In Space, No One Can Hear You Whimper
by David Lins
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver 35 years ago, H.R. Giger sat down to design one of horror’s most iconic monsters. It took some time—there were quite a few “rough drafts”—but eventually he got it just right. He showed his creation to Ridley Scott, and together they created one of the best sci-fi horror films ever produced: Alien. The film would go down in history as one of the most terrifying movies of all time; it defined a genre, and a great deal of its techniques and tricks are still being used today.
Since then, the franchise has seen numerous sequels of varying quality, but none would hit quite as hard as the original. Ridley Scott himself agreed. During the production of Prometheus, he spoke about the creature’s dullness, and went so far as to say the creature was “Done. Cooked.” He claimed that the Alien simply wasn’t interesting or scary anymore, and I believed him.
Ridley Scott was wrong.
When I sat down to play Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, I was filled with cautious optimism. Promotional material for the game showed, for the first time, a game based on Alien instead of one based on its sequels. It’s a horror game, through and through. No pulse rifles, no wisecracking marines—just a single engineer pitted against a single, terrifying threat.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]irst, let’s talk plot. You are Amanda Ripley, an engineer who has spent her life scouring deep space in search of her long lost mother, Ellen Ripley, after she disappeared on the USCSS Nostromo some 15 years ago. Now, a commercial spaceship has discovered the Nostromo’s flight recorder, and has taken it to Sevastopol Station to await pickup from The Company. Samuels, an android put in charge of the retrieval, invites Amanda to the crew so that she can find closure.
The game’s story is… there. It’s nothing that’ll change the world but at least it’s interesting enough to keep your attention. Amanda will encounter several people onboard Sevastopol, and they’ll hit almost every stereotype in the genre. Helpful, expository guy that gets wrecked by the alien when his usefulness dries up? Check. Helpful but cowardly guy that almost gets you killed but then dies himself? Check. Seemingly helpful but traitorous guy? Double-check.
Speaking of stereotypes of the series, this game has five endings. I don’t mean that you’ll get a different ending depending on how you play. I’m saying that there are five distinct points in this game that feel like an ending, only to punch you in the gut and keep going. The movies are, of course, known for this as well. In Alien, for example, shortly after Ridley escapes from the exploding Nostromo, she discovers that the alien has made it on board her escape vessel and must be dealt with. It’s nice that the game is long, but these moments are pretty jarring from a narrative standpoint. Nothing game-ruining, for sure, but a bit unnecessary.
There are a few good moments, but most of these are gameplay-oriented, like seeing the alien drop down from a vent for the first time or overhearing one of Sevastopol’s androids spotting the alien and reacting with confusion and intrigue. Perhaps they admire its purity… wait, that’s not a good thing, is it?
In the end, Amanda learns of her mother’s fate, but there’s no real punch to it. Sure, they got Sigourney Weaver to do the voice for the revelation, and Amandas voice actress pulls off the emotion well, but anyone who’s playing this game already knows the story. Still, they left a little legroom for a sequel, so who knows? Maybe the story will take an interesting turn down the line.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y first impression with the game was disappointment. Well, that’s not entirely true—the moment I woke up as Amanda Ripley on the Torrens, a courier ship similar to the Nostromo, I was shocked at how real everything felt. The developers put a lot of care into making the game look and feel like the movie, and the result is breathtaking. The corridors are tight, brightly lit spaces with small rooms and technology that, despite being on an advanced spaceship from the future, was dreamed up in the 70’s. There are boxy, white computer terminals with black screens and green text, there are old schematics and old-timey radios, there are porno mags—porno mags, in space—and the whole place looks like a mess. The environments all look uniquely “lived in” which is pretty impressive considering the game’s size.
But after gawking around the ship for a few minutes, I was hit with a game-ending bug: the two doors I needed to open to progress were locked. Permanently. For no reason. Begrudgingly, I restarted the game, and this time everything worked fine. “A game-breaking bug in the first level,” I thought. “Great. Good. I can already tell this is gonna be fun.”
