Alien Isolation: How to Hide From a Monster

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Before I start this review, I would first like to say I am a fan of the Alien film franchise – most of them, but not all.  I have the Alien Anthology on blu-ray, one of my prized movies.  I love H.R. Giger’s artwork, the inspiration for the original alien movie, as well as a host of other movies.  I admire the cinematography of the original, the suspense and terror that the movie series conveyed, and the whole world and lore built up around them.  That being said, I found the recent film, Prometheus, to be more than a little disappointing.  As such, I will admit that I am more than a little picky when it comes to anything bearing the name Alien.  As we gamers and fans of Alien know, there has been some very disappointing games made under the name, but some very fun old school ones.

Your Character

You are playing the part of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, now grown up and a bit of a grease monkey from what you see of her.  She’s not an officer, like her mother, and she seems more than a little naive at times, despite being a blue collar worker.  She is offered a chance to go with someone from Weyland-Yutani, or as the fans of the series know it more commonly, The Company, to retrieve the flight recorder from the Nostromo, her mother’s ship.  I won’t tell you too much more, as that will definitely get into spoiler territory, but in terms of story, it has a strong narrative that will remind you very much of the movies.  At the point I am writing this review I am almost halfway through the game, and have yet to even obtain a weapon that can kill the alien.  I am not sure when I will get it, but I can tell it isn’t going to be any time soon.

Gameplay

The controls are mostly familiar to those who play first person shooters, There are two additional features in the PS4 version of the game, which may also be in other versions: Head Tracking and Noise Detection.  The first will use the Playstation Camera and track your head.  When you are hiding and peeking around boxes, you can use your actual head to peek, rather than the controller.  This seems to be buggy as I was unable to confirm if it worked or not.  I strongly recommend that this be put in the ‘tutorial’ section at the beginning of the game to ensure that it works, and help players understand how to get it to work.  The other option is automatically setup, and makes the game a lot harder, but more fun.  It will use the microphone in the Playstation Camera, and record ambient sound.  If any loud sound is made, it is the same as if your character makes that sound in the game.  I was killed when someone tweeted me and my phone made a sound.  I have since learned to turn off my phone when playing the game, out of safety.

The circle button will bring up your radial menu of all the weapons and craft-able items which you have learned to make.  Honestly, this would better be solved by using the trackpad on the DualShock 4, as it was almost designed for something like this.  Each crafted item requires a certain number of parts, which are found all over the station where you are.  As expected with a game where sound and sight are so important, there are devices which obscure or distract using both.  Noise makers, flash bangs, smoke grenades, pipe bombs, EMP grenades and more.  You can even set off alarms in other rooms or cause smoke to fill rooms helping you get around.  Being careful is the number one order of business in this game.  When the enemies are abound, and the alien isn’t the only one, hide where you can, creep slowly whenever possible, and absolutely avoid sprinting unless you can get somewhere safe after breaking line of sight with your quarry.  The game will give you hints, but here is an important one that you may not get from the random hint screen: NEVER try and outrun the alien.  You would have a better chance of outrunning an Olympic Gold Medal sprinter.  One problem I have with the hiding system is that when you hide or come out of hiding, it seems like you are slamming the doors closed, which would seem to be counter productive if you are trying to avoid attention.

The crafting system is really a nice touch, as you can choose what sort of things you want to make, altering the way you get by things in the process.  Lure them with noisemakers, or use smoke as a cover.  You will have to be careful, as many times you will find more items than you can carry, so learn to make things when you can, or at least allocate the components, which takes them out of your inventory.  This is not an exploit, but something intended, as it is one of the many random tips you see in the game.

Graphics

Dark and mysterious?  Check.  Futuristic but gritty?  Check.  The game’s visuals definitely feel like they belong in an Alien movie.  The ship you start on is almost an exact replica of the Nostromo in fact, so many rooms are quite familiar to fans of the movie.  The alien itself is very well done, and moves exactly like it should.  The many ways it can kill you are rather entertaining too, as it’s not just a simple one or two ways.  There are areas where the graphics seem to be stretched to the limit, causing minor stuttering.  I am not sure if this is a hardware issue, or just they are throwing too much at it all at once.  It is not so much that the gameplay is affected, luckily, usually it only happens in cutscenes, which is disappointing as they should have full control over what assets are on screen at the time.

This is but one way you can die in the game to the title menace.

This is but one way you can die in the game to the title menace.

Sound/Music

This is one of the areas where the game is pretty much flawless.  The sounds are absolutely perfect, not being overly obtrusive, and the music is familiar and very atmospheric.  The alarms and warning voices sound just like ones in the Alien movies, and it is very easy to become immersed with them and the visuals working together.  Some of the mood music seems to be directly from the movies, or is at least an almost spot on homage to it.  When the alien is near, you can tell not just from it’s footsteps, but the ambient music which gets more intense.  It puts you in a heightened state of awareness, and you start to rely on the music to know when you need to just keep still.

