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Alien Isolation Review

Alien Isolation Review

When Alien: Isolation was first announced the reaction of the gaming community was muted with cautious optimism at best coming off of a needless disaster like Colonial Marines that really should have been a fantastic game but unforgivably wasn’t.

As more footage and information leaked out the sense of optimism grew in spite of itself including from yours truly. The logic was: It can’t be any worse than Colonial Marines and it has to be a bounce up.

I’m happy to report that broadly speaking this game most certainly is despite my own quibbles and subjective preferences.

Alien Isolation Screenshot 01

GRAPHICS:

Excellent on any system. The PC gets some eye candy refinement, but as has been widely documented, it is not earth shattering over the consoles. This will perform and scale well on just about any machine not out of the Stone Age.

Simply put: If Ridley Scott had decided to make a sequel to his 1979 Alien movie in 1981, and he really should have by all rights, it would have looked like this. I can’t praise it any higher than that. The developers absolutely nail the 1979 Alien universe. It the eye candy shock and awe? No, however it is clean and looking and absolutely could not be a more faithful and tender loving care dedicated and meticulous representation of that world into a video game.

The PC version has the requisite graphics menu options including adjustable film grain to make it look like it’s from 1979 or not.

SOUND:

I can copy and paste my high praise for the graphics and adjust accordingly here for sound. Sound design here sets a standard and absolutely deserves to rake in best of year awards all over the place. Everything from placement of Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score from the 1979 movie to ambient sound to the most critical sound of all: The Alien itself. The sound design is absolutely critical to survive and succeed in this game and I don’t think there has been another game that has put more of an emphasis on that then this one.

You must play this game with good speakers or headphones to have any chance whatsoever. I can’t emphasize that enough. You need to be able to hear where that Alien is at all times in relation to you because you can’t always have your motion tracker out and if you player at higher than easy difficulty your motion tracker will also attract the Alien as well. Much of your living and dying will be on the game’s masterful and critical sound design.

STORY:

A competent “fill in the blanks” story for Ripley’s daughter to fill in the gaps between Alien and Aliens that doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel or add to canon.  It’s not earth shattering. I wish there had been some more depth to characterizations and some of the narrative but I can’t come up with any major complaints.  As others have stated there are several “false endings” to the game where you think it’s over and yet it isn’t. It’s subjective to the player if the game overstays its welcome or not.

For the DLC you are replaying key scenes out of the Alien movie so that storyline and those characters speak for itself.

Alien Isolation Screenshot 02

GAMEPLAY:

Let me state the good part of the gameplay upfront: As uneven as the Alien AI is, the overall sense and creation of tension, suspense, and nail-biting produced in this game is as good as I can recall in a video game.

Your enjoyment of this game will be predicated on how high your patience threshold is for repeated trial and error and many deaths, some of which will be highly suspect from a sometimes brilliant but often times unbalanced AI.

The Alien is a bulldozing god, simply put. Sometimes it comes down to skill but often times if not arguably too much it comes down to blind, random luck with no recourse whatsoever except to spend time waiting in lockers or hiding under desks.  The Alien can find you there, too, but at least then you are given a very quick QTE option for a last second chance at survival.

Late in the game you do acquire a flamethrower that allows you to scare and ward it off and arguably hurt it, but by that point the game has become rather uneven in its presentation even by its own set of rules and the flamethrower is something that can be debated as to when it should have shown up in the game or if at all depending on who you talk to.

I wish there had been some sort of allowance in the game along these lines: Perhaps you get a lucky shot with your pistol where you hurt the Alien or at least startle it. We all know the Aliens can be hurt, bleed, and be killed. I understand for this game most of that is not viable because it would ruin it.  What I’m getting at is where the player could have a small and temporary strategic advantage based off player skill as opposed to the often times random blind luck. This would be satisfying and compelling if it could be done right. The reason I’m mentioning this is more of an “I wish” for the likely inevitable next game in this series.

With the game in its present form as of this writing:

I confess that I have a low patience threshold for lots of trial and error so that taints my reaction to this game unavoidably.  I have taken great pains to be as fair and frankly generous as I possibly can.

There are times where the game forces you to shift out of “horror suspense” mode into more of an FPS leaning bent and it fails miserably.  They just shouldn’t have bothered. If you are going to put me in an FPS situation give me solid FPS play mechanics for those situations as mandated in the course of the larger game. That doesn’t mean the game suddenly turns into COD meets Aliens although that’s what Colonial Marines probably should have been and it would have been a lot better off.

