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Wot I Think: Alien - Isolation

Postcolonial perfection?

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Alien: Isolation is Creative Assembly’s first-person survival horror take on Ridley Scott’s Alien. No predators, no marines, no swarms of xenomorphs. This time it’s not war. Instead, we have one space station, one creature and one Amanda Ripley, locked in an apparent cycle of terror. I was hoping for something that captured the intelligence of the original film’s design rather than simply being Amnesia in space, and Isolation is certainly that thing. Take a deep breath. Relax. We’re in safe hands, and there’s so much to talk about.

This is about as close to an ‘event’ game as ever happens to someone like me. I don’t have a particular brand or franchise attachment that receives regular servicing, but in an alternate universe somewhere, I’m queuing at a midnight launch event for Isolation, while cosplaying as an egg. What a relief it is to report that Isolation is beautifully crafted, smart as a whip and worthy to wear its name with pride.

Despite all of that, parts of this are going to sting a little. Hopefully just a little – I don’t expect anyone to be hurting like Hurt following his post-hug munchies – but it’s best to make sure everyone knows that Alien: Isolation isn’t coming into the world quite as smoothly and painlessly as might be hoped. It’s a superb game for much of its running time and an even better adaptation of the world of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, but it falters at times, for too long and too predictably.

I’m not going to spoil any of the particulars of the plot, which means I won’t answer every question as to what didn’t work for me. Some of those particulars will be controversial and I look forward to discussing them almost as much as I look forward to plunging back into the Survival mode. There are so many things that could have gone wrong and the vast majority of them haven’t, so whatever you’re guessing right now (no, it doesn’t turn into a gung-ho military shooter half-way through) is almost certainly not the case. If you want to know precisely what the flaws are and where they come from, read on and between the lines, but the only way to know for sure is to play.

Thankfully, I’d happily recommend the game to anyone who enjoys sci-fi, horror or Alien the first anyway. The existence of failings shouldn’t be considered a condemnation in any way. In fact, Isolation’s troubles are, on the whole, interesting problems to have. Let’s talk about what it gets right.

Primarily, it’s the world of the Sevastopol, which is a stunningly recreated analogue to the Nostromo, which is possibly the greatest monument to realist industrial science fiction ever constructed on such a grand scale. The Nostromo is one of the few strong examples of a convincingly working class construction set against the backdrop of infinite possibility and wonder. In Alien, space is another in a long historical list of places where people are sent to work for their daily bread, to argue over profit shares and unions, and to put their lives on the line in hazardous situations for a meagre paycheck, while the fat cats get fatter.

Isolation has a memory and understanding of that. Amanda Ripley – we’ll talk about the family connection later – is an engineer, and if she’s not intrinsically of the dirty hands and wrenches variety, she’s at least willing to get involved with some rudimentary mechanics. The story of the game, however, is as much the story of Seegson Synthetics as it is of the xenomorph or the Ripley family saga.

Forget the nature of the alien’s behaviour and the decision to include just one of the blighted things, and forget the decision to have human and android threats sprinkled throughout the station. Forget all of that just for a minute because Isolation’s greatest triumph and its greatest gamble comes in the form of Seegson itself.

The company that own the station on which the majority of the game takes place are a competitor to the better-known (in-fiction and out) Weyland-Yutani. Actually, ‘competitor’ is too strong a word – in the current climate, if Weyland-Yutani are Apple (I have my suspictions), Seegson are Amstrad, or perhaps Mr Kipling’s Bramley Apple Tarts. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in their androids, the Working Joes.

A Weyland-Yutani synthetic is almost indistinguishable from a human being, right up until the point when someone wallops it, and it starts spewing milk and screaming like a chiptune in a toaster. Seegson’s synths are, to put it politely, more workmanlike. From a distance, with just the right amount of cosmetic work, you might mistake one for Sir Patrick Stewart on a bad day, but up close they’re more like an army of crash test dummies.

