Alien: Isolation is a hard game to put into words without it sounding rubbish. After my near-twenty hours through the game I thought of it as “Crouch Mode: The Game.” Most games, when stripped down to their bare basics, can sound a bit off, but Isolation baffled me because sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was having fun.
But what is “Fun” in games anyway?
Modern games spoil us gamers, with impressive worlds to explore and now, with the new generation of consoles, some forward thinking mechanics such as the Nemesis System in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the upcoming No Man’s Sky with its procedurally-generated Galaxy (apparently). One thing though; they are all easy. Games have become more about the experience and adventure, which is fine. The Uncharted franchise are great interactive action movies in a sense, for example. The point is, nowadays we start games knowing we are gonna complete them.
Now, I’m not here to say that all games need to be like Dark Souls. There is room for all types of games of course, but I find whenever a major release comes out which has “challenge” in it, it gets praised or stands out even more. The Last of Us, while not difficult in the most hardcore sense, has resource management and gamers couldn’t be all trigger happy, every bullet counted. The main spoiling of gamers, however, is checkpoints and autosaves, which is where Isolation comes in.
Before playing the game I felt the main complaint among critics and gamers alike was the lack of checkpoints and autosave functionality, with one major outlet claiming to have lost forty minutes worth of progression due to this feature. I completely understand the logic behind this decision in the game. We, as the player sitting in our rooms, comfy on the couch, aren’t afraid of being killed in a game. The alien Xenomorph creature is well-known and now more of a pop culture icon than a mysterious frighting killer, But the one thing we gamers are afraid of is lost progression. Remember in Batman: Arkham Asylum when the game pretended to crash? How terrifying that was, all those hours invested, lost in seconds. Well this is the logic behind Alien: Isolation; when I was low on health, with the Xenomorph close by, hitting that save station felt like a small accomplishment. I had the fear of losing five to ten minutes of progression. I never came across a situation where I could be losing more than ten minutes of progression, I wouldn’t even say I was an avid saver. I played the game alongside The Last of Us Remastered, which now felt like a nice break, with its forgiving checkpoints for when I died to ease tension.
Aliens: Colonial Marines wasn’t scary. It wasn’t a good game at all. It seemed like Aliens as a game franchise just couldn’t take off. But what if we looked towards the original? Apart from being more of challenge, Alien: Isolation has a lot going on. You play as Amanda Ripley (daughter of Ellen Ripley) which I appreciated never became an ultra badass by the end. I never liked how in the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft goes from feeling emotionally repugnant to killing for the first time to then moments later going on a rampage. Ripley is an engineer, not a soldier, I don’t think the story or characters are that commendable but playing as Ripley felt real. Late into the game after collecting a multitude of weapons and facing the Xenomorph many times, I came across the situation in which I had to shimmy across some metal beams. It was a mixture of me playing and the game taking control. On one of the non-controllable moments Ripley makes a simple jump (for video games) but trips and falls. This spoke to me as saying, ‘She isn’t a badass, she’s s survivor’ and that I appreciated.
Of course the main draw of the game is the freely-dynamic Xenomorph that is forever on your tail. The opening hours are terrifying because you aren’t defensive against it; nothing can harm it, you must hide. You also have to deal with the occasional group of humans, who you can either sneak past or try to go on the offensive against, but that may attract the alien. In one situation I used a noisemaker which sent the Xeno down and wiping out all the humans in sight. I hid, which now meant while I was free of being spotted by other humans. And it now meant the alien was on the prowl close by. There is a lot of potential with this type of gameplay.
The game however goes on far too long, showing all it’s tricks and expecting you to stay around for another ten hours doing the same thing. The way the game works is; slowly moving forward, hide from the alien, repeat, eventually get to your objective where something definitely will go wrong which means you have to backtrack through the level to flick a switch to then come back. In the opening hours sure it works well with the freshness of the Xeno. The game takes place on the Sevastopol Station which feels in architecture very loyal to the movie. It has the right sounds, lighting and retro 70’s future aesthetic, it’s a cool world to be in. But soon it all becomes dull. The Alien becomes tedious as once again you’re in crouch mode trying to get to a switch, but the alien sometimes unfairly appears out of nowhere for the cheap kill. Moments of levity from the Xeno would have went along way I feel, because while it being free and unscripted is cool it’s also a way of it becoming stale and annoying. I understand I’m the player and the Xeno only cares about killing me, but with all these other humans wondering around it would have been cool to have had fifteen to twenty minutes here or there to have a breather. The humans, we are told, may sometimes be friendly and not want to to fight. I never experienced this. I could only imagine how cool it would be to decide to team up with some people and how there could have been a dynamic there.
The game does free you from the Alien for some hours to go up against the Working Joe androids, which are essentially walking mannequins similar to the ones in the first episode of the new Doctor Who. But even with new enemies to tackle you are still doing the same fetch quest-like objectives. Many times the game feels like it’s going to end but instead moves it’s goal posts back for a few more hours, becoming a frustrating chore the longer it goes on. The game really should have been a tight eight- to ten-hour experience about survival. It would have been interesting to have created my own little human group and scavenge for resources. The Xeno should have been an ever present being, with the fear of it appearing at any moment. But for it to be forever tethered to you it is really annoying and it loses it’s impact. Yes, even when playing in the dark with headphones on.
Saying all that, there is something about it though, the thrill of being weak or the slight scare you get sometimes when you hear the motion tracker bleep. It intrigued me. Amongst all the fun rides with games I will be having this year it was cool to be on the back foot and struggling for a bit.
I’m not calling on games to up the challenge or make us work for it. But Alien: Isolation went for something interesting and somewhat different amongst other mainstream games and that is to be commended.