“Let us hope that our presence may go unnoticed.” —Gandalf The Grey, Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Alien: Isolation is billed as one of the scariest games in living memory. Released in 2014, it follows Amanda Ripley and her journey through Sevastopol space station, a mining facility over the gas giant KG348. Her objective is to retrieve a flight recorder that is would help her learn what happened to her mother, Ellen Ripley, fifteen years ago. However, upon arriving at Sevastopol, she finds that the station is damaged and that there is a monster lurking in the shadows, slaying Sevastopol’s inhabitants. I’ve now reached the point where I’ve encountered the station’s marshall, Waits, and have begun the process of trapping the monster, a Xenomorph, with the aim of stopping it. Nine hours in, I’m about halfway through Alien: Isolation, and it’s been a thrilling experience so far, making my way through Sevastopol station in the hopes of completing my objectives without being killed by the Xenomorph, a powerful adversary that cannot be harmed by any craft that Ripley possesses. Even with a diverse arsenal of tools and weapons, Ripley is powerless against the Xenomorph and instead, must make use of the environment and plenty of patience to avoid death, leading Alien: Isolation to possess a significantly different atmosphere than any game I’ve experienced thus far.
While being ambushed by the Xenomorph at the most unexpected times and hearing sudden ambient sounds in the Sevastopol station were probably the most heart-stopping moments of Alien: Isolation, the game’s horror component does not lie in the occasional jump-scares. Instead, the true fear comes from not knowing when death will result, whether it be from encounters with other humans, the synthetic Working Joe androids or the Xenomorph itself. Because Alien: Isolation uses a save system that involves terminals sporadically placed throughout Sevastopol station, players stand to lose a fair amount of progress should they ever die. The fear of losing this progress and the associated causes are enough to keep players on their toes, wondering what’s around the corner or what the strange noises all around are. This is where the true horror comes in: paranoia and doubt start settling in, as the safe spots are very rare on board Sevastopol. Thus, when one does manage to complete objectives, reach a safe spot or even just find a terminal to save at, it feels like an achievement, a great success.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Released back in October 2014, Alien: Isolation would have been a perfect game for Halloween. Normally retailing on Steam for 55 CAD, sales occasionally drive around 75 percent off the price tag, allowing it to be purchased for 13.74 CAD. For the level of quality in this game, this price is tantamount to highway robbery, and I open by saying that it matters not whether or not one is into horror: Alien: Isolation is what a game should be.
- Players take on the role of Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, Ellen Ripley’s daughter. The game opens up on board the Torrens, and as such, is one of the few moments in the game where it is impossible for death to result. According to the developers, they went through three terabytes of production material from the original Alien, capturing the atmosphere and technological designs seen in the 1979 film.
- After a space walk goes awry, Ripley makes it on board the Sevastopol station. Derelict and in an unkempt state, the game’s first jump scare occurs when players approach a ruptured gas pipe that suddenly ignites. While jump-scares are present in Alien: Isolation, they do not form a large portion of the fear in the game overall.
- I utilise a flare here to illuminate the dark corridors where baggage handling occurs. Flares are just one of the many items that can be utilised in-game, and Alien: Isolation features a basic crafting system that allows players to create various gadgets, ranging from medical kits to flash bangs and pipe bombs. These utilities are useful in furthering Ripley’s survival but should be used sparingly, since resources for crafting are uncommon, and Ripley can only hold onto a limited number of them.
- The Xenomorph does not make an appearance until Ripley meets Axel; promising to help him get off-station, the pair make their way through Sevastopol. Axel is eventually killed by the Xenomporh, and the horror aspect of Alien: Isolation truly kicks in at this point as players realise there is something pursuing them.
- Ripley encounters a simply-wrought motion tracker that detects whether there are any moving entities in the AO, as well as points roughly in the direction that one must go to carry out the next step of the mission. This device soon becomes the source of much paranoia: while it picks up the motion of anything that moves, its primary application is checking the Xenomorph’s position. Thus, even a human or android moving about can occasionally lead players to hide in the nearest locker.
- Save terminals are the single most valuable asset in the game and I experience relief every time I see one of these. Over time, a player’s fear in Alien: Isolation is less likely to be caused by the Xenomorph and more likely to result from a fear of losing critical progress. In a game where every step can end with a potential death, progress is measured in inches rather than meters, and so, reaching save points is always a relief.
- The GTX 660 is the recommended GPU for experiencing Alien: Isolation, although the game runs fine on a GT 430. With all of the graphics settings turned up, players truly feel like they’re at Sevastopol station, making their way through the different regions of the station and hope they remain undetected long enough to complete the objective. Fortunately, crouching, moving slowly and making use of tactical advantages (such as lockers and tables to hide in and under, respectively), coupled with patience, is how to eke out survival.
- There are some sections of the game, such as when Ripley must retrieve a trauma kit from the St. Christobal medical facilities, where the Xenomorph is solidly present to menace the player. One aspect about the Xenomorph that makes it truly devastating against player progress is the fact that it can make use of Sevastopol Station’s ventilation system to move swiftly between places: although the Xenomorph may have appeared to entered a room on the opposite side of the map, it can, at any time, appear right in front of Ripley using what is functionally equivalent to teleportation.