Then the game drops you off in Sevastopol, and again, the environment design is top notch. There’s quite a bit of damage; it’s dark, and it’s completely barren. The game has you wander around for a bit and introduces some mechanics: vents and environmental hazards. You’ll fall through the floor and hurt yourself or stop dead in your tracks as a pillar of fire emerges from the busted pipe a few meters ahead. The ship is falling apart, and there’s this oppressive atmosphere that puts the player on edge for the entire opening.
Again, though, the game disappoints me. There’s graffiti all over the walls, and the only thing I can think is, “Who did this? Why? The ship’s going down, quick, better write my feelings on some walls. Why did this station even have spray paint?” Then, the game throws a few cheap jump scares at me, including the “enemy you’ve yet to encounter dashes across a door a bit ahead of you” pop scare that horror games seem to love doing lately. Can I just play one horror game that doesn’t use this one at all? It’s like the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror jump scare of video games.
Eventually, the game throws its first enemy at you: the coveted, iconic… human. See, the people on Sevastopol are a bit paranoid—the station is being decommissioned and a lot of people have been disappearing. There are riots, and survivors have formed exclusive clubs that greet outsiders with bullets. The game throws you into this situation a few times before, finally, giving you a weapon: a sweet Space Revolver. You think about how many times you’ve reloaded a save, having been riddled with bullets, and smile a little. Time to turn the tables.
Then, the alien appears. The game builds this moment up for almost two full hours: it lurches down from the vent as Amanda looks on in horror. The thing is huge. It barely fits in the hallway. It snarls, and then stalks away, out of sight. At this point, I look at my revolver and think, “I’m completely and utterly fucked, aren’t I?” This moment is just a tease, however.
Building You Up and Knocking You Down
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he game proceeds to build up your confidence a lot. You’ll spend the next few hours sneaking around (or murdering) several groups of humans and cheap, knockoff androids that were created with a budget so low that they look almost nothing like actual people (but hey, at least with Seegson’s androids you always know if they’re synthetic). You’ll walk away from these encounters feeling powerful. You’ve mastered the game’s stealth mechanics—you can handle anything!
Then, the game throws you into a confined area with the alien and laughs as it proceeds to murder you, over and over again, adding in cute little game over messages like “The alien has heightened senses and will spot you more quickly than humans or synthetics,” and, “Do not try to outrun the alien. You won’t make it.”
They’re not kidding. If the alien spots you, you are dead. There is no way (at first) to circumvent this. It spots you, charges, and no matter how quickly you react it’ll always catch up. The developers wanted to make the alien intimidating again—there are no pulse rifles, no rocket launchers. The alien is an unbeatable threat, and your only choice is to stay hidden.
Hiding won’t be easy, though. The alien has a unique AI—it actively hunts you, and will react to how you play to keep you on your toes. Luckily, the game gives you quite a few tools to help you survive. The motion tracker is particularly vital, as it allows you to keep full tabs on the alien’s location and beeps the moment an enemy enters its range. You’ll get a series of distraction tools as well, such as a flare, which can turn the alien’s attention away from you. Other tools are used simply to progress, and they add to the tension: hacking a door while constantly looking over my shoulder for the alien is the most stressful thing I’ve ever had to do in a video game.
I won’t lie to you. This first encounter is stressful and frustrating. You are going to die a lot, but just like Dark Souls, the game is hoping to teach you through its design and gameplay alone. You’ll pick up some handy tips: running makes too much noise and gets you killed, the alien “hovers” around your area and you’ll need to be quick to slip past it, and you shouldn’t hide in the same spot for too long. Once you’ve picked these up, the game becomes a bit easier, though there’s still some waiting involved.
