Alien: Isolation Is Brave And Imperfect And I Love It

When you think about it, it’s a small miracle that Alien: Isolation even got made.

The last game made in the Alien universe was an irrefutable disaster of incredible proportions. Aliens: Colonial Marines. You wouldn’t be off base if you called it the most disappointing video game ever made. A borked mess on every possible level. A game that promised so much and didn’t even come close to delivering. The kind of game that sinks a license, even one as sturdy as Alien.

And in its immediate wake: Alien: Isolation. A game that, like Colonial Marines, would be played in the first person. A game developed by a studio that, for the last 13 bloody years, had been slaving away on workmanlike real-time strategy games. Their last non-RTS game? ‘Rugby’ for the PlayStation 2. That game was released in 2001.

How did Alien: Isolation even get greenlit?

More importantly, how did it become one of my favourite ‘AAA’ experiences in years?

I say ‘AAA’ with hesitation, but in this case it’s a useful catch-all term. When I say ‘AAA’, here’s what I really mean: Alien: Isolation is a video game intended for a large audience. A video game with high production values and, most likely, a significantly large budget. It is an expensive video game made in an environment where expensive video games are made at great risk to both the publisher and the developers who create them.

Usually this result in a video game experience where said risk is mitigated with safe design decisions. Usually.

Take a series like Call of Duty, which has barely changed since Modern Warfare. Take FIFA. Take almost every sporting franchise. Take Dead Space or BioShock: games burdened with multiplayer in a vain attempt to add bullet points to a sprawling feature list.

Take Destiny. Despite my love for this game, it can’t be denied that its astronomical budget has resulted in a ‘safer’ video game experience. That’s just the nature of game development: if you’re going to create a video game that costs a lot of money, you’d better make sure that video game has the ability to reach a broad audience.

Unless that game is Alien: Isolation.


In my four hours with Alien Isolation I have killed one person. Only one. I nervously hit him over the head with a blunt object. Then I ran away in terror.

In Alien: Isolation I have drawn my gun only once. It didn’t go well. I shot a total of three bullets into a pursuing android. Two hit him in the chest and the third lodged into a soft part of his neck. The bullets didn’t stop him, didn’t even slow him down. The android grabbed me by the throat and five seconds later I was dead.

Now I mostly just hide in lockers and cower in abject fear.

Most AAA video games earn their keep by empowering players to solve problems with violence. That’s just a fact. Alien: Isolation is different. Alien: Isolation actively disempowers its players. It provides you with a set of tools you are familiar with – guns, bombs, instruments of violence – and renders them almost useless. In Alien: Isolation you could shoot at things, but you’d have a better chance of survival if you hid in a cupboard and waited for the bad guys to just go away.

This in itself isn’t unique. The ability to sneak and hide is paramount in any stealth game. But Alien: Isolation is brutal in its execution. Unlike other stealth games, you have no real means to defend yourself. In Metal Gear Solid you can shoot, punch and kill when spotted. Same goes for Splinter Cell, Thief, Dishonored – almost any stealth game you care to name. In Alien Isolation you run. You run for your goddamn life, you hide in a locker and you hope and pray that they Alien doesn’t rip the door open and consume your soul.

In Alien: Isolation you are absurdly weak. In video games we are not used to being weak.


Why doesn’t Alien: Isolation have an auto save system? All video games have an auto save system. GODDAMMIT, THIS IS SO STUPID.

That was my initial reaction after being spotted and garrotted 15 minutes after my last manual save. The prospect of having to play the last 15 minutes all over again? Urgh.

So to confirm: Alien: Isolation has no auto save. But not only is Alien: Isolation missing auto save, it is a game that actively attempts to hide its manual save points from the player. Save point are actively obscured in the level design. Quite often I found myself missing save points because they were positioned in easy to miss spots.

At first this felt like a cruel oversight. But slowly I began to understand what ‘saving’ meant for a game as overwhelmingly terrifying and oppressive as Alien: Isolation.

In Alien: Isolation saving equals relief. It equals relief from tension, relief from fear, relief from the weight and consequences of death. No doubt the ability to auto save was discussed during the development of Alien: Isolation. No doubt a very deliberate decision was made. The decision the team made was this: screw the player’s expectation, this is the best thing for the game we want to make. People will hate this, they will complain about it, but in the end it will be worth it.