- The standard FPS player would think that they can take out the Xenomorph with firearms, but the weapons available to Ripley are lower-powered; they are completely ineffectual against the Xenomorph, but perform well enough against other humans. Here, I’ve got the .375 revolver, a weapon that can be effective against humans but also fires loudly. Using it will almost certainly result in death, as it attracts the Xenomorph’s attention.
- One of my favourite aspects about Alien: Isolation is the fact that some regions of the station are located on the outer sections; with large windows that let in starlight. These parts of Sevastopol station are awash with the star’s golden light and, despite the general sense of hostility in the station, these areas convey a more calming sense. With that being said, the Xenomorph can show up here, as well, so it’s prudent not to linger too long in these deceptively relaxed areas.
- Because Sevastopol Station was unprofitable, much of it is derelict by the time the Torrens reaches it. Sections combust and explode from poor maintenance, forcing Ripley to get creative in her pathfinding. To the left of this image are the unnerving iris-vents: I’m a little unsettled by how they move, but entering the vents allow players to rapidly move around obstacles and obstructions. The Xenomorph can enter these systems, so they are not safe havens by any stretch.
- The Xenomorph’s high lethality can be used to Ripley’s advantage: I place a noisemaker in an area with hostile people and watch as the Xenomorph annihilates them before making a get-away; after killing off everything in the area, the Xenomorph will continue hunting Ripley, so it’s prudent to hide. I’ve experienced a situation where I came under fire from another human, only to have the Xenomorph appear, rush past the other guy and put an end to Ripley.
- Whereas I typically sprint through most first-person games, Alien: Isolation actively discourages thus; moving around too loudly will draw the Xenomorph’s attention and result in instant death. By putting the player in the shoes of someone ordinary, powerless to take out the Xenomorph, proper horror is achieved. In one of my undergraduate English courses, the professor stated that all horror comes from the fear of a loss of control.
- Thus, horror becomes lost if players are given powerful weapons that allow them a degree of control. It is this reason that Alien: Colonial Marines proved unsuccessful; player have access to a powerful arsenal that allows them to blow Xenomorphs away as though it were just another day at the office. Conversely, by stripping Ripley of all means to confront the Xenomorph, Alien: Isolation crafts a powerful sense of fear in players. Here, I reactivate the transit stations and will locate a gas torch, useful for cutting through panels.
- The stun baton is the second of the weapons that Ripley locates in the game: firing an electrical tip, it’s excellent for stopping the androids, or “Working Joes”, in their tracks. These androids can be quite unsettling, but are slow movers and not particularly fearsome unless in large numbers. They can kill Ripley quite easily and deflect her attacks, however, so it’s best to avoid direct confrontation with them. The Xenomorph cannot be goaded into taking them out.
- The first part of Alien: Isolation where players will truly feel safe is once Marshal Waits’ headquarters are reached. There’s a save point here, and unless I’m mistaken, no chance that players will die to the Xenomorph. Here, Ripley learns of how Marlowe, captain of the Anesidora, found the Xenomorph and inadvertently brought it on board Sevastopol station.
- For one mission, players can take Marlowe’s shoes and walk through Archeron LV-426, a moon with hostile surface conditions to locate a Derelict vessel after discovering a warning beacon. The walk to the vessel is a difficult one: visibility is low, with a windstorm whipping about debris and gases. As Marlowe, players have access to a direction scanner, although because the path is quite linear, it’s not strictly necessary to use this device too often.
- Constructed by the Engineer (a race similar to Halo‘s Forerunner), the Derelict houses a vast nest of Xenomorph eggs. One of the eggs hatches here and the newly born Facehugger latches itself to Marlowe’s wife’s face, resulting in her death. It’s been hypothesised that the Engineers were responsible for creating the Xenomorphs for use as biological weapons, accounting for the Xenomorph’s seemingly perfect biological composition.
- Returning back to Ripley’s perspective, she gains a flamethrower for use against the Xenomorph at the game’s halfway point. With half of Alien: Isolation under my belt, I’ve spent 9 hours in-game so far and have collected just under half of the achievements. There are a total of eighteen missions, and now that I’m past the halfway point, it’ll be interesting to see where Alien: Isolation goes from here: there is still a few more items to collect, and I’ve yet to find the Molotov cocktail’s upgrade blueprints, having missed the first one somehow while moving through the medical sections.
I’ve now just collected the flamethrower and thus, have reached Alien: Isolation‘s halfway point. The game feels solid and handles very well, managing to convey a sense of uncertainty and terror as I move through it. While the Xenomorph is said to possess a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to tune its behaviours such that it matches the players’ style, insofar, I find the Xenomorph’s true power to frighten comes from its stochasticity: at some points, I’ve been defeated instantly from a vent even though I had seen it, from afar, moving into a room at the opposite end of the hallway. I’m definitely curious to see how the story will progress and end, and will continue moving through this horror title that so far, lives up to its title as an inspired horror game that marks a return to the Alien franchise’s roots: Ripley’s total inability to destroy the Xenomorph as the Doom Slayer does his opponents plays on the base human fear of a lack of control, and Alien: Isolation uses this to great effect, creating a game quite unlike the titles I am accustomed to playing through.