is that the mechanics are a little unintuitive. I found that being cautious, slow and crouching made the alien more of a threat, not less. The most effective way to handle things was to walk around and only hide when you had a clear line of sight on the creature, since that seemed to make its AI less likely to "stick" to you and start patrolling an area. I found earlier encounters with the alien frustrating until I stopped being scared of it and started treating it like a video game villain, at which point it became more manageable and less frightening.

None of this is helped by Isolation's intentionally archaic save system. The title forgoes the now-common autosaving and checkpoints in favor of save stations, which are located around the environment. Death brings you back to one of these save stations. At first blush, it's an interesting idea. Without the safety of checkpoints and auto-saving, death seems to hold more weight. It only takes a few deaths to realize that it doesn't really pan out because the game is entirely too linear for that concept to work. Returning to a checkpoint that can be 20 minutes earlier (or more) doesn't feel like a fitting punishment; it feels like a waste of time. You'll repeat the same steps the next time you go through the area but avoid the unlucky element that killed you before. If there were more randomization or variety, redoing an area might hold an element of fear and tension. Instead, I frequently wanted to turn off the game after dying because the thought of redoing an area was the opposite of fun.

Death is Isolation's fatal flaw — pun intended. It's always hard for a horror game to maintain its tension and atmosphere through player death, but the combination of seemingly unavoidable deaths and a frustrating save system quickly deflates the fear of death. Your enjoyment of the game depends on how often you die. Die only a few times, and the atmosphere and immersion hold up fantastically well, but each death chips away at that. The game recommends you start on the Hard difficulty, but I imagine many players will want to drop down to Medium or Easy after a few deaths.

Isolation is a fantastic-looking game, and the environments are some of the best I've seen. They capture the feel and look of the original "Alien" film without being an outright mimicry. The developers even lovingly re-create the old-fashioned technology, resisting the urge to modernize the visuals and leaving you with bulky CRT monitors and gloriously retro aesthetics. It works, giving everything in the environment a gritty and realistic feel.

The voice acting is solid, and the atmospheric design is pitch-perfect. Every clunk, every noise, every skittering sound makes you wonder if the creature is around the next corner. The character models are quite good, if a little weak in some places, but they do their jobs well enough. That comes with one major caveat, though. The game suffers from some serious frame rate issues. The bulk of these are in the cut scenes, which run terribly. Most of them jerk around awkwardly and drop frames to the point that they're borderline unwatchable. It absolutely pulls you out of the story when it happens, and it doesn't make much sense since the game runs rather smoothly.

Alien: Isolation does so much right. It's beautiful, atmospheric and interesting, and it does a great job of maintaining the ambiance of the original film. When the game works, it is head and shoulders above any other title that uses the license. When it fails, however, it descends into frustration and tedium. A few critical design decisions have the potential to turn an awesome experience into a tiring one, and it's very hard for the game to maintain its atmosphere with an unhappy player. A better save system or a less flawed set of enemy AI patterns would've done wonders for Isolation. If you're a giant "Alien" fan, this is the game for you. More casual horror fans should only take the dive if they have the utmost confidence in their skills or a very high tolerance for frustration.

Score: 7.0/10

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