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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)

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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Xbox One Review - 'Alien: Isolation'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Feb. 25, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

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.

Buy Alien: Isolation

If you are a fan of games involving the "Alien" franchise, you know how many games have tried to feature the iconic movie monster. You also know that nearly all modern attempts have been disappointing. When The Creative Assembly was named as the developer of Alien: Isolation, I was a bit surprised, given that the gameplay of its bread-and-butter Total War series is a far cry from a survival-horror FPS. Between the franchise history and the developer choice, all signs were pointing toward Isolation being yet another disappointment.  However, every once in a while, when the stars align, a developer gets it right. Alien: Isolation isn't a disappointing game; it's one of the best games for the Alien franchise in the last 15 years.

The first impressive note is in how well it establishes itself as part of the canon. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, the heroine from the "Alien" films. Amanda is only mentioned in one scene in "Aliens," where it says Amanda grew old and died while Ellen drifted through space for decades.

Isolation approaches the plot point from the other perspective, where Amanda grew up without her mother. She ended up working as an engineer for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. While working for the company, Amanda is told by her supervisor that the black box from the Nostromo has been found. Eager to learn her mother's fate, Amanda boards a ship to head toward Sevastopol Station, where the black box is being held.

Sevastopol Station is a space station operated by Seegson Corporation, a failing competitor of Weyland-Yutani's. Amanda finds the station is in complete disarray, since it's in the process of being decommissioned. While attempting to board, an explosion causes Amanda to become separated from the others. After barely surviving that event, Amanda is alone on the almost-derelict station.

The situation aboard is already woeful, since the remaining inhabitants are down to scavenging and stockpiling basic supplies. Most of the remaining inhabitants operate in small groups and are quick to use violence to survive. Making matters worse is the newer development of dead bodies piling up, and some sort of killer is prowling the crawlspaces and walkways.

The next thing about Isolation that impresses is how it paces the beginning of the game. The Sevastopol is a dark and ominous place, even if you aren't acutely aware of how the titular monster behaves. Every gaming instinct you have tells you, "Surely they wouldn't just drop in the Alien with no previous fanfare," and yet the environment is just offsetting enough to keep your pulse high. Even after you meet a sympathetic human character, the environment feels unrelentingly hostile. It's a fantastic way to set up an Alien game, smartly reserving your first encounter with the monster for over an hour while not making the game feel drawn-out.

During this time, you learn the basics of how to survive aboard the station. Amanda isn't a Colonial Marine or gun-wielding grunt; she's an engineer who has no combat training. Her best option is to stay quiet and unseen, since combat is almost always an option of last resort. Amanda can rewire panels to trigger distant alarms to distract enemies, kill the ventilation system to obscure the area in fog, or control other nearby machinery.

Amanda's other strong suit is her grasp of tools, which she acquires through her ordeal to allow her to progress. Early on, many doors are sealed with a mechanical lock, and the maintenance jack can unlock the doors and serve as a handy melee weapon. Later, Amanda acquires other tools, such as the access tuner that lets her hack some electronic locks via a matching minigame. During the game, you often encounter some areas that are impassable until you return later with the appropriate tools.

Another big aspect of the game is how Amanda can loot scrap metal and tech to craft useful items. The bits of tech come in a variety of types and categories. The crap metal serves as a basic currency; all items take some, and without any scrap, you won't craft anything regardless of how many parts you have. Some items are useful, like med kits, but other items — such as flash bangs, noisemakers and smoke bombs — can get you out of tricky spots.

Humans are probably the easiest foes. More menacing are the Working Joes, a model of androids that are less like the sentient synthetics found in the movies and more like cold, autonomous work androids. They all share a surprisingly murderous take on Amanda's trespassing at the station. Though they can't move more quickly than a brisk walk, they are incredibly durable and can only be stopped with an EMP mine and a flurry of hits from a maintenance jack or quite a few gunshots to the head.

This is all in preparation to the game introducing the star of the proceedings. By the time the Alien is a full-blown physical threat, you'll have had plenty of time to get the hang of the underlying game mechanics. In Alien: Isolation, you are the prey, not the hunter. The Alien is faster than you, shrugs off bullets and melee hits, and wanders the station with abject impunity.