It’s an inspired choice. The appearance and behaviour of Isolation’s machine men tells a story of competitive business and tech development, as well as serving to intimidate and terrify. At its brilliant best, Creative Assembly’s game is a masterclass in telling by showing, with every fine detail of the world building a picture of obsolescence and desperation that gels perfectly with the creaking bulk of the Nostromo and the bickering of its crew. The Sevastopol isn’t falling apart because somebody brought a parasite on board, it’s falling apart because the world has left it behind. The parasite is the final corruption in a system that is already diseased.

The design of the original Alien – that gloriously glitchy and archaic future-tech – is happy accident as well as inspired art direction. There’s an obvious intent to create something that isn’t outside the realms of possibility and that fits with the jobbing nature of the crew and vessel, but the ramshackle aesthetic is a product of its time. Isolation mostly succeeds in recreating that product and that time, as well as expanding on it. Every interface that Ripley encounters – hell, every piece of panelling and wiring – is credible and functional. It’s a world that begs to be touched and appreciated.

You’ll spend a lot of time touching it. The Sevastopol is in a state and Ripley quickly becomes the go-to person for repairs. When you’re not hiding in a closet or under a desk, chances are you’ll be wrapping a tool around something to unlock a door, or powering up systems. A few hours in, I realised I’d become a bit of an Isaac – that is Isaac Clarke of the Dead Space trilogy – working as a caretaker at the beck and call of other survivors. The impression is hammered home by the existence of a transport hub at the heart of the Sevastopol, linking the main areas with a loading screen transit system.

Fixing things is fine, for a while. It’s a constant pressure pushing Ripley deeper into the thick of it all. When the alien is hunting and the tension is high, the time it takes to boot up a stuttering computer terminal or drag a lever into position can be a deliciously anxious hesitation. I’ve screamed at the screen. Actually screamed. The overriding feeling is one of anxiety rather than terror, but it’s an anxiety so severe that I think I’ve learned how to tense the muscles in my eyeballs.

I’ve already described what it feels like to confront the alien in great detail. Now, having played the game, I can confirm that it never gets old and that’s because, with great restraint, Creative Assembly never allow it to. The superb standalone Survival missions are testament to the effectiveness of the creature’s design, both visually (which we already knew) and as a mostly convincing artificially intelligent agent. It works in fairly short bursts of tension, one eye on the motion tracker causing the world to fade out of focus. The thrill of horror as it begins to move, at an impossible pace, isn’t comparable to anything else in gaming.

Alien: Isolation isn’t a game about running away because if you get to the point where you have to run, you’re already dead. It’s a game about predicting behaviour, using the tools at your disposal to educate the guesswork, and it’s a game about hiding and holding your breath.

I imagine some people will consider the fact that it’s possible to survive at all and reach the end of the game an outrage that means the xenomorph has been unreasonably nerfed. Clearly, that’s poppycock, but I was concerned that prolonged exposure would diminish the power of the thing. It doesn’t but that’s partly because the exposure isn’t as prolonged as you might imagine.

The alien isn’t present for the entire duration of the game. Isolation isn’t just a sophisticated game of cat and mouse, and, despite suspecting that I wanted something like that, thank god it’s not the case. There’s a spectacularly impressive period of relative normality before its introduction and, later on, phases of quiet solitude that instil other types of dread entirely. There are even pauses to take stock and catch your breath, which is a good thing because given the intensity of the worst/best of the encounters, there’d be a risk of asphyxiation if they weren’t in place.

The pacing is effective, up to a point – it’s at that point, which will be a different point for every player, that I fell out of love with the game a little. When a new repair job required me to revisit an area I’d already seen, I didn’t particularly mind. But the game’s third act became a slog, for reasons that I won’t explain in full so as to protect the plot. The base of it was mechanical though – I came to feel like one of Seegson’s androids by the final stretch, following orders and waypoints on a map or the destination marker on the motion detector.