What I am getting at it is that  it simply means make the gameplay consistently compelling, intuitive, and engaging across the boards in all situations.

Alien Isolation Screenshot 03

It took some effort in the course of a discussion that I had with a very ardent defender of this game from whom this game can do absolutely no wrong whatsoever but even they had to finally concede the following:

 “I don’t care the tedium of the save system, and it would be awfully nice if the xeno didn’t frequently search the area you’re around endlessly (magnetism in general is an awfully cheap trick, and the xenomorph shouldn’t just endlessly stalk one area — it’s supposed to be a cleverer and more cautious beast than that), but otherwise I have very little to complain about so far.

The save system I can actually go back and forth on. I’d really like a quicksave feature, but I can understand their decision to omit it: they want to build tension with the encounters, and they don’t want players abusing the system by saving every ten steps. A system whereby you could save anywhere but only every, say, three or four minutes would’ve been a good compromise.”

I agree.  Just these refinements alone would go some ways to improving the gameplay experience.

I have to seriously wonder about the claims of 15-20 hours of gameplay being made when you take into account just how much trial and error and hiding you have to do as opposed to actually playing and doing something in this game.  My personal  hunch is you are at 8-12 hours of real progression gameplay, tops.

This is highly subjective. I personally did not have a fun time overall playing this game after putting 7 hours into it.  I can’t recall the last time I tried to force myself to like a game as much as I did this one. I really wanted to love it. I really wanted to be in the camp of the fanboys that have this up there as the next System Shock 2 which I just can’t take that seriously at all but I just couldn’t make it happen for myself.

Your mileage may widely and truly vary as evidenced by the feedback that’s out there that’s all up and down the spectrum.

Alien Isolation Screenshot 04

CONCLUSION:

If you are someone who liked Amensia and Outlast as recent examples in survival horror, then you stand fairly good odds of liking this game although I have even seen dissent coming from some of the fans of those games towards this.

Those games were mixed bags for me as well as a frame of reference.

I am grateful I did not pay full price for this game. I paid $38 thanks to a Green Man Gaming sale.

There is no way I could endorse a full price purchase for this unless you really know what you are in for and are a big fan of a high and repetitive trail and error situation that often times does not involve skill but random luck.  If that sounds like fun to you then I respectfully disagree with you but please: Dive in with enthusiastic abandon.

I respect the heck out of what they did in this game and what they put together overall. My overall experience with this game is I felt like I saw many flashes of brilliance but it just didn’t come together all the way for me on the gameplay side of things.  I see a foundation that can be built upon for something truly unique and special. A lot of people feel that way right now about this game and more power to them. I simply can’t and don’t agree.

I do have to honestly wonder just how much of the gushing and praise I’ve seen and heard in certain quarters would still be there if it were not for the settings, production values, atmosphere, and sentimental factor for the franchise.

Quite frankly the only reason I’m scoring this game as highly as I am is because of those above factors. 3 stars on our scale means “satisfying” and for myself I can’t say that this game was but I can’t give the game a lower rating and feel right about it give the overall totality of the effort put forth.

People have asked me to be more specific about what kind of gameplay I would have possibly liked to have seen and I hope I have addressed some of that already but let me close with a couple of points.

I will start by addressing the Alien Isolation wikipedia itself:

 “The game is played from a first-person perspective and incorporates stealth and horror elements. Inspiration has been taken from BioShock and Dishonored.”

As a big fan of both of those games, I sorely wish that were true so far as the gameplay goes.  If you had this game’s atmosphere and production values combined with the excellent gameplay of Dishonored and/or Bioshock or a combination thereof with the logically adjusted and scaled down for survival horror then you would have a game for the ages.  It just isn’t there as is by my reckoning.

This game has no replay value whatsoever and even people gushing over this game concede that point.

I do see this as a game that is generally moving things in the right direction coming off of an epic disaster like Colonial Marines or 2010’s mixed bag but increasingly under-appreciated AVP and I take hope and solace from that but as is I have to view this game in its totality as a painful near miss.

Footnote: This game has been an unexpected source of humor thanks to Youtube and Twitch play through videos. Some of the videos during the launch window of this game are absolutely hysterical with some of the drive by commentary, frustration, and meltdowns. Whether you love this game or hate it or are somewhere in the middle like me you owe it to yourself to track down some of that hilarity.

Alien Isolation gets a three out of five: SATISFYING.

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