Frustration aside, you know what else the alien encounter is? Fucking terrifying. I remember sitting in a locker in Medical, and how I made that locker my home. I would step out, move towards the room’s exit, check my motion tracker, and immediately duck back inside. I did this for hours. Eventually, the alien entered the room, and I realized something: It’s me. I’m the Lambert of this game. I’m the character that everyone makes fun of for dying like a cornered puppy. The alien sniffed the air, and approached the locker. “I’m done. This is it.” I got ready to load a save when the alien turned and left the room. I let out a sigh of relief before it immediately doubled back, charged up to the locker, ripped it open, and—like Lambert before me—crushed my skull.
Mixing Firepower with Horror
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]orror is one of the hardest genres to create, because effectively scaring people takes more than just pop scares and scary faces. With games, it stems from making the player feel powerless, usually through tough enemy design, clunky controls, or making you defenseless. The “easy out” for horror games is to give the player no weapons, but a truly memorable experience does the opposite—it gives you an incredible amount of firepower but still shows you how defenseless you are.
In Alien: Isolation, your weapons are as detrimental as they are helpful. When you enter a room filled with humans, all armed to the teeth, you might want to pull out the shotgun and go to town. In any other game, this is a viable option. Here, however, there’s one small problem: the much deadlier threat hanging out in the vents above you, just itching to investigate any loud noises made by squishy, delicious humans.
See, most horror games give you a weapon, set a tight limit on ammunition, and create tension around the fact that you can easily find yourself empty-handed in a fight. This game, however, poses a different risk: you can take out hordes of enemies, sure, but any noise from combat can spawn the alien. Any enemies you faced will die—the alien will clean up after any you missed—but you’ll have to sneak past it to progress.
Knowing this, you can even use the alien as a weapon by throwing a few noisemakers into a crowded room. It’s up to you to determine which threat is easier to deal with and go from there. It gives the player a nice amount of control without giving them power, and the tension builds around a foundation of, “I can’t let them see me—their shooting will attract the alien!” It takes a unique game to make a single enemy seem more threatening than a room full of gun-toting crazy people.
Eventually, you’ll get weapons powerful enough to ward off—but never kill—the alien. A flamethrower, for example, can be used to send it sprinting back into the vents. As a nice little detail, the alien will start to react with extreme caution whenever you equip the flamethrower—it’ll size you up a bit, trying to determine if you’re bluffing, before moving in to engage. The more you use the flamethrower, however, the more ballsy the alien gets; it’ll start eating more damage, and will sometimes even run through the fire to get a quick hit on you before retreating. Use it sparingly or its usefulness will diminish.
Overall, the game creates a nice balance of action and horror. There are a few segments where you can freely engage any enemy you face, though they’ll almost always have the upper hand on you. Successfully outwitting and defeating your enemies without taking damage is rewarding, and it’s even more fun if you try to get through the whole game without killing a single enemy—a challenge worthy of an achievement for those crazy enough to try it.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lien: Isolation is one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. Creative Assembly have created what has to be the most faithful reincarnation of the original Alien to date. Everything is perfect—the claustrophobic set design, the threat-level of the alien, the dramatic set pieces—and despite a few bumps along the road, the game manages to do the impossible: make Alien scary again. Sure, the story is lacking—and that sucks—but as a horror game it stands head-and-shoulders above its current competition.
If you play games and have ever enjoyed the films, you’d do yourself a great disservice by not playing this game, even if you can’t handle horror games. Seriously: it’s that good. If you’re worried about playing another Alien game after the ultra-bummer that was Colonial Marines, don’t be.
What about you, dear reader? Have you played the game yet? Do you plan to? Leave us some comments with your experiences with the game, good and bad. I’d love to read it!
[author image=”http://cliqist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/david.jpg” ]David Lins is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania that has loved video games since he was old enough to hold a controller. He enjoys all sorts of games, but prefers difficult or terrifying ones. Currently, he plays too many roguelikes. When not writing about his favorite hobby, he loves to drink beer, write fiction, play tabletop RPGs or board games, and hang out with his friends and family. He also has a passion for technology and loves tinkering with his phone, computer, and other devices. Follow David on Twitter for “hilarious” or “insightful” tweets about nothing in particular. [/author]