The Alien franchise holds a special place in many sci-fi, horror lover's hearts. Whether it was the first time seeing an alien burst out of a human's chest, or that first glimpse of the alien itself, Ridley Scott's series of films are considered classics to most. Unfortunately, the same is not said of the games spawned from these films. With the most recent attempt, Aliens: Colonial Marines Achievements, being widely criticised for poor graphics and gameplay, the Alien franchise really needed a game to come and restore some faith to its fans. Cue SEGA and Creative Assembly coming together to create Alien: Isolation Achievements, an Alien adventure focused less on combat and more on stealth; a game which is less an FPS and more a survivial horror. In the build up to its release, we've had trailer after trailer telling us that the alien is going to get us and we are going to die. So, does all this dying and sneaking make for frustrating repetitive levels, or can this new instalment in Alien be isolated from the rest as a success?
It's time to step into the shoes of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Sigourney Weaver's character Ellen, as she searches for her mother fifteen years after her original disappearance. Constantly listening for any news, her hopes are lifted when the flight recorder of the Nostromo (the original Alien ship) is found on a space station named Sevastopol. Ripley is dispatched straight away with a small team to go and collect this recorder, which Amanda hopes will provide her with the information on her mother's disappearance and, at worst, leave her with some closure. What should be a simple "in and out" job obviously does not go quite to plan. Amanda gets split from her group in a mostly abandoned and run down space station, where humans are crazy with fear, the androids have gone hostile and an alien is stalking her every move. Your job is to find Amanda's team and get out, but the question is, how will you survive?
The first level eases you into the game very slowly, but in terms of controls, you are told little else apart from how to move. Introducing you to save points, archive logs and interactive objects is the aim of this tutorial, which you probably would have noticed on your own as they are either glowing orange or have a green light on them. This is constant all the way through the game, making collectibles easier to spot and items relating to story objectives quicker to find (although on more than one occasion you may find yourself hopelessly searching for an interactive item that, in fact, won't be glowing or lit up). Whilst you have no mini map, the simple press of a button brings up a full screen map. This will show save points and computers with logs (but only ones that you have already interacted with) as well as markers for the current objective, which is handy as you aren't always given on-screen specific instructions on where you should be heading next.
From the first cutscene, you can see an immediate improvement in the graphics from the last game. Even on the Xbox 360 version, you can see the detail in the characters' faces, from beads of sweat to expressions of fear. The detailing within the space station itself is fairly thorough, with plenty of flashing lights and computer screens reminiscent of the 80's style of the films. One thing worth noting though is that the game is particularly dark. Whilst fitting suitably with the horror theme, unfortunately there were parts where it was just too dark to see what to do, so you may need to adjust the brightness on your TV to find what suits you best. Don't turn it up too much though, because when you pair that darkness with an eerie, minimalistic soundtrack and you've got a perfect combination. The game is not particularly scary (although there are some pretty intense levels towards the end), but what it does do well is keep you on edge. Flickering lights, the sound of shaking vents and voices in the distance all remind you that you're never alone, even when you think it is safe.
While the game is split across a fairly lengthy eighteen levels, each one runs seamlessly into the next. There is a set path you feel you must be following, but at the same time it is as if you are left on your own to explore. There are countless open rooms in each area you explore, housing collectibles aplenty for the more adventurous gamers, but beware as the longer you explore, the more chance you will bump into the alien along the way. Whilst it doesn't make an appearance early on, once the alien is in the game, there is a feeling you have to creep everywhere. Upon retrying part of levels after failing, you do realise there are certain places the alien is programmed to turn up, but the rest of the time it can drop in on you out of the blue (look out for the drool!). You do get the classic Aliens motion tracker which shows organisms when you hold it up, but the alien does have a habit of being able to disappear without a trace and reappear in the same fashion.
Alien: Isolation makes the bold choice that you aren't able to kill the xenomorph, you do have a number of tools at your disposal to help keep it at bay. Along with your motion tracker to find the alien, you've got items you can craft such as molotovs and mines to either scare it away or things like flashbangs to distract the alien whilst you sneak past. These have to be crafted using components found in the levels using a simple process which can be done quickly when you are in a hurry. Figuring out when best to use these items and in what way is part of the fun of the game, and there's a kind of sinister satisfaction when you send the alien over to another group of humans whilst you sneak away unnoticed. You also gets weapons such as a shotgun and a flame-thrower, but you may find your use of these minimal as they often attract more attention than they are worth.
A nice break from the constant sneaking and hiding is the mini games that pop up when you are hacking computers or doors. Whilst rewiring the boxes just require a simple button press to swap over the power, there are a number of different tasks you must complete often to proceed with the main objective. Simple things such as matching shapes and stopping a line in the right place may seem easy at first glance, but under pressure can be frustratingly fun and the fear that an android might jump at you at any second keeps you on your toes. The relief of being able to rush through a door once its open, or grab the information off a computer and run is a feeling of satisfaction that this game does not hand out all too freely, so when you do get it you have a real sense of accomplishment.
There is no denying that this is a difficult game, and even on the normal difficulty setting you will no doubt be finding yourself dying quite a few times. This shouldn't be seen as a negative though, and most players will relish the challenge of seeing how fast or how few deaths you can get through a level. Alien: Isolation seems to have found the perfect balance between too difficult and too easy a level, and each death you encounter serves as a learning experience to be able to get through it the next time. What many may find annoying is the sparse locations of save points, and that once you have saved you will need to wait a certain amount of time before using the same one again. These save points do tell you if there are "hostiles nearby" which may be a positive or a negative depending on how you look at it, but with no auto-saves to load from, you will be jumping for joy when you see a save point in the distance.
Speaking of challenges, the achievement list poses more than enough of a one for most. There are plenty of achievements for simply completing levels and using weapons, but the more adventurous gamer will be looking forward to trying to get through the game on the hardest difficulty or without dying once. The achievement list does fit in well with the game and encourages you to explore to find the collectibles and sneak through specific levels more carefully, but you will need multiple playthroughs. The enjoyment then comes from knowing you can't kill any humans, and then encountering a level where you are left which no choice except to try and sneak past them all, drawing as little attention as possible.
Alien: Isolation definitely wasn't the game that fans were expecting, but that shouldn't be putting any potential buyers off. What the game lacks in first person shooting action, it more than makes up for in the stealthy portions. This game will keep you on edge all the way through, and the down moments only make you more wary for an appearance from the alien. There were a couple of glitches with items not loading properly and walls disappearing in place of space and stars, and for some reason some of the vents and doors take longer than they should to open, but for the most part the game runs very smoothly. You'll find yourself enjoying the split between wanting to explore every room, and just wanting to get to the end of the level in one piece. SEGA and Creative Assembly should be proud of themselves for giving the Alien franchise a game it has been wanting and needing for a long time, and for taking it a new and successful direction.
The reviewer spent approximately twenty hours killing androids, dodging humans and of course avoiding the alien at all costs (but still suffering more than a couple of deaths along the way), popping 43 of the game's 50 achievements. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game which was purchased personally by the reviewer.