If it hadn’t been for the tremendous highs of the majority of the game, perhaps the apparent failure to stick the landing wouldn’t have disengaged me quite as forcefully. There was a stretch when I was going through the motions and struggling to care about the consequences. Too many sections had required me to go to a place and press a button so that I could go to another place and press another button. Isolation is so carefully crafted for the vast majority of its running time that the lull toward the end surprised me. It walks the walk with such assurance for so long and then joins the Ministry before having a bit of a lie down.

Amanda herself is a rather more pleasant surprise. I was childisly annoyed when the game was announced and I found out I’d be playing as Ripley’s daughter. It seemed like a link too far, an attempt to gain legitimacy and authority by latching onto the source in as obvious a fashion as possible. How lovely it is to be wrong.

The voice acting, by Welsh performer Kezia Burrows, is spot on – vulnerable but tough as nails – and the relationship to Ripley is never forced. Connecting the two stories with a human element, despite the time that passes between, is far more effective than I dared imagine, mostly due to the subtlety of those particular aspects of the narrative. Despite my initial expasperation, it quickly felt right to have a Ripley at the helm and, indeed, it wouldn’t feel proper to remove her from the scenario. There’s no coincidence required to bring Amanda to Sevastopol and her involvement is a natural part of the world’s bureaucratic core.

Even when my attention was dissipating, Ripley helped to keep me focused. Against all expectation, I cared about her story even when the game threatened to leave me cold and by bringing the story back to Ripley, the game recovers some of its lost momentum in its finale.

In retreading some of the ground and re-jigging the beats of Alien, Isolation sometimes steps into territory that is almost sacred to someone as obsessive about the film as I am, and it earns the right to do so. There’s a sequence so audacious that I’m in awe that it works as well it does.

Do not let anyone spoil that moment or any other for you before you play. They’re not twists, not the sort of thing that will be diminished by the anticipation and knowledge of them, but if you’re as attuned to the glory of Alien as I am, you’ll find them to be as good as anything in a game this year.

I haven’t spoken about how the interface works, or the crafting, or the precise mechanics of the combat and stealth (YES, THERE’S A BIT OF COMBAT, I HATED THE IDEA TOO BUT IT’S FINE AND YOU CAN MOSTLY AVOID IT) and that’s because everything works as well as it needs to. The thing that needed to be convincing was the alien and the environments, and that’s where the exceptional work has been done.

There are no innovations in the stealth mechanics but they’re solid, although mostly contained to tight spaces rather than folded out into complex architecture. The crafting is mostly a case of saving up bits and pieces for more impressive bits of kit that distracts and/or wounds, or pouring everything into basic noisemakers. Or maybe crafting medikit after medikit because androids keep throttling you.

Isolation is, remarkably, perhaps more effective as a sequel to and (sort of) adaptation of Alien into digital form than it is as a game. That said, despite drawing so much of its strength from the license, the excellence of the audio design, the uncanny androids and the sense of the magnificent dread of space put me in mind of another game – System Shock 2. I think Alien: Isolation is the best scary sci-fi experience since SHODAN’s last appearance.

Oddly, the alien itself may be one of the reasons that Isolation is unable to surpass Looking Glass’ work. Creative Assembly open the game with a Ripley who hasn’t even heard a whisper about the xenomorph. It isn’t just alien to her, it’s completely unexpected. This is a story of a first encounter with something unknowable and dreadful, but it is, of course, something that we already know about. The xenomorph is a pop culture icon and, in that sense, it cannot possibly serve the purpose it did in the original film anymore.

Despite the repetition and what I consider to be a significant mistep in the third act of an otherwise efficiently scripted plot, Isolation deserves grand praise for making the alien…alien again. It hasn’t been this frightening, animalistic and mysterious since its first appearance, and nor has it been part of a world that cocoons and nurtures its dread so effectively.

Isolation is the best Alien game I’ve ever played, I’m in no doubt about that. Even in its awkward moments it is doing something interesting with the license, exploring the edges of what is possible in its world, quietly and discreetly. I expect the debate about certain design choices to be loud and long. At the centre of the debate will be one of the finest entries in the Alien canon in any medium, and one of the finest horror experiences in ours.

Alien: Isolation is out on the 7th.

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Adam Smith

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