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My experience playing Creative Assembly's survival horror adventure/nightmare simulation Alien: Isolation can probably be summed up in two simple words... "Absolutely nope". Or at least, that was my very calm yet emphatic reaction as I closed the game immediately after the first time I heard an unidentifiable scrape coming from somewhere ahead of Amanda Ripley in the dark and cramped ventilation shaft she'd just crawled into. In my defense, you have to understand Sevastopol ain't your friendly welcoming space station, and if the scrawled threats and pleas on the walls combined with the general destruction and disrepair of the place doesn't turn you away, the first time you come across those red drag marks on the floor you might feel differently. Amanda doesn't really have the option to leave, however. It's not just that she's braving the unknown out of a desperate desire to find out what happened to her mother Ellen Ripley (who you may have heard of) fifteen years ago after finding out the flight recorder from Ripley's doomed ship, the Nostromo, has been taken aboard Sevastopol. It's that Amanda literally can't leave, and she's not exactly alone on board, even if you don't count the straggled and desperate survivors or the malfunctioning droids. There's no heavy weaponry on your side this time... survival depends on stealth and smarts as you must scavenge for items to craft helpful items and rely on cunning to outwit deadly enemies. Despite some rough edges and a brutal difficulty, Alien: Isolation is menacing and ominous in all the right ways, and the tense, monstrous experience the franchise has always deserved.
Amanda arrives on Sevastopol unarmed, unaware of the events onboard or that she's the protagonist in a horror game, and weapons are in short supply, as well as questionably useful. As you may have gathered from the title, the droids and humans on board are the least of your worries, and if the Alien stalking you finds you, well, you gon' die, friend. The Alien is a unique enemy, actively hunting for you no matter where you go at certain points of the game through complex AI that allows it to track your sound and movements, forcing you to be sneaky and clever. You can outwit or distract it by using things in your environment, but nothing is ever a sure thing. Ducking into a locker may fool it and cause it to prowl on by, or it may rip you out and give you a new cranial piercing. The humans and androids are just as dangerous, since Amanda, unlike your average game hero, can't take more than a bullet or two without dropping. Even if you're confident enough to fight back with sneaky melee or the other weapons you'll come across, the noise of combat can attract the Alien's attention besides. In most cases, getting spotted by the Alien is immediate death, since you're never really packing the heat to do much more than briefly hamper its progress, so knowing your surroundings is imperative. Where can you hide? Where are your enemies? Does the game offer an achievement for "most time spent curled into a ball in a locker and whimpering at the first nearby unidentified sound"? Because I feel like I've got that mastered. (Ask me about the amount of time I spent hiding in vents, certain something was near me when absolutely nothing was.)
So if you can't, or at least mostly shouldn't, fight, then what? Well, Amanda's strength lies in her resourcefulness, as well as in your ability to make her haul kiester when necessary. By finding blueprints and crafting components scattered throughout the station, Amanda can make not just the important tools she needs to survive and progress, but things like medkits as well. Initially you'll be doing a lot of blind sneaking, relying on careful peeps out from around cover or just hoping nobody is standing near the ventilation shaft you're about to pop out of, but after a certain point you'll gain a helpful tool that can let you keep an eye out for what's going on around you. There are tools to hack and rewire systems in your area, to disable or crack the heavy locks on doors, flares, and much more. Resourceful? Sure. Alien-stopping? Ehhhhhh...
Analysis: Alien: Isolation is sort of like 2012's indie survival hit Miasmata's meaner (simplified) cousin, tempered with the constant tension of Outlast. It's hard to think of a game that makes you feel less safe, more on edge, as you creep through halls and rooms and cramped, dark tunnels trying to make as little noise as humanly possible. Alien: Isolation knows that the worst thing a horror game can do is allow you to figure out when and where you're safe, and that unpredictability may mean it isn't a relaxing experience, but it's darn sure a harrowing one like few games ever are. It's actually broken up into a series of missions, each with different objectives like turning the power back on, and while not every mission will pit you against the Alien, you never really know when it'll show up and start hunting you. Sometimes literally, as it does occasionally feel like it shows up in places that defies what's realistic or reasonable based on where you've tracked it or seen it, simply to up the challenge. Of course, it's still terrifying when it yanks you squealing out from under the desk you thought you were safely hidden beneath. The Alien is an entity that you take seriously in a hurry, and it feels like it has real presence and menace in a way other enemies, even in other games, just don't. The game actually touts a lack of scripted events, but that's only accurate where the Alien is concerned. Your encounters with humans and the Working Joe androids are all structured and designed, and while their AT is less formidable than the Alien's, they're still perfectly capable of turning you into a corpse in short order if you get overconfident.
