Alien: Isolation review: crew expendable

Isolation isn't the worst Alien game, but it is the most disappointing

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Sega
Developer The Creative Assembly
Release Date Oct 7, 2014

Alien: Isolation does not want to be an Aliens game.

That's an important distinction. Where James Cameron's 1986 film Aliens has been a major influence on video games since its release, and has seen a number of high-profile game adaptations and spinoffs, Ridley Scott's original Alien in 1979 has stood apart. Cameron's big guns and action scenes allowed for an easy power-fantasy hook — despite the intended anti-war message of the film itself — while Scott's frail human prey and solitary alien killer seem less easily adapted.

But in Alien: Isolation, U.K. developer Creative Assembly has a pitch poised to make a singular Alien game work. The idea? Put a vulnerable survivor on a space station falling to pieces, full of other, scared people, and one murderous creature with access to the whole station at any time. With presentation and premise from a survival horror game and the mechanics of a stealth title, Alien: Isolation proves this idea can work fantastically. The challenge, it turns out, is keeping it working.

The Sevastopol is the most interesting character in Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation starts promisingly enough. It stars Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, the lone survivor of the incident aboard the Nostromo in the original Alien film. Isolation begins 15 years after the destruction of the Nostromo, as a representative of the Weyland-Yutani corporation offers Amanda a chance at closure regarding her mother's disappearance. This comes in the form of the Nostromo's flight recorder, recovered by a salvage team and taken to the deep space station Sevastopol. Amanda is invited to accompany a pair of fellow Weyland-Yutani employees to retrieve the flight recorder and find out what happened to the lost Nostromo crew.

Of course, things don't quite work out that way. Disaster strikes, and Amanda finds herself alone on a station that seems more a ghost town than a metropolis.

alien isolation sevastopol wide shot

It's in these beginning stages that I enjoyed Alien: Isolation most, when its confidence is highest. It's a beautiful game, full of deep shadows and mystery around every corner. The soundtrack is understated or even absent when it needs to be, and tense when it makes sense. When I felt the most fear and discomfort in Alien: Isolation, it was almost always prompted by audio cues, both in the score and from the world itself. But the star of Alien: Isolation is the Sevastopol itself.

The Sevastopol feels like a lived-in place, frozen in the midst of its own decommissioning. The space itself tells a story independent of the horror that descends on it — a story of corporate greed, desperate people and the mundane reality of life on a frontier. The station feels like more than just a scene of some horrible crime. It feels like a depiction of an entire culture's failings and struggles, and I wanted to know what happened there.

alien isolation amanda ripley tall

Creative Assembly also leverages the decrepit state of the Sevastopol to make some smart decisions about player navigation and access. Alien: Isolation takes place largely in an open world, gated by emergency procedures and protocol. You'll see many areas of the station again and again, but each time with more access as you acquire tools and upgrades to Amanda's engineering repertoire. I wasn't frustrated when I saw a locked door — I was excited to come back later with, say, a plasma torch to cut through a panel to access the emergency override switch. But I also feared what might be on the other side.

Alien: Isolation smartly creates things to fear that aren't the alien. The disintegrating social structure of the Sevastopol has left the remaining human inhabitants there scared, angry and often willing to kill if they're pushed too far. Other inorganic hazards are also more than capable of killing Amanda if she slips up. Amanda isn't especially physically resilient, and for most of the game, your offensive capabilities are minimal. Instead, it's better to move quietly, out of sight, peeking around corners and avoiding danger wherever possible.

In order to survive and overcome the dangers around her, Amanda can build items out of materials scattered around the Sevastopol. Some of these are obvious, like medkits, but she can also build somewhat offensive items like pipe bombs and EMP grenades. While these do little in the face of extraterrestrial danger, they can work wonders against more earthly threats, and you will absolutely need to learn what tools work where, and what you can afford to use.

However, the biggest threat comes, as one would expect, from the alien itself. While there are predetermined moments when the alien will show itself, it acts on its own accord the rest of the time, ostensibly stalking you as prey through the station. It can be unpredictable, though certain actions might draw its attention, including loud noises like gunfire or alarm systems.

Unlike other games, the alien in Isolation is not a boss character. You won't be killing it, or really "beating" it. Success in Alien: Isolation often comes down to getting out alive as much as anything else. Eventually, you'll have more options to deal with the enemy creature for a moment or two, but even late in the game, confrontation is more like a dangerous crutch to lean on when absolutely necessary rather than a working plan. Hiding is always more advisable, though even then, safety isn't guaranteed — if the alien sees you run into a locker, you're as good as dead, and vents will seem like safe havens until you hear the telltale hissing behind you.

alien isolation review screen 3

Which is the whole point, of course. This unscripted adversary is Alien: Isolation's whole draw, and it can work wonders. When everything comes together just right, it's easily the best Alien-related thing I've ever played. Crouching, terrified, with no weapons to speak of and a motion tracker as my only defense, I moved through dark spaces afraid to even turn on my flashlight. Every bump in a vent made me paranoid, and the hiss of a valve in an access tunnel was enough to make me pause the game and take a second to get my shit together.