Alien: Isolation, in a sense, is fairly experimental and weird. An easier route would have been simple: create a licensed version of a game like, say, Dead Space. An expertly crafted series of breadcrumb trails with well-orchestrated scares, some shooting and a resolution. A polished experience, the kind of experience that would review well, a game that mainstream players could easily play and recommend to others as a ‘good’ game.

But Creative Assembly went in the opposite direction. I think people are forgetting this: it was a risky, almost pathologically stupid move for an unproven studio to go against the grain with an important license — with money at stake — and create a game that essentially lives and dies on the behaviour of one single enemy AI.

Again – I reiterate – it’s a small miracle that Alien: Isolation got made.

The smaller, more minor miracle is the fact that it somehow works. Alien: Isolation is all the more terrifying for the random nature of the Alien AI, for the genuine feeling that it’s alive and actively hunting you down, responding to your behaviour. It’s the reason why I’ve spent about 50% of my time with Alien: Isolation cowering in a locker.

Of course Alien: Isolation is not perfect, of course there are flaws. Of course it doesn’t always work and the illusion is sometimes broken, but the end result is a uniquely oppressive experience that works on a level we’re not used to in video games.


Alien: Isolation is an innovative video game that embraces its imperfections and sacrifices polish to provide an innovative, brave video game experience. In an industry obsessed with Metacritic averages, in an industry where multi-million sellers are commercial failures, Alien: Isolation is brave to the point of stupidity.

But it’s a brand of stupidity I hope other studios are keen to embrace. I wish more games were this imperfect.


Comments

    What i love about Isolation is that the game is not trying to be Aliens, like most of the other shooters are, but it's trying to be the original Alien.

    and damn does it nail it, The Alien A.I is fucking terrifying, i accidentally shot my gun waiting for an elevator, and at first i thought the alien didn't hear it, but then i thought i heard an air vent opening, so i pull up my tracker and see the dot slowly closing in. The elevator doors are just about to open, so i start to panic, just as the does are about to open i hear it scream, i run as fast as i can into the elevator and just as i am about to press the button my character stops, looks down and sees an alien tail sticking out of her gut.

    This was one of the most intense moments i've had in a game, and Isolation does it totally unscripted.

    The main thing i'll add to the "how the hell did it get green lit" is that this is one of the few games where running away will usually result in worse things happening.

    so in short, the game rocks, i wish i could play more but nvidia's drivers are causing it to crash randomly :(

      The Alien A.I is fucking terrifyingI actually love how a game can trigger such fear responses. I had something similar happen to me with an elevator, and as the alien was running at me the logical part of my mind was being quite reasonable - "It's a bunch of pixels on a screen, there's nothing to be afraid of you nitwit". This was eclipsed by the louder part of my mind however, which was saying something more along the lines of "AAAAAAAAHCLOSETHEDOORCLOSETHEDOORCLOSETHEDOORAAAAAAAAAAH!"

    When you think about it, it’s a small miracle that Alien: Isolation even got made.

    I know right, I bet EA was pounding on the front door screaming, "It needs explosions! Add in bullet microtransactions!".

    This is a personal annoyance that videogames over the last decade have been holding the players hand and giving them swarms of enemies to easily dispatch to empower them, having completed challenges flash across the screen, an XP bar that fills up way too quickly to make it worthwhile. It's something about Halo: Reach I think a lot of people didn't get. They wanted players to have battles, that can last a while as you try to figure out how to best the other player. But some people just wanted to spam that friggen Magnum and have fights last 0.7 seconds.

    Mark, are they screens you took yourself? I don't notice any aliasing, and I'm getting a tonne on the PC version. There have been reports that the anti-aliasing isn't working properly - sorry to ask a tech question :P

      Yeah, the AA is a bit rough. Are you using an nVidia GPU? If so I've had a bit of luck playing around in NCP... far from prefect though... & too much does start killing frame rate

        Yeah I'm using Nvidia - what are you using NCP? I didn't think there were any flags to force AA.

          Open the 'nVidia Control Panel' just search for it if its not handy then open and > 3D Settings > manage 3D settings > Select the Alien: Isolation from the program to customise. Scroll down in 'Specify the settings for this program' to 'Antialiasing - Mode' > Override any application setting. Then have a play with 'Antialiasing Setting' (8x ,16x etc) See how you go. GL.

