Saturday, 19 March 2016

REVIEW: Alien: Isolation (PS4)

Admittedly, I have always been bit of a wimp when it comes to horror games. Playing one usually always ends up with me literally screaming with fright because, well, I’m really not great at being scared, especially when it involves jump scares. But, after months of debating, I finally decided to give in and give Alien: Isolation a shot after hearing such fantastic praise, even though I haven’t seen the movies. Don’t judge. I know I’m late to the party here, but you can blame it on the fact that I’m a huge wuss. I’m ashamed of it. It also boils down to the fact that I shit my pants twice as hard when it comes to first-person horror games (I'm looking at you, Outlast).

If you haven’t heard of Alien: Isolation, where have you been?! It’s a must-have title for survival-horror game fans, and devotees of the Alien franchise alike. It was initially released back in late 2014 on PC, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and later became available on Linux and OS X in late 2015. It sees the player taking on the role of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the protagonist of the Alien movies, Ellen Ripley, and is set 15 years after the events depicted in the first Alien film. After embarking on a mission in hope of finding her mother, Amanda finds herself stranded alone on the Sevastopol: a humungous orbital trading space station, consisting of a colossal labyrinth of vents, tunnels, and lonely corridors. Unbeknownst to her, she isn’t alone—the androids have gone hostile, supplies are scarce, and the remaining humans are fighting for survival among each other. If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s an Alien on the loose too, killing all who cross its deadly path. Before I get into this properly, I want to iterate that no horror game has ever given me an experience even remotely close to what I felt whilst playing Alien: Isolation.

Straight off the bat, you’re drawn in by the atmosphere of the Sevastopol—it’s dark, ominous, and just downright terrifying. You’re thrown into a world where a single noise could be your downfall. A lot of your time is spent either crouching under tables, or hiding in tiny lockers. Confidence isn’t the key in this game; one wrong move, and your chances of becoming Alien food are higher than a junkie on crack. Even though I’ve shamefully never seen an Alien film, I can totally appreciate the ‘80s aesthetic that Creative Assembly has brought to the table here, which in turn ties in incredibly well with the movies. Shoving yourself away under a table with a huge CRT monitor and clunky keyboard sitting on it, or rushing to save at an emergency call box with the threat of being ripped apart at any second really does make you feel like you’re navigating through the set of a 1980s Alien movie.

The Alien itself contributes a lot to the terror factor of this game, despite the seemingly endless corridors, and creepy sound effects. Why is this? Because you can’t kill it—you’ve just got to outrun it. You can scare it off with fire from a flamethrower you find halfway through the game, but it’s always going to resume the hunt, no matter what. This isn’t your typical sci-fi vidya title: you need to outsmart the Alien rather than shoot it down mercilessly. You're sure as hell going to wish it was that easy. Then there is the Working Joe: a type of synthetic model android originally placed upon the Sevastopol to assist the people living there, and they have since turned evil, chasing down and destroying any humans in their way. They frequently churn out chilling phrases such as "I'm going to catch you" and "my turn now" when spotting the player and being threatened, which is enough to send shivers down anybody’s spine. The difference between the Working Joes and the Alien is that you can attack and kill them, instead of just having to retreat every time you sense wind of one, which makes them less of a threat than our elusive slimy adversary, but still creepy nonetheless. Humans on the station can also be hostile, but most will leave you alone if you turn around and back off slowly. Or you can get them to shoot at you, letting the noise of the shot draw out the Alien, and then watch from a hiding spot as they’re ripped to shreds. Trust me—it's rather satisfying, in a sadistic and cruel kind of way.

As you traverse through the dark, sinister station that is the Sevastopol, you pick up all sorts of items, weapons, and scrap—all of which come in handy at some point. There are several types of weapons in Alien: Isolation. Some can be found when playing through certain missions, and some have to be created using items found littered throughout the game. Upgrades for weapons are also something to look out for.
There are also many blueprints to be found throughout, spread out across various tables and surfaces. These enable new peripherals to be crafted, and are useful if you’re looking for a way to create weapons, or objects to use as a noise distraction. There will be certain points where throwing a noisemaker and running is easier than trying to take out a horde of enemies, especially if you’re low on health or ammunition. Certain weapons of choice are more effective against certain types of enemy. Take EMP mines as an example: throw one into a crowd of Working Joes and they’re temporarily disabled, but throw one at the Alien and it does nothing whatsoever. Medkits are also made via crafting, and are your only source of health in game. Make sure you’ve always got a couple to hand, and go on a supply run if you don’t have enough materials to craft them—you’d be a fool to think you can get through missions without healing periodically.

Alien: Isolation’s sound and graphic design is simply fantastic. There’s nothing like thinking you’re in a safe area, and then hearing the eerie sound cue of the Alien prowling around—the fear it instils is something in itself. That, and the fact that even a year and a half later it is one of the most visually striking games to date, really does ensure that the game is as terrifying as it can possibly be. And I love it. The attention to detail is amazing, from intricate little details on weapons, to notes left behind in lockers that you can read whilst hiding. 
Despite all of this high praise, there are a couple of little niggles that really did frustrate me to no end whilst playing. Highlighting certain objects to find a prompt sometimes proved difficult. Need to pull that lever? Look for the prompt on the floor. Of course, this wasn’t an issue with every single interaction, but it occurred enough to annoy me, especially when I needed to do a prompt quickly out of fear of dying, and I couldn’t locate it.
The other frustration is the non-existence of checkpoints. Save points are spread out sporadically, and the amount of times I died and was forced to play through sections I’d already spent 15 minutes getting through was incredibly tedious. However, I can understand Creative Assembly’s decision to include a lack of save points as it definitely increases the tension.

The fear factor towards of the end of the game is less significant that it is in the first few hours, and is definitely lessened after you’re given the flamethrower, which becomes your saving grace when it comes to scaring the Alien away. The Alien is no longer a huge, looming threat and is about as scary as a puppy when it’s escaping the lick of your ferocious flames. You almost get used to the Walking Joes skulking around, which become easy to dispatch once you get the shotgun, and fellow humans seem like nothing compared to other enemies. In fact, the only times I got scared during the final few chapters was when there was a jumpscare in a cutscene, or a sudden, sharp sound cue. But the plotline was enough to power me through to the last mission, and I still enjoyed the game even without the constant fear. If anything, it was a nice break to have some of that tense atmosphere alleviated.

On average, it took about 20 hours to complete Alien: Isolation—20 hours I was happy to have spent with the game. Despite being scared absolutely shitless and coming close to turning my PS4 off out of fear a few times, I really did enjoy it. As I stated before, no game has ever scared the pants off of me this much. Despite the fact I enjoyed it a lot, it’s not a title that I can see myself coming back to any time soon as I don’t think there’s much replayability in it. I feel as though I wouldn't have a different experience playing through it a second time, and it is something that’s best left alone once finished. But would I like to see a sequel? Definitely!

[Screenshots taken from the PS4 version of Alien: Isolation]

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