I did my best to not be on the hype train for this game. And for the most part, I wasn’t. The only times I got unreasonably giddy about this game was when I first heard about it last year, and just a few days before release. So for the better part of a year, I was level-headed about it. I made sure I didn’t let myself expect too much.
Yet Ridley Scott’s Alien is both my favorite horror and sci-fi movie of all time, and I’ve never played the notorious Aliens: Colonial Marines. Whatever excitement for this promising looking game I had was very hard to keep at bay.
In this piece I’ll talk about what I’m observing in my first play-through of Alien: Isolation. To make these “First Impressions” pieces more structured, I’ll begin following a standardized, compartmentalized framework, highlighting major game aspects individually. At the end, I’ll talk about specific features that are particularly interesting for whatever game I’m writing about.
To quickly brief you on the game before we get into details: You play as Amanda Ripley, working your way through a desolate and dangerous space station in hopes of finding out what happened to your mother, Ellen Ripley 15 years earlier aboard the Nostromo space vessel.
As you’d expect, the main gameplay loop in Alien: Isolation, is the shifting of mood between low and high tension (as was the main loop in the Alien film) . At any given point, you have a few objectives to complete, and as you complete them, tensions and pressure get harder to cope with. Most of the time, this isn’t because the objectives themselves are that interesting on their own to complete, but rather because of something else entirely: the game-save system. There’s generally ten minutes between each save destination on the ship- therefore you feel relatively relieved of tension as soon as you save. Eventually, that tension mounts up again the further along you progress without finding another save point. In a horror game context, this kind of loop system works very well, but I feel like it heavily compensates for actually making individual gameplay events genuinely scary. At times I’m more uneasy because I don’t want to lose my progress more so than because I’m scared of what’s going on in the game. There’s a delicate balance here, and I feel Alien: Isolation treads and teeters the line between pulling it off and ‘simulating’ tense gameplay.
To give some details on the objective structure of the game, it’s highly Metroidvania-esque. That is to say, find ‘X’ to unlock ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. Different things are blocking passageways, so some variety is introduced by including hacking and lock-bashing mechanics. None of these things are particularly deep mechanically, but in a horror context they work because you always feel exposed and in danger. So when I’m hunched over doing this menial task to unlock a door, I’m not taken out of the experience because I’m rushing to finish it quickly because I’m not sure if something is creeping up behind me. This progression system is really enjoyable because on the one hand, I want to play the game quietly and slowly to avoid being noticed, yet on the other hand, I have to hurry because I’m at risk of being detected by something. The predictability of the Metroidvania structure is hidden by the way you handle tense situations.
There’s also a crafting system in place, which lets you build things like med-packs, noise-makers, flash-bangs, and smoke grenades. On normal difficulty, crafting loot is plentiful and I’ve consistently had a safe stock of supplies to use. The system seems complex, but it’s hard to really associate particular supplies with the item they let you craft. Because of this, I never really know which items I’m capable of crafting at a particular time. I feel this happens because I don’t feel safe spending an extended period of time analyzing the crafting menu- which I hastily click through in order to consume scrap. I like the idea of collecting blueprints to teach Amanda how to craft different items (it’s especially cool because Amanda is an engineer, so thematically the mechanic resonates), but in this kind of game, it might be better to pause the game when you find a blueprint and then explicitly show the player which components are needed to craft the item. That way finding particular loot is more satisfying, you aren’t just stuffing your inventory with what currently feels like generic scrap.
In many ways, the visual and audio design of Alien: Isolation are its selling points. I’m most invested in the game when scenery is interesting and atmospheric sounds are pounding away at my ears. Thankfully, these things happen very often.
The level of detail in environments and character models is fantastic. I very much feel like I’m in the Alien universe thanks to the detailed aesthetic, therefore I’m constantly aware that I’m in danger. Dynamic lighting fixtures and historical artifacts all lend themselves in service of creating an incredibly compelling setting to explore.
