There’s a moment during one of the closing missions of Creative Assembly’s hide and seek simulator Alien Isolation that reeks of cynical game design. An obvious effort on the part of the developer to stretch the game in order to make it last longer than it needs to. Sneaking around the creaking, self-destructing corridors of the Sevastapol space station you find an important power generator with a bright green status light illuminated on its control panel. You know that this is an important power generator because it’s marked on your map. Yet you can’t do anything with it. It seems to serve no purpose. Yet it’s handily marked as a point of interest. And also looks the same as all the other generators you’ve used in the game so far. Perturbed, you press on; spending 10 minutes moving at a glacial place past corpses, flickering lightbulbs and hissing steam vents until you reach a locked door. The door is locked because it requires power. Suddenly, your quest marker points you back to the generator you just spent 10 minutes creeping away from. Back you go.
This type of moment is not too uncommon during the 20 hours you’ll spend within this world. Yet Alien Isolation is far and above the best game I have played this year, despite its flaws; some major, some minor. Flaws like its previously mentioned enforced backtracking, or its reliance on uninteresting alternative enemies. Or Its insistence on multiple endings when the first climax they reached would have done just fine. Or like how Ripley inexplicably slams doors behind her, creating a deafening racket when all you want to do is stay anonymous. Even with all of those flaws (and the list doesn’t quite stop there; shout out to the terrible script), it’s the most engrossing, fascinating, heart-stopping experience I’ve had with a video game this year. I would play it with lights dimmed and headphones on and it felt like I didn’t blink or exhale for the entire time. I was in there. Even with immersion breaking niggles tugging away at me, Alien Isolation pulled me in and didn’t let me go.
Because the aspects of this game that Creative Assembly get right (and get so right) traps all of these flaws in an air lock and blasts them into deep space. Much has been made of both the dilapidated space station you traverse and the creature that stalks you in it, and for good reason. The Sevastapol itself is a technical marvel; labyrinthine and imposing, drenched in either garish fluorescent light or draped in ominous shadow. It has been meticulously created to represent a realistic, functioning space hub as it enters the death throes of decommision, and while the graffiti that adorns the walls is a little too on the nose, its snapshot of a crumbling civilisation is as scary as the Alien itself. Some human NPC’s you meet neither help nor hinder you, with one woman I encountered just sitting on a bench muttering in despair. It was a nice touch, being unable to interact with or help her in any way. All I could do was leave her. And let’s just say she wasn’t as …… ‘all together’, when I passed back through later. It’s an extraordinarily bleak place.
And that Alien? He’s certainly no slouch – used sparingly and always to shocking effect, it’s an AI sensation. The developers retained the most fundamental element of that creature that so many others, including directors from within the Alien franchise, can forget – that it’s supposed to be utterly terrifying. Hearing the clatter as it unspools from an air vent and begins thudding down corridors towards you as you hide underneath a hospital gurney, fully aware that you’re literally unable to fight it, creates a tension like nothing else yet..
Its a tension exacerbated by the sublime save system. There’s no handy auto-save here. No sir. You save manually and only by reaching designated wall terminals. In some areas they’re plentiful, providing regular checkpoints as you creep your way through the level, but it’s when they don’t appear for long stretches of time that it really gets your heart racing. And how about when you spot one at the end of dark corridor, with the threat of so much potential death between you and it? Hello, cold sweat.
Its quite common for a videogame that is either adapted from or inspired by a beloved, existing property to miss the mark gloriously. In some extreme cases, it can even sour the taste of the source material. In the case of Alien Isolation, the team at Creative Assembly haven’t just done Ridley Scott’s Alien justice, but they’ve actually enhanced my love for it. They allowed me, for 20 unforgettable hours, to actually experience it first hand.