The Bestest Best Horror Of 2014 – Alien: Isolation

A game about Alien rather than a game about Aliens. A game about fleeing and hiding rather than running and gunning. A game that uses a license as effectively as any in the history of the medium. Alien: Isolation is a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic.

Adam: We’re not using the X word.

Has a game ever recreated the look and feel of a film as accurately as Alien: Isolation? If so, I haven’t played it. Creative Assembly’s FPS horror masterpiece isn’t just a generous portion of stealth and scares, it’s a superbly detailed trip into the world that Ridley Scott and his team brought to the screen three and a half decades ago. Everything from the creature itself to the individual posters and pieces of machinery that fill the Sevastopol has been crafted to fit with the design principles that made the Nostromo such a fascinating and enduring location.

This is a vision of a future populated by ordinary people – working Joes, you could call them – who just so happen to make their living as part of the crew of gargantuan spacefaring vessels and stations. These are the places that they live, love, work and die. We don’t have to be told that existence is precarious when the only thing between you and the vacuum is some uncaring corporation’s cut-price tech because we can see and hear the fragility of the situation in every bundle of loose wires, creaking panel and glitching console. There is no room for sleek starships here or crisp, pressed uniforms with neat little badges. The Sevastapol is a product of pragmatic industrial futurism and even before the parasite gets into its blood, everything is going to hell.

Isolation is a story about a horrific alien that seems to be made of knives, acid and a phallus tearing through the population of a science fiction facility. It is also the story of a woman who has lost her mother, searching for answers. And then again, it’s the story of a corporate in decline, of power plays and the victims of financial competition. That it manages to tell all of those intertwined tales while also delivering one of the most tense and terrifying system-driven games of this or any other year is a remarkable achievement.

Despite all of that praise, there are frustrations. Isolation is an unforgiving game. Unfair even. The alien will kill you, again and again and again. Progress can be slow and sometimes altering your tactics and using every tool at your disposal will seem pointless. Luck plays a role and passing a particular section can seem like an exercise in trial and error. The odds are stacked against young Ripley and even a fine understanding of the behaviours at play won’t be enough to prevent every single death.

That’s the nature of the beast though and would the game feel like an authentic Alien experience if every encounter didn’t come with the risk of a swift demise?

Almost everything I’ve written above is encapsulated neatly in one feature. The save points. The save points are the functional heart of Alien: Isolation

First of all, there’s the visual design. Save points are emergency telephone consoles, with a chunky old fashioned handset hanging in place. A green light marks them out, calling Ripley from across dark rooms, telling you that this is the one safe place. To activate the save function, a key must be inserted, presumably as a sort of security measure, to stop people from calling in emergencies when they spill a cup of coffee or from accidentally causing a station-wide emergency by leaning on a button while taking a break. Like every other computer system in the game, operation is slow and it’d be no surprise to find you needed to reboot midway through an input.

Once the key is in place, lights tick down for a couple of seconds. Sometimes it feels like half a minute. This serves a dual purpose. First of all, if the alien is in the room, it’ll kill you before you have a chance to save, ensuring that you’re not left with a game that reloads just as a claw is about to rip your face off. That’s handy. But the time it takes to secure your position is also a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted and that even when a device is helpful, it won’t cooperate exactly as you’d like it to. You won’t only die cowering in the confines of a locker – you’ll die standing up with your salvation in your hands.

The flaw of the save system is that it encourages mad dashes from one to the next. Several times, I found myself ignoring my surroundings and my current objective, simply sprinting through a new area to locate the savepoint. I’d die as I frantically hunted for it, of course, but that didn’t matter. A few seconds later, I’d restart at my previous location and start the search again. In the game’s most difficult areas, I didn’t even spare a second thought for the fictional situation because I was too concerned about playing the game and finding that next save point.

As soon as I managed to locate it, I’d be back in Ripley’s shoes, hiding and hunting, but those out of body experiences as I panicked about preserving my progress were some of the only moments when my sense of belonging in the world collapsed.

Alien: Isolation’s flaws are (on the whole) integral parts of its structure. You couldn’t plaster over them without losing something valuable. Despite my criticisms, there’s nothing I’d change, or at least nothing that I’d know how to change without fearing that something further down the line wouldn’t be harmed.

The original film might well by my favourite piece of cinema – a genre flick with an atmosphere that nobody has been able to emulate – and Isolation is as good an adaptation/sequel as we’re ever likely to see.

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45 Comments

  1. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Oh wow, well that’s let the cat out the bag. The 2 front runners for GOTY in my eyes just got categorised. Zoiks!

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      Aerothorn says:

      Dragonfall and Inquisition? Or Elite: Dangerous?