Moments like this make Alien: Isolation something special — where simply getting from one elevator to another feels like the most difficult journey you'll ever make. But that strength is also its biggest problem, one that exacerbates almost every other issue in the game.

Alien: Isolation falls prey to the same failing that has come to be a persistent problem in the film universe: overexposure. While Creative Assembly's stated goal was to recall the solitary terror and tension of the original Alien film, ironically, Amanda survives more direct encounters with the alien in one day on the Sevastopol than her mother did in her entire life.

The move to make combat against the alien pointless goes a long way to make it feel dangerous, to be sure. But the alien is also implausibly persistent, to the point where it seems attached to you by some kind of invisible tether. I often watched it wander around the same space for five minutes from inside a locker, then listened to it run away on my motion tracker for a few seconds. Then it would come right back. There's no reliable window to get things done, and I'd estimate about a third of my time with Alien: Isolation was spent sitting in lockers or boxes, or under tables, waiting for it to go away.

This overexposure undermines the power and terror the alien inspires. Every time I thought I heard the monster, every blip on my motion tracker, was a cause for a tightness in my chest at first. By the 300th time I dived under a table or into a locker, I wasn't scared anymore — I was annoyed. Once the alien becomes an irritation rather than a force of nature, much of the horror in Alien: Isolation vanishes.

alien isolation motion tracker
Overexposure robs the alien of its power to terrorize

This irritation is compounded by Isolation's save system, which is relegated to emergency stations scattered around the ship. Like most things in the game, it takes multiple seconds to activate them, leaving you helpless and exposed. They're incredibly risky to use when the alien is around (did I mention the alien is always around?). There is no checkpoint system.

When I died, I was thrown back to the last save to try again. And this means I was forced to replay the same extended bit of cat-and-alien over and over again, as death came from the slightest mistake in the alien's presence. This same risk also applies to every mechanical or electronic device Amanda interacts with, each of which takes agonizingly long to use. Even more infuriating, it takes multiple seconds of forced animation to cancel out of activities like hacking for no discernible reason.

When you do accomplish your goals, be prepared for them to mean very little. Alien: Isolation takes joy in pointing to the futility of your every action. I understand that video games need things to do, and Alien: Isolation is certainly a video game in that respect, giving you busywork to take you around the ship that ultimately amounts to nothing. But in major goal after major goal, hard-won success against the game's systems is followed by narrative catastrophe.

alien isolation save spot

This is an Alien thing, that nothing ever works until the very end of the movie. I get it. And this frustration works with characters you care about in a two-and-a-half-hour film. But Alien: Isolation has almost as many mishaps and surprise turns as Alien and Aliens combined, and it's 20-25 hours long.

If that's sounds too long, well, it is, if only because Alien: Isolation's last third throws any semblance of its original intent away in its desperate attempts to hit every possible Alien Moment™ you could think of. It ramps up the action and the trial and error considerably, to its detriment, unraveling the intermittent brilliance of its first half.

Alien: Isolation's first 12 hours or so often dangle the alien itself in front of you far too often, leaching out much of the tension Creative Assembly works to build so well elsewhere, but the last six hours signal a final giving in to all the wrong influences. The restraint that the game toys with early on, forcing situational ingenuity and experimentation and risk taking, is cast aside in exchange for big-budget AAA spectacle that would feel more at home in a Call of Duty title than a stealth-horror game.

And it's not like the story needs that time to breathe — the only "character" to see any real development is the Sevastopol itself. Every other character, Amanda included, is plagued by tone-deaf line delivery and bad writing. Alien: Isolation seems content to appear as a collage of borrowed elements from the films, with nothing new or original to say or show, eager only to get to the next reference.

Wrap Up:

Isolation isn't the worst Alien game, but it is the most disappointing

In the process of contriving story twists and turns to support this spectacle, Alien: Isolation ruins the unique focus of its premise and moves away from the inspiration of the first film. It becomes something depressingly predictable for fans of the property who have been hurt again and again by underwhelming video game representations. Alien: Isolation isn't the worst Alien game, but thanks to its unrealized potential, it just might be the most disappointing.

Alien: Isolation was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" Xbox One download code provided by Sega. Windows and PS4 versions were also tested by Polygon staff. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

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