Sevastopol Station is a space port in located in a faraway pocket of space. You arrive there finding most rooms dark and abandoned, with Working Joe androids still seemingly operational. The corridors, vents, and bays throughout the station are all a thrill to explore thanks in large part to the SFX in place. Accelerating thumping, ominous screeches, and deep, growing engine tones all come together and ramp up the tension in game. In particular, dynamic footsteps in dark corridors and vents really freak me out, because in general, if you hear something, it’s probably nearby.
Visually, you’re aided by a motion tracker device which helps guide you to some objectives as well as helps indicate where NPCs might be. I’ve had little experience working with it, but so far I’m really digging it. It’s a nice supplement to what you’re already doing to take in the world around you, and often times, I’ve found it’s a necessary and welcome tool to help navigate danger.
I thought the game’s narrative would play a larger role in the core experience, but surprisingly it hasn’t. The game’s story is primarily presented through short bite-sized cinematic sequences as well as some console terminals that have written and recorded records of what’s been happening on the station. I’m not particularly drawn into the story, but for the most part it hasn’t been getting the way of the game so I can’t really complain.
I find the written records very interesting as they help paint a much more vivid picture as to what the people working on the now-abandoned station have been dealing with. Environmental history is great for games where exploration is a core focus of gameplay. I should note though, that while I care about what’s happened to the people of Sevastopol Station, I have no real connection to many of the other particular people I encounter throughout the game.
Five hours in though, I am interested in finding out where the story will end up taking me. I’d like to find out more about Amanda as a character, so she doesn’t just end up being a device to carry me through the game. I’d like to see if there’s any information about Ellen Ripley hidden on the station. I’d also like to find out more about how the people on the station dealt with the Alien when it first breached the system.
Of note, there’s three unique features in Alien: Isolation that I think deserve more detailed discussion. Firstly, the Alien’s dynamic artificial intelligence (AI), next, the Working Joe androids and their unpredictability, and lastly, the world-first design of the environments.
I’ve been very impressed with the Alien’s AI throughout the encounters I’ve had with it so far. It gets smarter and used to the way you work around it as you progress through the game, so the same trick won’t really work more than twice. Also, and this is my favorite part, if you have to retry a sequence because the Alien caught you, the Alien will behave differently. It might have been very aggressive the first time you played through a sequence, but the next time, it may be more patient and cunning. This helps keep the horror elements you’re subjected to fresh and exciting.
The Working Joe androids are so freaking creepy. They have red glowing eyes and a disjointed movement pattern that unsettle me every time I see one walk up to me. They obey the station’s main AI system, Apollo, so they’re still trying to work on the station as if every thing is alright. Their calmness and inability to comprehend the danger the Alien presents to you is unsettling. Sometimes they help you get through obstacles, only to betray and try to kill you as soon as you turn your back on them. They also have this eerie gaze whenever they stare at you motionless when you walk away from them. I think they’re scarier than the Alien.
Finally, I just wanted to make a note of the ship’s room design. In-game, there’s generally a few ways to go about accomplishing a goal, but there’s some one-off rooms with nothing in them that you end up exploring to no particular end. There’s cool details and props in these rooms to make them look important, yet there’s nothing mission-critical in them. This shows me that the level designers created a cool and realistic environment of rooms and corridors to play in, and implemented level progressions in them afterwards. That way, progression is never too predictable and I feel like I’m exploring a place where people actually lived and worked in. It’s kind of minor, but it’s a really cool detail.
I’m really enjoying the core aspects of this game, and I don’t think my hype for it before release is the cause of it. There’s some genuinely good design and implementation in Alien: Isolation and I’m excited to see what else the game has to offer me. It isn’t without its flaws though, so I should mention a few quickly. Sometimes I can’t tell if enemies can see me (and they end up seeing me) and the first couple of tutorial-like missions were kind of tension teasers. But I can live with those things because everything else is actually quite enjoyable. If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend trying the game out. With all the wannabe horror games and cookie-cutter shooters out there, Alien: Isolation actually offers some pretty cool variety.