      We’ll see who wins Best RPG. I think they’re intentionally holding that one back so as to not show their hand too much.

      • grimy says:

        Legend of Grimrock 2? That’s my personal GOTY, anyway.

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        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Alien was also my guess for bestest best.

        Other than the ones mentioned what else does that leave?

        The Evil Within? Dungeons of the Endless? Octodad?

  2. Alien says:

    “The original film might well by my favourite piece of cinema – a genre flick with an atmosphere that nobody has been able to emulate”

    Yes, I have been searching for years to find a film with an atmosphere like “Alien”. Without success.

    • airmikee says:

      I think ‘Event Horizon’ and ‘Pandorum’ came close enough.

      • All is Well says:

        I might be misremembering here, but weren’t those pretty awful?

        • Alien says:

          Yes, but one that comes close to Alien (imho) is “Sunshine” from Danny Boyle. Good cinematography and great atmosphere.

          • SMGreer says:

            Sunshine is pretty darn good but it is a “scientists on a mission” film and so doesn’t have the same mundane essence that you see in Alien.

            Isolation has “Ripley on a mission” of course but I think it retains a lot of the mundane through the setting, the way you interact with all the tech and just the fact that so much of what sets the chain of events in motion is corporate and individual greed. If a handful of people at the heart of events had foregone a pay cheque or two, everything would have been fine. Such a mundane beginning to the horror that follows.

            I also like Isolation’s sense of tragedy though, largely in keeping with the films, since we know Amanda’s quest is largely a doomed one from the start. That dreaded notion that any encounter with the alien can never bring closure, you just bring back more of the nightmare with you each time. Lovely, horrible stuff.

          • Alien says:

            Thanks, interesting point.

            “Alien” is a perfect film on so many levels: cinematography, music, production design (Giger, Moebius), extremely reduced, pure storytelling… and everything fits together perfectly. I like the rotten tomatoes summary: “A modern classic, Alien blends science fiction, horror and bleak poetry into a seamless whole.”

          • PikaBot says:

            Sunshine is an interesting movie. When I saw it, we’d rented it for a bad movie night because the premise sounded unbelievably stupid. We were all kind of disappointed when it turned out to be actually pretty good…that is, until the three-quarters mark, when it abruptly and without warning did a total genre switch and became Friday the XIII in space. Our howls of laughter could be heard from space.

        • mpk says:

          Event Horizon is still the best film Paul WS Anderson has ever made.

          Which isn’t exactly saying much, as his films tend to be competently enjoyable at best, reaching for mediocrity and sometimes hitting it.

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            DelrueOfDetroit says:

            The WS stands for ‘Worthless Shit.’

          • Ben says:

            I like to think it stands for “What Script?”

            I really enjoyed Event Horizon when I was 16. Now I’d say that it has nice production design and cinematography, but it’s otherwise pretty shallow and doesn’t touch Alien.

      • Synesthesia says:

        Ohh, good reccommendations. Sunshine and Event horizon are brilliant, each on its own way.

    • Turkey says:

      The Thing is probably the closest you’ll get. Both are partially based on At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft, so might want to give that a read or a listen if you haven’t already.

      • Alien says:

        Yes, I always thought that Alien (and The Thing) were the only movies that successfully captured the “cosmic horror” element of Lovecrafts fiction.

        Btw. “The Thing” from Computer Artworks is quite a good game with superb atmosphere.

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          DelrueOfDetroit says:

          It’s OK.

          The paranoia aspect that they boast doesn’t really work. Even if one of your teammates is a thing it’s not really in your best interest to dispose of them since they will still continue to fight and heal for you. You just have to watch out for them changing in the middle of a fight.

          I remember plot wise that the game is basically The Thing + Half-life.

      • PikaBot says:

        That’s…not actually true, though. The Thing was based on a novella by John W. Campbell called Who Goes There?.

        • Ben says:

          Yeah, you could argue “influenced by” but neither film is “partially based on” Mountains in a *direct* way.

    • Banyan says:

      The Roger Ebert review points out that Weaver, at age 30, was one of the youngest cast members. Just by casting the actors older the movie indicates that the characters are “not adventurers, but workers.” And they all have distinctive speech patterns, with the scientists spiraling into nested clauses, the engine workers complaining about pay, and Ripley interrupting to the bottom line. And then the movie takes the time to let the characters speak and wonder and think, and pauses to show them thinking. Before they get to the eggs, it’s already one of the best sci fi films ever. What a great movie this is.

    • Munnrah says:

      Since no one said it yet, my sugestion is “Moon”, with Sam Rockwell. Not an horror movie per-se, but a really great and atmospheric science-fiction movie.

