In the Alien movies, characters routinely (though they’re none too happy about it) squeeze themselves into claustrophobic vents and pipes in an attempt to flush the alien out of its own turf. When they’re not doing that, they’re making their way down shoddy corridors in dim lighting, expecting a Xenomorph to descend from one of the numerous overhead vent openings at any moment and rip their head clean off. Or reach through the floor grating and pull them to a gruesome demise. Or be impaled by a skewer-like tail whipping out of the shadows nearby. The point is, they’re never ever truly safe, and now that I’ve played the game I can finally appreciate the level of terror those poor bastards must have felt. I’ll never watch those movies the same way again.
I routinely try to stay away from reading in-depth reviews and opinions of games while I play them so I don’t poison the well too often. But I did Google Alien: Isolation; it was relentless to the point that I just couldn’t take the suspense any further – I had to find out just what I was in for, and (more importantly) how much more of it I’d have to survive. So I knew there was a section in the middle of the game where the alien took a back seat for a while. And let me tell you, while I was stuck somewhere between missions 5 (Med Bay) and 7 (Seegson Synthetics), there was no wish in this universe I felt more urgently than to finally get a reprieve from the alien.
I’ve already related the level of pure horror inherent in every moment of the game’s early missions. “Scary as hell” is a tame understatement for Alien: Isolation, to say the least. But I persevered, at first whooping in joyous relief each time I made it to the next save spot, then slowly getting through one mission after another. Finally I got to the point where I could stop worrying about the alien for a few chapters, and even though the difficulty actually increased when fighting those blasted Working Joe androids, they weren’t nearly as unrelentingly terrifying (though the mission Synthetic Solution was easily one of the creepiest!). At last, at long fucking last, the final mission had been completed, the credits rolled, and I had just beaten Alien: Isolation on Hard (which, for some godawful reason, is the suggested setting for the “true experience”)! Cue the fireworks.
Comparing Alien: Isolation to any of the outstanding Dead Space games isn’t too far of a stretch, though the two feed on wholly separate types of fear, with Visceral Games’ series depending as much on the gross-out factor as on jump scares, while Isolation is definitely more of a hunter/hunted scenario, which stretches the tension to its breaking point. But some of the design, the feel of the games is definitely similar: you’re running through a (mostly) isolated space station that’s falling apart around you, constantly upgrading your arsenal and gaining access to new areas that you’ve already walked past but that were sealed off. There’s something about this fundamental design philosophy that I really dig – I know you either hate it or love it, and I fall squarely in the latter camp. Anyway, the atmosphere is one of paranoia, nervousness, loneliness, well…isolation.
I guess the story won’t win any points for originality; not only is it a sequel to the original movie, set in the span of dead time between Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens, it’s also an almost complete rehash of the first movie’s plot. Though it stars Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, the overarching sequence, and some minor details, are lifted straight from the pages of the movie’s script. “Following a distress beacon, a ship lands near the Xenomorphs’ ship, and one crew member gets infected while investigating the hatching grounds. Back aboard their ship, the alien gestates inside her, and hatches after they’ve sought out shelter on a big interstellar commercial facility. The alien runs amok, killing nearly all the inhabitants, and only Ripley is able to put up a fight and ultimately outwit it by setting off the self-destruct sequence and blowing the facility into smithereens, narrowly escaping herself.”
But then the appeal of the game doesn’t so much lie in its narrative as it does in intense terror.
I’ve actually gone online and viewed a small handful of gameplay videos, now that I’ve finished the game and there’s nothing left to spoil for myself. I steered right towards a couple of missions that had quickly made their way onto my personal shitlist for sheer difficulty and “Holy hell!” moments. Know what I saw? A smooth, relatively alien-free ride! Compared to the teeth-gnashing hell my game turned out to be, this was a pleasure cruise! I can’t confirm the difficulty level it was set to, though of course I have the sneaking suspicion that someone was playing on Easy. I was always gonna go back into the game and attempt some of its extra content – Survivor Mode promises many more one-on-one chills with that dreaded creature – but maybe I’ll go for another run-through on Easy myself, to better soak in the atmosphere without having to constantly jump at shadows and slow my heart rate. Perhaps even attempt the “Zero Death Run” trophy…
In my initial-thoughts write-up for this game, I mentioned how helpless you constantly are against the alien, which you can’t defend against and is always an instant kill. Well, as expected, this vulnerable feeling never went away – not truly – but when eventually I found the flame thrower, at least I rested a little easier knowing I was literally packing heat. Add to that the late-in-the-game bolt gun which can flatten a Working Joe with one well-aimed, fully charged shot, and I at least felt somewhat prepared for this rodeo. It still didn’t completely allay all my fears, especially when sent into the lion’s den near the end of the game, proving that the term “armed to the teeth” is always relative to who’s got the sharper set of chompers.
In the meantime, I’m taking a well-deserved break from Alien: Isolation (letting a friend borrow it – hope he’s shaking on his couch as I type this!). I can now devote myself a little more fully to my second Shocktober purchase, The Evil Within. But as I reflect on my time at Sevastopol, I think Alien: Isolation may very well receive my vote for Game of the Year!