    Their next trick will be applying a modified version of this AI to an Alien hive for an "Aliens" experience we will not soon forget...

    Keen to play this, one day *looks out the window, weeps for my wallet*

    The first thing that comes to my mind reading this though is Amnesia. That game has kind of single handedly sparked the more common use of this approach to game design from how ridiculously successful it was, so although relatively it's a risky AAA approach to take, I think there's at least quite a bit of grounded reasoning as to why this kind of game would sell. Also on the back of some pretty public critiquing of why Alien was better than Prometheus in terms of pacing and suspense, and they have themselves some market research already.

    Still, I'm glad that that's something that has been paid attention to!

      With Amnesia, they had refined what they already did in their earlier game Penumbra. And even then they were influences by another game, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which had harrowing weaponless stealth and chase sequences, but they cranked it so insanely high in that game that it was impossible to maintain it across the whole game which was almost 2 1/2 times longer than both Amnesia and Penumbra, so they had to do it on and off throughout the game. Amnesia and Penumbra were only 4-5 hour games so it was more feasable to maintain it, so it's amazing that a game like Alien Isolation was able to mainain it much longer as its about 4-5 times longer.

    This game is really intense. For me, the one event that sums up my experience so far was while cowering in a locker with the alien slowly stalking over to my position "Right Click to Hold Breath" appears on the screen (playing on PC). I did... pretty damn quick I thought.... and the door still flies open and 'chomp'. Harsh and unpredictable, but bloody fun!

    I really do hope CA are rewarded for their efforts, it's important that risks like this are taken in the big budget space. If the industry doesn't diversify it will collapse in on itself.

    "workmanlike real-time strategy games"

    How dare you Serrels!

    *strategy fan shakes fist impotently*

      you should have built the tech centre first to upgrade your fist :P

    Goddammit Mark, I was so relieved when I read so many middling reviews for this game, I thought I could just give this one a miss, but after reading this article, now I have to go out and get this game.

    Well this game is really good but this is only game i actually gave up playing! As a Deaf gamer and this game is extremely difficult to maximum for me because I cant hear any sounds at all so it is like.. i am not sure if this level is fine to just walk around casually or.. gotta sneak around!

    Then... I will never know where alien will be... it is putting every fibers in my body into heightened senses... and which make it even scarier so I gave up! I will play again only if my hearing people willing to watch me play and can prompt the sounds/location to me :P

    But seriously, this is only game that I actually gave up because it is insane for me! and many other games proves to be difficult but I manage to overcome in many different way but this one! NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPETRAIN TO NOPEVILLAGE NOPE!

      Interesting. I wonder, would it be possible to get a transducer and hook that up to your sound so that you can feel it? Maybe even have it stereo split and going to two of them, so you can get some directionality. Not entirely sure how they work, I've only glanced over some posts talking about them in relation to VR with people talking about bass shakers and stuff. But yeah, just gave me a ping of curiosity.

        Yeah it might help but only problem is that i would feel "vibration" from bass sound but then i cant exactly tell how far is it? or is it in vent and making vent noise? or he is just scraping on floor behind me? so I'd go haywire ;P

        But it got me thinking why am I SO terrified of alien and then I just remember that when I was around 7/8 - my parent (who are Deaf too) they have VHS with Closed Caption and they told me many time that I am not allowed to watch those VHS on bottom because it is for adult people to watch - Alien 2 and Robocop etc. SO, now you can thinking what really happened.. I had family gathering and they was outside having some afternoon break and chatting away. So I was bored and decide to test my luck so i took aliens 2 and watched it all.. I was so terrified but i watched them all. So this might be the reason I am SO terrified of Aliens but other horror movie or games - i DO get scared but still completed it but not terrified like this one! haha

        Either way I am still determinate to finish this game with someone else :D

    While I understand the opinion on the manual save adding relief I also think a sparingly used auto save feature has the same effect. Not knowing when the next auto save/checkpoint is coming adds just as much relief when you hit it. I haven't played this yet though, my girlfriend has bought it for my birthday but is saving it for a couple of weeks until the actual day (I'm all booked up with nba2k15 at the moment anyway). Really looking forward to playing this though and I really hope it does well $$ wise as I want more big studios to be taking risks on other types of gaming experiences. This looks like the kind of game you can fire up again even after you have finished purely for the enjoyment and emotions of the gameplay whereas most AAA games these days are more of a beat them then trade them in style of gameplay and the actual experience isn't looked at.