Story

As this is a survival horror genre of game, story isn’t as much of a factor as with other games, but there is still a strong semblance of a proper Alien story.  It is very appropriate given all the lore of this universe, even down to the way the corporations treat their employees.  But the story is light at times, with certain interactions being solely for the sake of pushing you into further missions.  Despite this flaw in writing, it actually has more story than others I have played, relying on existing lore than exposition that is common to other games.

Level & Mission Design

The space station where this all takes place is huge, absolutely massive.  It is quite literally, a space port, so you will find familiar aspects of an airport all around: baggage claim, departure and arrival areas, and a whole back section where all the luggage gets lost or sent to the wrong planet.  Despite it’s size, and that you have loading screens when switching between major sections of it, it still feels like it is possible, like the whole layout makes sense and that this is a real place.  However, sometimes the loading screens can be a pain, but at others they are a welcome relief after hiding from the alien for hours.

Get used to seeing the alien like this, you will be doing it a lot.

Get used to seeing the alien like this, you will be doing it a lot.

The missions themselves are fairly straight forward, focusing on one main goal.  There are side distractions, but in the end, they are kept in check my the simple “survive this whole thing” thread that ties it all together.  The ways you solve the missions can be anything from easy to downright annoying, depending on what is available to you at that point.  You also have moral options: kill those humans trying to kill you, or just evade them.  I cannot comment if those choices actually mean anything at the end of the game, but I am hoping they do.  It would be a nice touch to know that not actively killing other survivors is rewarded in some way.

The Alien

No discussion of this game would be complete without a whole section dedicated to creature the game is named for.  Visually, the alien is just like it should be: dark, terrifying and fast.  It is, as was stated in the movies, the perfect hunter.  But there are some serious flaws with it, and they really do affect gameplay.  As mentioned earlier, the station you are on is huge, and you are not alone on it.  There are other humans as well as a bevy of synthetics, robots that mimic human form, all over the ship.  With all this in mind, the alien seems to have a very single-minded pursuit of you as it’s goal.  Even with literally dozens of other targets on a huge station, one solitary alien spends all of its time chasing you.  This leads you to spending a LOT more time hiding than you do actually doing anything.  I understand that with it only being one enemy, you need to use it to keep the horror built, but when you spend all of your time looking out of the grate of a locker, it becomes tedious.

Besides hiding in lockers and cabinets, you can also hide under tables!

Besides hiding in lockers and cabinets, you can also hide under tables!

Not only that, the behaviour of the alien seems more than a little odd.  It will scamper around in the air ducts, which makes sense.  It will pop out of roof vents at inopportune times, which makes sense.  It will patrol the halls like a security guard, which doesn’t make sense.  It will avoid going into most rooms in the entire station unless it happens to be a room where you are hiding, which only partially makes sense.  There has been debate amongst other Alien fans as to how the creature hunts.  Some has suggested besides the obvious sight and sound, it also does it by smell.  The problem with that is that since the alien takes on some of the characteristics of the being it gestates inside of, humans are not known for a very acute sense of smell.  Plus, a huge station which has thousands of people moving through it would pretty much have a blanket of human smell with not much else.  But somehow, the alien always knows where you are, and will come into JUST those rooms.  If the alien popped into other rooms randomly, that would make a little more sense, as maybe it is hearing a mouse or some piece of machinery.  But to only look into rooms where you are is frustrating, especially when it never leaves long enough for you to get to your next hiding spot.

This is where the game completely fails to capture the survival genre, forcing you from one hiding spot to another, making the game one long endless sea of lockers and cabinets.  Even the horror aspect of the game is lost, leaving you more annoyed than scared.  I first started the game on Normal difficulty, but at one point was so sick of the alien, I dropped it down to Easy out of frustration.  It didn’t seem to have an effect on how much of a pain the alien was, or how often it just decided to stalk me.  You would think that on a station with dozens of other targets, it could at least go look for a meal that wasn’t always stuck in a metal can.

Conclusion

This game was well hyped, and had a good amount of press covering it.  There was a lot of hope from fans of the Alien franchise, myself included, and in some respects, the game did deliver.  It is true to the lore, it is set in a well designed location, and the alien is as terrifying as it should be.  But I cannot ignore the fact that the main opponent of the game, the alien itself, seems to be overused and acting more like a guard in a Metal Gear Solid game than a ruthless killing machine.  One of the great lessons learned by film students who study the original movie is that the terror is made even greater by the fact that you rarely see the alien, and only briefly.  In this game, however, you end up seeing more of it than you do anything else, and usually from the inside of an enclosed space.  If the AI for the alien was tuned a little better, and it was less pervasive, the game would get a better score from me.  That being said, it feels like they used the alien to hide that in truth, the game isn’t all that long.  You just spend most of the time while playing it, hiding.  It is for this reason I only give it a mark of 65%.  It passes as a worthy game to Alien lore, and has wonderful mechanics, but fails to be a proper survival horror game, instead ending up as hiding simulator.

About Noah Pern

Noah Pern is a long time gamer, having been playing video games since Pong, and played multiplayer games before the internet was even widely known. A background in programming, beta testing, art and music gives him a broad sense of what is needed for a proper experience in gaming.
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