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        Skabooga says:

        Yeah, I totally second ‘Moon’. It’s certainly a different movie experience than ‘Alien’, but it is similar in its level of craft.

  3. All is Well says:

    “The flaw of the save system is that it encourages mad dashes from one to the next”
    Is this what people felt in general? Because personally I never really felt the need to rush from savepoint to savepoint, so to me it seems a bit odd to consider it flawed, design-wise. While I certainly saved whenever I found one, it never seemed necessary to base my style of play around them. I mean, there were obviously times where I’d gone a bit without saving and the alien was closing in, where I’d think “Where’s that bloody save station??”, but I’d also forget about them entirely for long periods.

  4. mpk says:

    I am as big an Alien fanboy as it’s possible to be (to the point that nature has molded my body shape in Bolaji Badejo’s image, extendable inner jaws not withstanding), and I consider myself more than satisfied with the treatment of the Alien universe within Isolation. Rather than just use the film’s production design as a tick box excercise, they’ve extrapolated from what we saw of the Nostromo and extended it further. It’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    As for the game: I’m stuck in a cupboard, trying to get to some hospital rooms to do a thing with a wotsit. The brilliance of the Alien is that it provokes such tension and makes you plan your movements carefully. The annoying thing about the Alien is that you have to plan your movements carefully ALL THE TIME.

    I love all four Alien movies (yes, even you, Resurrection). I really want to love Isolation, but I’m not ready to come out of the closet yet.

    While I’m here – this is my favourite web comic ever: link to explosm.net

  5. AshRolls says:

    Game of the year for me, as mentioned in the article it’s a masterpiece.

    • piedpiper says:

      I agree it’s a game of the year. Maybe even of the decade.

  6. SMGreer says:

    Echoing both the sentiments of the article and my fellow commenters, it’s a brilliant game and a flawed masterpiece. Glad to see it get recognition for its accomplishments and flaws, the result of a studio being bold enough to not compromise its vision in favour of something more traditional. There are frustrations but without them, I don’t think the experience would be half as engaging. A wondrous homage and respectable expansion to the original film, this game felt like a dream come true in every possible way. I wouldn’t dare change a thing about it, games like this are all too precious nowadays.

    My personal game of the year and destined to be an all time favourite.

    • Toadsmash says:

      Also one of the most polished AAA PC ports of the year, which took me completely by surprise. It’s a gorgeous game that will run smooth as a whistle on an extremely modest machine, and had very few launch issues aside from a few relatively rare CTD bugs that were patched within the first week.

      Now if only they had ever resolved the low FPS cutscene issues, but those were shared across all platforms, sadly!

      • SMGreer says:

        That definitely deserves special mention actually. After all the issues I’ve with many of the years big releases, Alien Isolation was a welcome smooth ride. Ultra settings, no issues at all. Which is especially noteworthy given just how downright stunning the game looks, on both a technical and aesthetic level.

  7. sairas says:

    “Has a game ever recreated the look and feel of a film as accurately as Alien: Isolation?”

    Blade Runner, another Ridley Scott adaptation, comes to mind. and the game also managed to enhance the feel of Philip K Dicks novel compared to the movie.

  8. Stellar Duck says:

    I really adore this game but I wouldn’t, probably, call it a horror game. It’s more of a very, very tense game. After the novelty of alien wears off (and it does the first time it pops up because it’s a known thing) I think the game transforms from an exploration of the unknowable to a super tense and awesome cat and mouse game.

    I wasn’t scared of the alien as I was scared in Amnesia but I was bloody paranoid, jumpy and tense all the time. That’s not quite horror though.

    If I’d never seen Alien though, it might be different.

    And to be clear, I love the game, so I’m not ragging on it. Just don’t think it’s a horror game.

    • Turkey says:

      A terror game perhaps?

    • SMGreer says:

      As an avid fan of the source material, I was still terrified and holding my breath in the Alien’s presence after two playthroughs. I certainly got more confident as I became more capable with the flamethrower, tracker etc. but that visceral fright still hasn’t left the game for me. So I’d absolutely still class it as a horror experience. Scariest thing I’ve ever played personally, excluding that one level in Thief Deadly Shadows.

    • drygear says:

      For most of it I agree, but there was one section of the game that I found to be terrifying. The place you go when you go to the reactor. The title of the game left me not expecting anything like that.

  9. Monggerel says:

    Well, Heartwood sure scared me more than Allen and Darkwood (I sense a theme here) drew me in like nothing else.
    Allen was just a silly, crafty, DeadSpach-meets-Dishonored kinda thing. Not very interesting or entertaining, and certainly not very scary. The mashed potatoes of 2014 vidyagames (Dark Souls II being the Schnitzel of them; when you need it, it’s the best fucking thing in the world, when you don’t it’s mediocre).