Alien: Isolation is a game you'll die a lot in, and not just from the Alien itself, so even if you're making frequent use of the save stations, you're still going to find yourself needing to replay segments of the game or sit through exposition often. It's sort of a hard pill to swallow despite being a staple of the survival horror genre, mostly because many gamers have been conditioned by the lion's share of recent releases to expect to be able to save anywhere, or at least rely on autosaves. Do you know what you can rely on in this game? Getting your face eaten, or receiving a bullet in the back. It's not a game to let your guard down in the slightest, and even on easy difficulty it pulls no punches. You might have to quickly try to rewire something as fast as possible before the guard on patrol rounds the corner and sees you fiddling with the machinery, or brave using your flashlight in a darkened room to figure out where to dart next, even if it means alerting something to your position. You're given a decent amount of freedom as to how to handle some situations (hack something for a distraction, smash that dude's head in from behind, sneak, run like the dickens?), so you genuinely feel like you're relying on yourself.
One of the things Alien: Isolation gets absolutely perfect is theme and tone. Walk around when you're not running for your life and you'll see a space station that looks exactly like something you could have seen in the original movies. No sleek white interfaces and shiny touchpads, here everything is gray and bulky and the computer terminals come in old school green-on-black flavor, though they don't go quite so far as to make the screens rounded as they were back in the original movie... don't want to scare the kids too badly. Much like the original film, and most monster movies made several decades ago, Alien: Isolation knows all about pacing, and you'll go a good long while before you see hide or maw of the Alien itself, instead slowly immersing yourself in the world and the story. Amanda is a refreshing heroine not just because she's, well, a gal, but because she feels like a person rather than a stock "cold, hard, aloof superwoman" stereotype... someone who gets scared and uncertain, but who is brave and determined regardless. It's also a long game for its genre, considering survival horror has usually been made up of games like Resident Evil that reward you for powering through them in a handful of hours. Admittedly, the plot gets pretty convoluted towards the end, with multiple double-crosses and reveals. It's not that you don't appreciate a game trying to catch you off guard and set up a complex web of villains, it's that Alien as a universe doesn't really need it. The game would have been just as shocking and scary, perhaps scarier, if the whole plot had been just you, alone, on a ship, being stalked and hunted by the Alien. The concept of human versus an unknowable and seemingly unstoppable force taps into something deep and primal and desperate.
Still, it's clear that Alien: Isolation is a very well thought out game, and made by people with a passion for the source material. It plays extremely smoothly with simple, intuitive controls and a minimalistic Heads Up Display that keeps you immersed in the action. Navigating your inventory is fast and easy, as is the crafting interface once you've made your first item. This is the sort of experience where having to juggle too many keys would be both ffrustrating and lethal, so the controls keep everything moving smoothly along. While some things like the door hacking minigame feel a little too frequent, and in the future space batteries have the life span of the average fart, Alien: Isolation is at its best when you have no recourse but to slink through the shadows or scramble for cover. Players who prefer or expect something where the action is placed in their hands with weaponry and the protagonist isn't so easily dispatched will likely be put off or frustrated by the way combat is discouraged simply by making it so punishing and difficult due to more realistic human, eh, squishiness. Very little of the gameplay isn't spent skulking around, and nearly everything is stronger and better equipped than you. You're at the very bottom of the food chain, even when it comes to enemies that don't want to actually eat you, and it's rare to find a game that makes you feel as small and vulnerable as Alien: Isolation does virtually every step of the way. While the survival mode feels underdeveloped enough that most players won't mess with it more thanoonce until it's expanded, the main game is a meaty, satisfying experience... If not a relaxing one. Alien: Isolation earns the survival horror moniker with flying stars, and fans of the original Alien movie will savor it. After all, what says entertainment like unpredictable, violent death?