To this end, the game is something akin to Amnesia in space, and I mean nothing but praise by such a statement. With basically no offensive capability to use against the monster, you are forced to use stealth. You must steer clear of alerting it to your presence while still making your way to the next objective. You have access to a motion tracker, but using it also alerts it if it's close, which leads to some awfully tense choices. A better option is often to visually keep track of it by using the peek button in conjunction with the joystick to peer over a table or around a box. The further you peek out and the longer you do, the more of a chance it has of spotting you. There's no surefire way to keep tabs on the beast, short of mixing these two methods as you go.

More useful is using your ears to pick out which noises are amiss. Once you get a feel for a surrounding area's layout, you can often track the position of the Alien by listening to the sounds of doors automatically opening when it is nearby, or the sounds it makes when entering or exiting an overhead vent. The Alien also makes certain noises when it detects the presence of something nearby, so those aural queues tell you when it's time to creep away or take more drastic action.

When all else fails, Amanda can hide inside lockers or other hiding spots, but they have their own drawbacks. While inside of a locker, there is barely enough room to use the motion tracker, let alone point it anywhere other than toward the locker door. You can only peer through the slits in the locker door, so it can be tough to know when it is safe to step out. The lockers aren't a safe haven, since the Alien can still detect you through the door. When that happens, you have to pull back on the joystick to stay back from the door, hold a trigger to hold your breath, and hope that its interest gives out before Amanda's lungs do.

It all amounts to a mix of feelings. When the Alien isn't actually in the environment but is noisily making its way through the ventilation system and crawlspaces, you'll feel waves of dread. When it finally bursts forth from an overlooked vent, that feeling switches to panic as you clamber into a hiding place. At first, I imagine many players can only play the game for a short time before needing to take a break. You can only save at save terminals, which are always located in what seems to be a corridor too far, so progress can be absolutely (yet enjoyably) agonizing.

However, one area where Isolation falters is it doesn't seem to know when to hold back or give the player more than seconds of breathing room before another few minutes of unrelenting duress. While the start of the game is commendable for holding its trump card until the time was right, the Alien is featured in the rest of the game far too much. Though the Sevastopol is massive, it seems like the Alien is never more than a few meters from Amanda's location, making it feel unfairly tethered to her despite the presence of other humans elsewhere on the station.

As time goes on, this has the unfortunate impact of making the Alien feel like less of something to be afraid of and more of something to be endured. Its constant presence saps away at its potential to be terrifying, and it makes it feel so familiar that your response is almost mechanical. Sure, it makes noises behind you that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, but it does it so often that the feeling becomes the norm. It starts to feel like this only one-third of the way into the game, so for a majority of the game, the Alien just doesn't feel that scary.

However, I'm not convinced that this is as detrimental to the gameplay as it sounds. Become as familiar with the creature as you want; the Alien will still keep you on your game. Since your door-hacking minigame plays out in real time, you'd better pick a damn good window of time to do it, unless you're suddenly interrupted with a tail impaling your chest. You're the one scrambling to the nearby save station, hiding behind piping, and cobbling together equipment to stay alive. The game still provides a fantastic game of cat-and-mouse, and it's better if you don't wonder why the Alien loves to hang around you in particular.

It's worth noting that the Xbox One version had a few technical hang-ups. Though the game offered to begin playing before the install finished, doing so resulted in so many missing textures that it was unplayable. Later, there were a couple of times when the frame rate took a horrible and sustained nosedive, which made accurate control impossible for a few seconds. These occurrences were far from the norm, and most of the game ran quite smoothly, so it's hard to say if these were just weird glitches.

Alien: Isolation is more than just a commendable entry. It has clearly been developed from the ground up by fans of the original "Alien" movie. At the same time, it doesn't rely on the source material as a crutch and is a fantastic survival-horror game. I've been saying for years that the last truly good game of the franchise was made over a decade ago, and I've been saying that after every release since. It's finally time to reset that clock. Though it's not flawless, Isolation is certainly one of the best games in the franchise, and I'm damn impressed with what The Creative Assembly has managed to pull off.

Score: 8.8/10

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