    FUKING SHAMFUL
    HOW DAR U DIS AGER W/ MEH
    MUH FERZ PAT CHEZ
    MMMMBRRBHRBHMHRHHHHH
    *twitch*

    That said I guess I suppose I can sorta see RPS’ decision’.

  10. Rindan says:

    I never dashed for saves. Dashing for saves is suicide. What I did do is start feeling some of the best tension I have ever felt in a video game when it had been a while since I had seen a save point. For me, the game was just a perfect mixture of tension, relief, and beauty. Isolation probably had the best atmosphere I have seen in a video game since…forever? The save system, at least for me, offered the perfect mix of tension.

    If the game had been a permadeath and rebalanced for that to be viable, it could never have held the tension so high. It would have either descended into frustration or been so easy that your pulse would only spike on the rare occasion when you really screw up. The save system was a mini-permadeath. The tension slowly ratchets up as you are being hunted and have not saved in a while. You keep playing though because it offers tension relief when you hit that save. It mixes this with the occasional highly atmospheric walking on a fucked space station simulation where you get to really just enjoy the view.

    I probably won’t play Isolation again for a good long while, but the 20 hours or so of nail biting tension that I got out of it was worth every penny I spent. If nothing else, it was a game that got the Alien theme perfect.

  11. imposible says:

    I never used any save station, on hard difficulty, and now I’m doing the same on nightmare difficulty.

    link to youtube.com

    So, people ranting about the save stations are ranting about their own playing style.

  12. Mechorpheus says:

    I couldn’t disagree with this more. This game IS NOT scary. Sure, it’s tense, and very effective at building tension, right up to the moment something kills you in one of the innumerable and mostly totally unavoidable instant kill scenarios, and you have to repeat 20 minutes because of the unforgivable saving system, and then it just becomes frustrating, like any one of those terrible stealth-em-ups with instant-fail on detection mechanics.

    I can’t classify it as a horror game, because if there’s one thing which kills horror deader than someone you have to press X to pay respects to, its repetition, which was something Amnesia understood, and whom-ever at CA who thought that saving system was a good idea clearly didn’t.

    (Another thing, what the hell was the thought process behind the stupendously strict time limits on the objectives in the survival mode? That really made me reach for the Uninstall Game button once I’d finished slogging through the campaign)

  13. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, it’s gorgeous and gets the Alien more right than any game before. On the other hand, the tension lasted too long without a release, and I got too stressed playing it, so had to stop. But I wanted to see where it went, so used Cheat Engine to prevent enemies from seeing me. This of course undercuts the entire design of the game—at least it let me take my time admiring the environment art.

    I kinda think the progression is back to front. I start off with very few resources and no tools at all to dispatch the Alien (temporarily) or other enemies (more permanently), and gradually get EMP mines, molotovs, pipe bombs, and the flamethrower. So my first real encounter with the Alien in Medical demands the most stealth skill and tactics from me. It should be the opposite: the game should have started off giving me plenty of options to be bad at stealth, and gradually taken them away.

    Anyway, having “played” it through once, I think I’ll be able to deal a bit better, so will probably play it through again without the cheats. A pity that it’s so long and linear and the story is a bit shit, but one can’t have everything.

  14. Poolback says:

    No talks of how brilliant this game is on the Oculus Rift ? This game is a masterpiece of horror in the Rift, and the ultimate Alien experience.

  15. substationradio says:

    Ah but you didn’t mention the best design feature of the save points, the chirping sound you can pick up from down the hall! Save points you can hear in a game where you’re straining your ears to hear the alien bumping around in vents overhead? what a move!

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      The sound of the save points was great. It’s a pity the sound propagation is a bit pish though. The Alien is always too loud (clomp clomp clomp), humans and androids often too quiet, music often overwhelming, noisemakers or rewired speakers sometimes oddly silent (but still attracting enemies).

  16. qrter says:

    Another huge fan of the original film (not so much the sequels), and like everyone says, the Alien world is wonderfully realised in the game.

    The game itself became a bit of a drag, for me. The first few times the Alien would appear, my heart would be in my throat. But then fear turned into irritation – oh Christ, look who just dropped out of the ceiling yet again, and who will now be stuck to me like a fly on honey for the next 10 minutes or so.

    I also feel that one specific story choice (regarding the reactor) was a poor one – the film works so well because the premise is quite simple, the game overcomplicates things, and even then the story is still quite boring and badly constructed.

    And the ending was just plain awful. Maybe there’ll be some DLC that’ll fix that, though.

    In short: I though the first third of the game was tremendous, then the whole thing started to sink under its own weight.