Alien: Isolation,In space no one can hear you; Review

After a barren run of games inspired by the Alien series that have failed to capture the magic of the films, Alien: Isolation is like a tart, minimalist palette cleanser. It gets it, and in getting it the game has already completed its most important job: to not be another fumbled exploitation, another thick browed shooter blind firing familiar characters and locales in the hope of nailing that elusive Alien feeling. Isolation’s an intelligent addition to the Alien mythos made with love and detail.

Oh, and terror. Lots of terror. The basis of that terror is the decision to retreat from all the hardware and hoo-has of James Cameron’s Aliens flick no easy thing, given how right they feel for videogames and into the clinical interiors and frigid horror of Ridley Scott’s original film. Shooters release wave after wave of enemies for you to knock down, an approach incompatible with the defining deadliness of the xenomorph: ‘Here is the universe’s perfect predator. Kill 50 to progress’. Isolation scales down to one unkillable beast, and in doing so it reinstates the danger.

So, we have a survival horror instead of a blaster, but it’s not just this top-line approach that Isolation learns from Scott’s film. The game feels like a careful study of Alien, careful enough to discover what  actually makes it work. As a result, Isolation doesn't feel obliged to rush into action, and instead gives itself time to build a world. And it doesn't do this with set-pieces or an exposition carpet bomb, it does it by allowing you to walk around some environments quietly, without any rush. This is the game getting it getting that you don’t need to jump straight in with the horror if what you’re showing has the class and depth to be inherently interesting.

And what is being shown? Panels. Fat-keyed computer consoles. Hexagonal architecture. Isolation hasn’t so much copied the worn, antiseptic future of Scott’s film as it has absorbed it on a molecular level. The game is  beautiful not just film grain and lighting pretty, but artfully constructed in a way that makes it deeply pleasurable to simply be inside. And there’s a great deal of it to be inside the deserted space station Sevastopol on which the majority of the game takes place is huge. A maze of corridors and sectors that, most impressively of all, never repeat on me. Isolation’s team has, firstly, taken the time to appreciate and understand the aesthetic of Alien, and then had the talent to recreate that aesthetic. And it’s clear that they spent ages doing it there is a wealth of variation in the environments that cumulatively gives the game a rare richness.

And then there’s the xeno. The fundamentals of the gameplay are built around your encounters with this creature, although encounters is probably the wrong word your chief objective is in fact to never encounter it at all. This alien is pure ruthless lethality, and you cannot beat it, only divert and with the right equipment deter. The game is therefore a thing of stifled stealth literally, if you turn on the PlayStation Camera’s microphone the alien responds to your real-life yelps which compresses you into its beautiful environments. You crouch everywhere, even when there’s no sign of the creature on your motion tracker, and you’ll dive into cupboards and vent shafts at the merest ping.
 For the most part this works wonderfully. The quality of the surroundings and the strength of the xeno, this is everything an Alien game should be. Its best moments come during free-form stalking sections, where the beast tracks you through the station as you fetch and carry for certain objectives. These are fluid and unpredictable, forcing panicked interaction with the station around you, diving under tables, scrambling through menus to rewire circuitry to distract the alien while praying it’s not behind you.

But and it is heartbreaking at this point to say ‘but’ Isolation has a few problems with action. These are hinted at as early as the first cutscene good looking, but not groundbreaking which suffers frame jitters severe enough to knock its synch out of whack.

Later, violent confrontations with the scattered, paranoid humans aboard the Sevastopol often turn deflatingly clumsy not in a frantic, thematically sound way, but in a ‘these physical elements within the game aren’t meeting and reacting to each other how they should’ way. And Amanda Ripley, engineer and heroine of the piece, can’t aim down while fighting on stairways.

Other problems break the flow of my playthrough. At one point, two human characters jam into each other as they pursue me into a locker, and get stuck float-walking on the spot for several mins until I give up and run away. Later on I can't interact with a switch and spend an hour wondering if it’s actually a switch, then retrace my steps through the station before I reload and try again. (Turns out it’s a switch.)

These are small things, but then Isolation’s sense of fun is already balanced on a knife-edge. It’s a game about precision and elegance in its immaculate style, the grace of the creature, and the mercilessness of its predator/prey gameplay. It plays close to the line of frustration: its manual save system is hard to access while you’re being stalked, which means you’re likely to replay lengthy chunks, but you can’t rush through these familiar sections because making a noise can summon the alien. In itself this is fine there’s a perverse joy to the game demanding precision while subjecting you to actually-horrible tension but when it fails to deliver the same precision it demands it tips into aggravation.

This doesn't spoil Isolation, it just stops it being even better. The game is a triumph as a place, as a thing to look at and explore, and its stealth gameplay is so tense you can find yourself trapped, nerves shredded, in the same locker for ten minutes. The game might have a weak spot when it comes to confrontation, but it’s a flaw of execution rather than one of concept or ambition.


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