Throughout cinematic history, very few films have influenced a genre like the Alien saga has. In 1979, Ridley Scott's initial vision of horror far away from home resonated so strongly with audiences that the film almost immediately became a cult hit and introduced us to Ellen Ripley, one of the most dynamic heroines ever to grace the silver screen. We then saw a young James Cameron take the reins for Aliens and later Jean-Pierre Jeunet for Resurrection, each of these legendary directors bringing their own style and substance to what has become a true staple of science fiction. While these great minds were shocking audiences by showing them things they’d never seen, console gaming as we know it now was still gestating and fans of the series have waited decades for a game that matched the intense nature of the films to burst from the chest of this incredible saga's canon. That wait is over, as Alien: Isolation has arrived and - like a face-hugger - it grips you tight and doesn't let go!
This is by no means the first attempt at bringing Alien to gamers. Since the initial film's release there have been a plethora of virtual experiences based upon the series, ranging from good to downright awful. It seems technology had some catching up to do before a game could truly capture the Alien feel. After all, the first two movies pre-date computer generated effects and the Xenomorphs, face-huggers and chest bursting we've come to know and love were purely the work of special effect masters.
Isolation fits extremely well within the saga’s canon, taking place chronologically between the first two films. You’ll assume the role of Amanda Ripley-McClaren, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, who was in fact mentioned within various director's cuts. That brief reference took place in the form of a photograph of Amanda as a senior, and this was actually a true to life picture of Sigourney Weavers’s mother Elizabeth Inglis, a British actress. The character model of Amanda Ripley was based and formed upon images of Inglis as a young woman, and so we see the family resemblance, helping this game's protagonist to fit into the saga.
Within the first few minutes of Isolation, we see Amanda on the search for an explanation to her mother's disappearance…a search that ultimately becomes an effort at survival as we encounter the Xenomorph, who is a menacing and horrific player within the game's cast. As with the films, predators from another galaxy are not the only threat faced. You'll come across androids who have turned murderously dangerous, humans simply trying to survive, a corporation that cares not for human life and many more aspects that threaten your own survival, all of which are featured heavily within the films. As you slowly unravel what exactly is happening upon a derelict space station, the Xeno becomes a constant threat. Should it see you, hear you, or notice your existence in any way…well, you're done for. The Alien is as true to film as we could have expected, too. Unlike previous virtual representations, this Xenomorph is fast, intelligent, and above all, lethal.
The game's menus recommend “Hard” as the true way to experience this story, but luckily (as the hard setting is at times infuriating) the difficulty can be toggled while playing. We found ourselves switching over to medium and - at times - even easy. Make no mistake, you are the prey to this apex predator and have little to no way of distinguishing the Xeno menace. What is at your disposal - flares, crafted devices like smoke bombs, EMP's, handguns and more - are really only useful against humans and androids, or as a distraction to rid yourself from the constantly terrifying Alien who is ready to extinguish your life at any given moment. The motion-tracker that we originally saw in the original movie becomes one's best friend, telling you when to take cover and hide under a desk, inside a locker or vent, or wherever you can. Watching as the Alien devours other survivors, sniffs at the air for your scent (we all know Xeno's are basically blind, after all) or slowly creeps past your hiding spot and up into a vent, or possibly just into the next room, is exhilarating, as well as terrifying.
Beyond the Alien itself, which is incredibly well animated, nearly every single aspect of Alien: Isolation seems to hail and almost pay homage to the films that inspired it. The level design, the atmosphere, the objectives, weapons, camera movement, film grain effect and almost everything else seems right out of the movies and overall, this makes Isolation one of the more cinematic feeling games we've seen in years. Our appreciation of attention to detail was only heightened after viewing Scott's 1979 original, which the game plays as a natural extension of. Some performance issues do hinder this authentic atmosphere however. Some slowdown issues within scripted cut-scenes are seen, as well as whenever onscreen action speeds up. The slowdown occurs even simply while sprinting through a vacant hallway, but although these frame drops are prevalent, they in no way remove the player from the experience since this issue rarely takes place when the Alien is onscreen, and are likely due to the extremely well rendered environments and character models. Two features utilizing the Kinect sensor are prevalent within Isolation, both of which work well and only add to the player's feeling of immersion. Head-tracking allows you to move left or right, forward and back while hiding, and at no point did this feel out of place. The second feature (one we found to be a brilliant use of the sensor) is noise detection. With this option enabled, your own environment becomes a part of the game. Crinkle a bag of chips and it may just be the end of you!
Apart from the main campaign experience, Survivor Mode is on offer, where players are tasked with a number of objectives to complete within a certain area of the station and within a specified time limit. We'd suggest finishing the campaign once before going into this mode, much in the same way that the game's own menu does. Survivor Mode will test the skills learned while playing through the story, and proper use of weapons and crafted items are a key to finishing these missions. Your friend's times as well as best times can be viewed here and we found it to be very enjoyable taking to this mode, even if simply to best a friend by a second or two. Alien(s) are prevalent in this mode and the difficulty level is standardized, making this a wonderful post-campaign excursion that in itself holds hours upon hours of terrifyingly enjoyable action.
For fans of the Alien series, the films, books, comics, and every other form of entertainment imaginable, Alien: Isolation is simply a must-play, given that it fits so well into the storyline that it nearly seems to be a chapter in it's own right. Brushing up on your Alien, Aliens, 3, Resurrection and - of course - Prometheus might not be a bad idea for those unacquainted, yet the game provides enough backstory to stand up as a suspenseful survival experience on its own. Really, what’s scarier than a half tonne perfect killing machine around…this corner? No, maybe it was over...shhhhh…it's right behind you!