When it comes to horror survival and suspense, it's hard to beat Alien Isolation. I mean that in every sense, because even though the game isn't as hard as in previous demonstrations (on normal difficulty), it's still far from easy. This is the kind of game that requires a sense of drive that borders on masochism, but at the same time, it works.
In Alien Isolation, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley's daughter from the movie franchise. She's on a mission to find out what happened to her mother aboard the Nostromo, and in seeking answers, ends up on Sevastopol - a beat-up space station that's in the process of being decommissioned. But it turns out, being sent to the ass end of space is the least of Amanda's problems. There's a giant monster on the loose, and it's killing the remaining inhabitants.
What are my chances?
There's a sense of dread that descends on me whenever I start up Alien Isolation. Once the space station loads up, I know that every step I take could be my last. Almost everything on the Sevastopol is a threat to your safety. That includes human survivors, who are scared and armed (always a wonderful combination); the station's android workforce, which lost their "may not injure human beings" directives, and the station's AI (Apollo), which puts the preservation of human life really low on its priority list. Some of these factions may be cooperative, and it's up to the player to figure which are friends or foes. Oftentimes, the loud and trigger happy survivors end up being food and a much needed distraction for the roaming alien, whose perfection in form is matched only by its hostility.
Playing Alien Isolation is an intense experience. Most of it is spent slowly creeping from one hiding spot to the next, and picking up crafting materials on the way. Spotting the alien prowling the corridors made me want to crawl into a vent, curl up into fetal position, in hopes that it would just go away toward the far end of the station. Unfortunately, the xenomorph has the uncanny ability to be wherever Amanda is. After freaking out over every creak and grown the space station is prone to, I would eventually calm down, step out, and accept whatever fate may come.
The game really brings out a player's will to live, though it is marked by a persistent sense of paranoia, even during the game's quieter moments. Besides wanting to see how the plot plays out, the motivation for getting through the space station is to see the space station. Alien Isolation has some spectacular graphics, with characters that you can see sweating, and features a retro sci-fi look inspired by the 1979 movie. This means big clunky computer terminals with green flickering monochrome CRT screens, and large sheets of paper for maps and blueprints. It's so retro that Amanda has insert a large data card, sort of like a futuristic punch card, into slow working Emergency Terminals in order to save the game. Even the save in progress icon is a old-school cassette tape. But even though this vision of the future is outdated, it's still wonderful to look at and interact with. Whenever I think I've hit my limit with the game, I continue because I want to explore more of the Sevastopol.
You have my sympathies
Practically every moment is a painful reminder that Amanda is not a soldier. She's a civilian, thrown into a deadly situation, and has to rely solely on her wits to survive and escape. There's no cavalry coming, and a direct confrontation with the alien is unwinnable. Finding hiding spots and evading threats makes up a large majority of the game. Amanda can jump into lockers, sneak under desks, and crawl into vents. But hiding is just a temporary measure, and it doesn't always work. Sometimes enemies can sniff you out from a locker and spot you lurking in the shadows. If you can't make a run for it, then you're doomed to restart. The game ups the tension even further by only allowing a single save slot for the entire campaign.
That's not to say that Amanda is completely helpless. She does pick up a weapon or two, such as a revolver, stun baton, and the ever so rare homemade flame thrower. She also finds a large wrench tool, which can be used to bludgeon people trying to kill you. However, weapons offer a false sense of security. Ammunition is scarce, and guns make a lot of noise, which could draw unwanted attention to your location. Plus, they don't work very well against the androids, marked by their pasty white rubbery skin, glowing eyes, and creepy synthesized voices. Constructed by Weyland Corp's rival, these androids don't look, sound or act human. But though they might not be made for looks, they're certainly built to last.
With the odds stacked heavily against her, Amanda has to scavenge whatever parts she can find and construct gadgets to help get her out of difficult situations. Gadgets range from noisemakers to pipe bombs, but parts can be hard to find and she can only carry so much at a time, which makes it crucial to use them sparingly. Also, time doesn't stop while she's putting things together, so players have to find a quiet place and work quickly.
Her best tool is a portable motion tracker, which serves as a good indicator of exactly how screwed she is. Although it can detect movement, it can only do so on a 2D cone out in front of her. It lets players know that something is moving, and the direction the movement is coming from, but it doesn't indicate whether it's above or below. It's also pretty big and makes a beeping noise that enemies can hear. It might be the worst best friend ever.
For a game that relies so heavily on moving around, Alien Isolation's controls can get a little unwieldy. Amanda lacks the ability to jump, climb, or vault over objects. It can take a few precious seconds to properly crouch and get the prompt to enter a vent. It can take a moment to disengage from containers, especially when all you want to do is grab what you can and move on. Also, in staying with the retro theme, there's no touch or point-and-click interface for any of the computers and electronic systems. Players have to navigate a series of menus in order to access information and manage power systems like the lights and air filtration. Turning off the filters fills rooms up smoke, which may offer some cover, but also limits your vision.
The worst parts of the game, other than the repeated dying, are the hacking puzzles. Amanda carries a big clunky device that looks like a large screened radio frequency tuner to unlock certain doors. It works by first finding the right frequency, then matching a series of glyphs (the computer language of the future) that are pressed together into a single symbol. There are other types of puzzles, but the door hack is the most frequent. This bit can be an annoyance when things are quiet, and the pain of it gets intensified when there's an alien out to impale and eat you while you're busy figuring things out.
And there is a lot of figuring out to do. Alien Isolation is really light with the hand holding. Players are given general objectives, like reestablishing communications with the ship accompanied by a location, but rarely provides any directions on how to do it. Players have to figure find out the hard way that it takes three terminals to do something, or that a control room is located upstairs. Bringing up the map helps, but it isn't complete unless you find floor plans or do some exploring. Among the things the game discourages is aimless exploration. A side mission appeared on my to-do list, indicating that I should visit an office to "find out more" about what's going on. This is while I'm desperately looking for medical kit while the alien hunts for me on one side of the floor and armed survivors wander the other. Screw that, I don't need the whole story. I just want to grab what I need and get out.
Last survivor, signing off
Alien Isolation has a number of jump scares, but not enough to make it feel overused. Players have to rely heavily on their senses. That stream of goop dripping from a vent could be a sign of something. Are those footsteps, or just the station making its usual noises? Should I trust the stranger who is watching me through security cameras and talking to me through the PA system, or am I stepping into a trap?
The game kept me in constant suspense, which is honestly quite exhausting. Sometimes, there is an almost overwhelming urge to take the power back into your hands, especially when fellow survivors start shooting at you, or when an android strangles the life out of you for the fifth time. The alien is a force of nature, and it's best to stay out of its path, but humans can be killed. I found some cathartic release when I savagely beat a group to death with my wrench.
Alien Isolation is for people who can withstand a heightened emotional state for a prolonged period of time. Patience, observation, and fast action are paramount. There were numerous occasions, after being brutally killed again and again, that I had to step away and say, "Ok, that's enough." But the thing is, it wasn't. I kept going back to see if I could be a survivor, out maneuver the perfect organism, and get through the level alive.
This review is based on a downloadable Steam PC code provided by the publisher. Alien Isolation will be available on October 7th for the PC, Xbox consoles, and PlayStation consoles. The game is rated M.