The thick, cloying tension that runs slowly down my spine like a string of drool is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. For the first hour or so of the game, you don’t meet the titular xenomorph, and yet, the atmosphere of the abandoned Sevastopol station weighs heavy, making every step forward cautious and laboured – every randomly breaking light and sudden movement carrying enormous tension. The game is in no rush to play the ace hiding up its sleeve, but still – you know it’s there. You know it’s just waiting to drop that biologically perfect predator down on your head.
WHO ORDERED TAKEAWAY?
You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, who’s arrived on the Sevastopol in search of a lead relating to her vanished mother. While the premise might seem much like a Mary Sue, it quickly becomes apparent that this is more of a reverent reference than a lazy cash in, and the light, slightly flimsy story is really just a framing device for the most horrifying game of cat and mouse you’ll ever play. Sevastopol station is the Alien’s house, and it’s very, very glad you’re here. On a derelict, titanic space station falling to pieces before your eyes, populated by desperate survivors and sinister androids, Amanda must look like some sort of intergalactic Dominos delivery.
You can’t run from it. You can’t kill it. Bullets don’t bother it and flamethrowers only serve to scare it off for a little while. The most you can hope for is a good hiding spot and blind luck. This is an unstoppable force that hounds you throughout the majority of the game. After a while, it stops feeling like just another (admittedly brilliantly clever) AI-determined opponent and becomes a nemesis. Something that has learnt from you, fixed itself upon your scent, and becomes more and more determined to eat your face every time you evade it.
The alien is such an ever-present threat that it looms over every confrontation of the game. It’s not scripted – at least, not all the time – and it can’t be predicted or manipulated. Sure, you can make IEDs and noisemakers to draw it away, and you can pick up guns to face off with hostile survivors and the terrifying Working Joe androids, but these all carry their own dangers. Rushing headfirst into a gunfight might be the fastest way to clear a room but there’s always the chance of the noise causing the greater threat to come and investigate. Is taking down that plastic-faced mechanical terror really worth it if it means having to hide from the alien? A creature which will kill you if it so much as catches you in the corner of its eye. After a while in Isolation’s creaky, perfectly abandoned world, you begin to see death by alien as a numbing inevitability.
Sometimes it’s cheap. How the hell did it see me there? Is it psychic? Why can’t I run from it? A myriad of complaints are going to bubble forth in your psyche as it continues to rip you out of lockers and from beneath tables, giving you that terrifying glance at its iconic maw before it sends you right back to your last save. Sometimes you’ll reach the save point (an archaic, manual system that takes more time than you’d like) only to hear Amanda choke out a last gurgling breath as the thing skewers you and throws you to the ground. Most of the time, though, it’s all down to you. You were the one who decided to sprint across that empty, open hallway. You were the one who accidentally knocked into that locker as you crept across the floor. The alien just did what it did best.
The save point system has been called broken and archaic by some reviews. It’s all manual, and it takes a good chunk of time – Amanda has to hold her keycard in the slot for about five gruelling seconds before the save option comes up – and it’s completely possible to save with the alien right behind you, creating some obscene loop of visceral murder, forcing you to go back to a previous save and lose huge bits of progress. This surely isn’t an oversight by Creative Assembly, rather a cold, calculated incentive to stay alive. Getting caught wouldn’t be such a big deal if you didn’t know you were going to lose up to half an hour of glacially slow progress as a result. Death has consequences – and it’s going to happen often. If you’re not up for playing as someone drastically unprepared and underpowered in an environment where 90% of everything there wants to kill you, Isolation might not be for you.
That doesn’t make it bad, though. Not in the least. It’s perfect if you’re within the intended audience. Consider the original Alien movie. The monster doesn’t show up for over an hour and everything ticks along at a slow, slithering pace that delivers big, gory shocks after a trickling build up. Isolation is very much the same. You might have guns, but they’re unwieldy, and more likely to screw you over than they are to pull your ass out of the fire. Isolation demands stealth, rewarding the gung-ho approach with a grisly death and loss of progress. It’s like the guns are there to tempt you. There are a few moments that demand gunplay, and yes, it’s fiddly and difficult, but Amanda isn’t a soldier. She’s an ordinary person, an engineer, and she’s way over her head.
After a while, though, Amanda begins to disappear. She’s a great character simply because of her ordinary nature. She’s just a victim of circumstance. Her voice might waver and crack occasionally but it’s not in sickening damsel-in-distress way. It’s in the way your voice might falter if you’d been stalked and shot at for hours on end. A normal person just trying to survive a creature specifically designed to hunt and kill her – both in terms of the Alien franchise and in the game’s programming. Over time, she fades into the background, and you start to take her place. It all starts to feel awfully personal. She’s not some helpless woman who needs to be saved, and the story doesn’t paint her as someone you’re meant to form a protective bond with (Look at Capcom’s Haunting Ground or Resident Evil 4 for an example of games that do just that). She is you, the lens through which you view this terrifying survival simulation. When you duck into a locker and hold your breath – both ingame and in real life – and you hear the soft thud of your hunter’s footfalls, or the hollow clanging of it slithering through vents and airducts, you don’t fear for Amanda’s safety. You’re scared.
EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM
What we have here in Isolation is a real horror game. There are no cheap jump scares or liberal splashings of gore. Any criticisms that might be levelled can only really be directed at the graphics. Outside of cutscenes, dialogue isn’t lip-synced, so character’s mouths just flap open and closed at random. There’s not a huge degree of animation going on with other human models and it can certainly jar you right out of the atmosphere. I remember being cornered by some looters who saw me, said “Look! There she is!”… and then stood rooted to the spot for about ten seconds before woodenly raising their guns. Another ten seconds pass before they actually respond.
The environments are the real visual star. The alien is faithfully recreated and his movement only really jars occasionally. But the people look plastic, the same generic sheen of sweat glistening on every face, devoid of much emotion or animation outside of cutscenes. It’s bizarre and really kills the atmosphere. This is only a very small complaint, though, and less fussy players might not find it as much of a problem.
You might have been hearing some mixed things about Isolation. The Alien is unfair, it’s too long, the gunplay is shoddy. Big critics putting this game down and giving Call of Duty 10/10 every year simply don’t have the ability to understand a game like this. Yes, it’s slow. The guns are more of a hinderance than a help. The save system is ancient. But that all goes towards forging a real horror game. Every movement has to be considered. Every contingency explored. Staying alive in Isolation is hard – as it should be. If a critic is whining about Alien being too long and too hard they clearly don’t play games for the right reasons (Maybe Sega couldn’t write a big enough bribe).
A little rough around the edges in some parts but ultimately a genuine horror experience, one laden with tension that’ll curl around your ankles and drag you into a hellish game of cat and mouse. There’s more going on in Isolation’s 20+ hours than you might think at first glance – more than meets the eye. Rest assured, there’s terror here in buckets.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.