    Last edited 13/10/14 3:21 pm

    I wish it wasnt released the less than a month before The Evil Within. Hopefully I get this for Xmas.

    I love when you get excited about something, Serrels - it always makes for excellent reading.

    Last edited 13/10/14 3:32 pm

      Agree completely. Serrels does it again.

    Reading through all the reviews and the comments based on this game i've come to one conclusion...I will not play this game. At all. Unless im in a well lit room with no headphones on and my kids are where i can see them. During they day. On a tiny T.V.

    Never

      I had the same idea with playing the P.T. demo.

      2 minutes later it was nothing but NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE as I turned off my PS4. I want to play these games so much based on write ups like this, I just can't do it.

        I almost wish I didn't play P.T. Man that was an intense, super goosebump giving experience. I still think about that.......I mean it's so expertly crafted to mess with one's mind.

        Phew.........now Silent Hills. :)

    God dammit, Mark. Between you and @dc, now I have to go and buy this game and spent the next few weeks fucking terrified. Thanks a lot. I don't suppose you or the devs have any intention of reimbursing me for new underwear, either...

      That would make an excellent pre order item... Brown underwear

    What difficulty level are you guys/girls playing it on? I recall a US article saying that it's most enjoyable on Easy. Not sure about that though...

      From what I've read, the difficulty doesn't affect the alien, only the humans/androids.
      ...From what I've read.

      Playing on medium. I have heard that on Easy if you stay still in relative darkness the Alien won't see you. On medium... it sees you. Then it kills you.

    Agree completely! It might be baby steps compared to the indie scene, and it takes cues from Amnesia, but this is basically what we're talking about when we ask for new kinds of gaming experiences in the triple-A space. Add in the fact that it's actually quite good, and the game is a triumph.

      I'm making a note here: huge success!

      [Sorry, just seemed relevant somehow :) ]

    "A game developed by a studio that, for the last 13 bloody years, had been slaving away on workmanlike real-time strategy games. Their last non-RTS game? ‘Rugby’ for the PlayStation 2. That game was released in 2001".

    They're listed as developer for the Sonic Classic Collection on Nintendo DS.

    That game was released in 2010...

    I can only play this for about 1 hour at a time... It's really is that intense....

    I Hope this positive coverage doesn't become a trend. I already can't afford Shadows of Mordor.

      Man, you need to find a way to stretch your budget. Shadow of mordor is a legendary game. Took me by surprise at the fun ways you can manipulate uruk before you even get to the branding part. I have found offing the right uruk gets rivals on the same rank, and just occasionally you can get them to duel, and then drop in to make sure neither uruk gets the promotion

    FINALLY, a review on this game where the reviews actually gets it. I'm loving this game for all the reasons you've stated above. I love its Dark Souls level of punishment.

      Its cool because you do learn from each death. I've seen online playthroughs where people get frustrated and then just continue to exacerbate the situation by rushing and making noise.

      I found in that first area where the Alien is a true threat I could get through it relatively ok after dying like 15 times... :)

      I agree with the write up as well; I don't think people giving it negatives appreciate what its trying to do.

      Last edited 14/10/14 10:51 am

        I found in that first area where the Alien is a true threat I could get through it relatively ok after dying like 15 times... :)

        let me guess, the medical centre?

          Yeaaaap... I got used to hiding in lockers until the tracker showed above 0.90 and then moving on to the next locker. I did falter with the holding your breath thing because it doesnt seem to do it unless the Alien is right there and you're prompted. So he ripped the door off a couple of times. Good fun thoughl.

    Speaking of PS2, there was a bunch of "Run & Hide 'Em Ups" on that platform.. eg. Echo Night, Rule of Rose, Clock Tower 3.. maybe these were the inspiration for Alien Isolation?

    I'm interested in getting this game, but I've heard that it's bunch of unskippable cutscenes that you have watch over and over after death and retry. Is this correct?

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