It usually takes a bit of coaxing to get me to sit down and play anything remotely frightening, which is terribly ironic considering that I'm typically the person dragging my friends and family to the latest horror flick at the cinema. With that being said, Alien: Isolation was a game in the back of my mind since its launch in October last year and I've been regrettably procrastinating picking up a copy and having a go. It was most likely the post-traumatic stress I'd experienced from The Evil Within and P.T. that made me err on the side of caution, especially surrounding the topic of the paranormal and extraterrestrial; just the theme song alone from The X Files is enough to make my skin crawl. After a few months shy of a year of close deliberation and sufficient adjourning, I sat down with Alien: Isolation and started my journey.
Alien: Isolation is a first person, survival horror experience from British developer, The Creative Assembly, that puts players in the shoes of Amanda Ripley—yes, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver's character in the 1979 film—fifteen years after the events of Alien and forty-two years prior to Aliens. Amanda is approached by Christopher Samuels, who informs her that the flight recorder of her mother's ship, the Nostromo, was recently located by a ship named the Anesidora and is being held aboard Sevastopol Station, owned by the Seegson Corporation. Ripley, Samuels and Weyland-Yutani legal executive, Nina Taylor, travel to Sevastopol aboard the courier ship, Torrens, owned by Captain Diane Verlaine, and discover the station damaged, with its communications offline. Ripley, Samuels and Taylor attempt to spacewalk over to the station to investigate, but their EVA line is severed by passing space debris and Ripley is separated and forced to enter the station alone. It's not long before Ripley discovers that something insidious is happening inside Sevastopol and must do whatever it takes to survive.
In the first moments as Amanda Ripley, there's an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and a desire to locate the nearest airlock, flag down the Torrens and go home. Alien: Isolation does such a tremendous job of creating a truly frightening, suspenseful atmosphere that I had to do exactly what Ripley had to do: force myself to press forward. In a few words, Alien: Isolation is utterly unpredictable and that's what makes it so frightening; it isn't like your typical horror game where you can basically see the jump scares coming a mile away. No, this experience is the complete opposite and even further from that. Its atmospheres set you up for a gut-wrenching, heart-in-stomach emotional rollercoaster as you're tricked into putting your guard up and lulled into a false sense of security when nothing happens, and your guard is lowered. It's exactly what the game wants you to do and that's when it gets you; that's the primary reason why a few of my neighbors aren't too happy with me and now I'm aware that I can scream several decibels louder than the average person.
Alien: Isolation goes against everything you think you know about survival horror and truly tests the amount of control you have over your faculties. It's not a realistic experience, because that would be an unfortunate and insulting understatement. It's simply real and that's what is so horrifying; your surroundings are just as unpredictable as the encounters you'll have with other lifeforms on Sevastopol and you'll be praying for a friendly face at least once per chapter in the story. The overall state of Sevastopol is in utter chaos as the Seegson Corporation have been trying to shut down the station for some time, reducing the inhabitants to a skeleton crew and forcing the remaining members of the station to turn into paranoid, violent scavengers who hoard supplies and aim a gun at anyone who isn't one of them. The true and unfortunate downside is that their hostile behavior toward Ripley is motivated by fear of the unknown; in one particular scene after Ripley is spotted by a Sevastopol scavenger, she overhears her alerting her friends to Ripley's location, who suggest that perhaps Ripley is just looking for supplies like they are, but ultimately decide it's not a chance worth taking and agree to shoot on sight. You have no ability to communicate with these inhabitants and inform them of your harmless intentions and therefore, must either escape and evade or fight back, though the latter is not recommended.
Why? The Alien. After the first hour or two spent getting acclimated to the depth and tension of your surroundings and the politics surrounding Sevastopol, you might actually forget about the Alien for a moment until it appears, and it is a grand entrance indeed, gloriously and horrifically perpetuating a "holy shit" moment. The impact of the ultimate terror's introduction is the same whether you've forgotten about it or deliberately anticipated its arrival and that is when you discover that stealth is critical to your survival. One thing you will learn quickly, as Alien: Isolation continues to laugh at what you think you know about survival horror is that the Alien is a completely unscripted and unpredictable adversary; that means no pre-scripted routes, behaviors or routines. The Alien is an active predator and becomes an even larger force to be reckoned with when you increase the difficulty setting. In further intent to create a survival experience, the Alien is attracted by sound. It isn't blind and in specific circumstances, can find you even when you're convinced you're hidden in lieu of a flaw you may not have noticed. But the best way to get yourself killed is firing a gun at other enemies or even simply running.
It should be noted very early on that the Alien cannot be killed, so any and all attempts to attack it will be met with a swift and gruesome death. You're encouraged to escape and evade your extraterrestrial stalker and since that is the primary focus, there is a multitude of ways to do so. Learning when to hide and effectively doing so is key in Alien: Isolation and it's a good tactic to learn not just for the Alien, but for human and android enemies as well. Ripley can hide inside of lockers, behind objects, under tables and desks and even inside nearby vents. It's also a good idea to make solid use out of the peek feature which allows Ripley to lean left, right, up and slightly down to get a better view without entirely breaking cover. Naturally, enemies can still see you if within significant distance, lighting or if you lean too far, exposing more of yourself to their field of view.
Of course, Ripley is not completely defenseless in her fight to survive. During her time on Sevastopol, she'll locate weapons and tools to aid in her journey including, but not limited to a revolver, maintenance jack, motion tracker, cutting torch and hacking device. She can also locate blueprint schematics to craft useful consumables including med-kits, noisemakers, EMPs, pipe bombs and smoke grenades that will allow her to distract, engage and even evade her enemies, including the Alien. Naturally, it helps to develop tactics and reading your environment to know which tactic will work in the situation and how to use the environment to your advantage.
One of the more terrifying aspects of Alien: Isolation is the fact that the experience offers minimal amounts of music and instead relies on ambient noise to enhance the atmosphere, and when music does infrequently grace us, it's absolutely creepy and alarming. There are times where the Alien's arrival is met with 'cue music' that can essentially spoil the experience, and I've noticed that it's an even more disturbing ambiance when the music is turned completely off in the options menu. It all comes down to player preference and while I always enjoyed the infrequent bouts of musical audio, keeping the music off completely can offer a just as enjoyable and frightening experience altogether. You'll find yourself heavily relying on the ambient noise to identify threats when your motion tracker bugs out occasionally and every noise the Alien makes from its footsteps to its screeches to the thunderous sounds of it traversing the air ducts becomes your road map to avoiding a face-to-face confrontation with your predator.
As if that wasn't enough, the console experience implements features thanks to the PlayStation Camera and Kinect for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively, including head tracking—which gives a more personal feel to Ripley's peek ability—and more disturbingly, noise detection. Yes, that means that any noise you make in the room you're playing Alien: Isolation in will reflect as a noise made in the game. It's an absolutely fantastic feature that really adds a new level of fear and possibly frustration to the experience, because the game will even detect your roommate sneezing in the other room, so whatever you do, don't fart. I played with the noise detection on for only about twenty minutes because that was the same day my cat decided to meow incessantly, the neighbor chose to do yard work for three hours and my phone rang five different times to the tune of Rihanna's 'Bitch Better Have My Money.' I took it as a sign and kept noise detection off for the rest of the game.
Survivor Mode is an interesting addition to the game that not only extends the play time, but adds a little competitive edge against your friends. It puts players into a one-on-one confrontation as they are tasked with objectives to complete in as short an amount of time as possible while being actively hunted. It's significantly terrifying on its own, but is a very bare experience by default. Survivor Mode only comes with one playable map and additional maps are available as paid DLC.
Overall, Alien: Isolation does a tremendous job at really crafting these immersive and frightening environments that give an overwhelming thickness of uncertainty and tension in the atmosphere. It truly tests what we're used to with games of this genre and significantly raises the bar to the point where anything less is unacceptable. There's a small handful of DLC that offer more gameplay, but even when the credits roll, there's a substantial amount of replay value in lieu of the fact that no two experiences are the same and the challenge of surviving Sevastopol on a harder difficulty is deliciously present.