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    Alien: Isolation, chooses flight or fight

    Following the trend established by the later films in the series, video games set in the Alien universe have never done a particularly good job of creating a sense of tension or fear, with last year’s comically terrible Aliens: Colonial Marines finding its way to the end of a long list of disappointing releases. It’s the stuff of nightmares, but for all the wrong reasons, and I wouldn't be surprised if even the most loyal fans are feeling a little reluctant to return to the dark depths of space. But let me
    assure you, developers The Creative Assembly have delivered not only the best Alien game of all time, but also one of the best survival horror games of recent years.

    Alien: Isolation takes place fifteen years after the horrific events aboard the Nostromo depicted in the first film, and puts players in the role of Ellen Ripley’s now adult daughter Amanda. Following in her mother’s footsteps in more ways than one, Amanda begins the story as an engineer for the Weyland Yutani Corporation. When the Nostromo’s missing black box flight recorder is recovered and delivered to the recently decommissioned Sevastopol space station, Amanda joins company executives on a mission to retrieve the device and hopefully gain some much needed information and closure regarding her mother’s disappearance.

    However, it is clear from the outset that not all is well on Sevastopol, and soon after becoming separated from her team, Amanda finds herself wandering the vast decrepit facility stalked by a single ruthless alien that has already laid waste to the majority of the station’s inhabitants.

    THE PERFECT ORGANISM
    There’s a real sense of dread the first time the alien appears, and the vast majority of the outing thereafter is a tense and protracted game of cat-and-mouse, with the xenomorph following you through the various sections of the space station as you attempt to recover the flight recorder and make your escape. It is as stressful as it is uncomfortable, but at the same time it’s an altogether amazing survival horror experience. Excluding a few brief scripted moments, the alien has a mind entirely of its own. It doesn’t follow discernible patterns of movement, and listens attentively
    for the slightest noise you will inevitably make.

    It moves in and out of air vents, and some of the most pants-wettingly scary moments of the game come from being able to hear, but not see, the perfect organism working its way towards you overhead. Nothing is sacred, and even while accessing the save points throughout the station the alien can sneak up and eviscerate Amanda, sending you back to your previous manual save or the automatic save at the level start.
    MUCH MORE A FIRST-PERSON ADVENTURE IN THE VEIN OF THE AMNESIA SERIES THAN IT IS A SHOOTER
    Where previous games have nerfed the xenomorphs into a race of bug-like cannon fodder, The Creative Assembly provide an antagonist that’s closer to the one encountered in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece. It is unstoppable and invulnerable, and the game is much more a first-person adventure in the vein of the Amnesia series than it is a shooter. The developers refrain from providing you with an empowering arsenal of futuristic high-powered weaponry, and
    unless you avoid direct conflict and contact with the alien you’re probably going to spend a lot of time witnessing the game’s horrific death vignettes.

    It’s a well-tuned challenge on even the lowest difficulty settings, and in all likelihood, early on you’re probably going to die a lot regardless of your approach. If the alien manages to reach you it will instantly kill you, effortlessly thrusting its tail through your torso or puncturing your skull with its iconic tongue-like protrusion one mistake, and it’s all over, and to be successful you'll need to think carefully about what you did right and what you could have done better.

    You do get your hands on a flamethrower about a third of the way through the game, and that manages to even the odds with the alien the creature will temporarily back off if it’s set alight, though after hitting it once the clever AI will often skulk just beyond the range of the device, waiting for the opportune moment to rush forward and strike. Ultimately though the flamethrower is to be used as a last-resort, with fuel canisters in short supply.

    HELLO JOE
    There are of course other enemies on board the ship who periodically appear to impede your progress and spice things up a little bit. Though some of the few remaining human survivors on board the station will offer advice or trade fleeting remarks about what’s going on, most have organised themselves into self-reliant gun toting possies, and will do anything to survive. While you do gain access to a rudimentary revolver and later a conventional shotgun, firing off a few bullets runs the risk of attracting the ever-present alien, making for a nice little complication
    to the otherwise simple situation.

    Sevastopol is also occupied by the intimidating Working Joes, cheap mass produced humanoid androids produced by Weyland Yutani inferior competitor Seegson, who own and operate the space station. Unlike their more sophisticated counterparts in the film series, the Working Joes are intended to look less like humans and more like robots, with grey rubber skin, glowing LED eyes, and no emotional nuance. They have an unshaking loyalty to the corporation, and take a fair bit of strategy to defeat. Much like the human enemies it’s often a dilemma whether to sneak past or risk attempting to eliminate the super strong androids.

    The game rewards stealth and punishes trigger-happy players who try to rush through any portion of it. It might sound a little frustrating for those used to more conventional FPS titles, but the game works so well for those with a little patience. Player movement is fluid and responsive, with Amanda intuitively bobbing beneath tables and under debris on approach. There’s also a nice little peak button so you can do your best to keep an eye on the alien without breaking cover, and with several ways to distract the alien and avoid detection there’s enough variation to stop things from becoming too stale.

    Scrap and components littered around the station can be used to craft makeshift explosives, smoke grenades and other devices a la The Last of Us. Alternately, you can re-wire systems from access panels to turn off the lights, reduce the air quality in an attempt to create some fog, or remotely activate speaker systems in adjacent rooms to distract the alien.

    You also have a motion tracker at your disposal, and though you will probably spend the majority of your game firmly clutching it to keep tabs on the unseen movements of the alien in the vents above or in adjacent rooms, it is, like most things in the game, designed to be imperfect. There is a beautiful focal pull whenever you pull the tool from your belt the environment blurs as Amanda’s eyes concentrate on the small device, preventing you from maintaining too much situational awareness. It’s also quite literally a motion tracker rather than a standard radar or mini map, and much like in the movies there’s no way of telling who or what is moving about in the area if you're relying on the tracker alone. Plus, it also lets off a small ping whenever it senses movement, and though I found myself questioning why the talented engineer Amanda couldn't install a mute function, you’ll need
    to be careful when the creature gets to close as it will inevitably detect the sound.
    LEVELS ARE INTRICATELY DESIGNED WITH PLENTY OF HIDING PLACES AND MULTIPLE PATHWAYS
    Failing all those options you can simply do your best to scuttle your way around the Sevastopol, moving from cover to cover. It’s a fantastic labyrinth like structure of long corridors and small cramped rooms, creating an atmosphere conducive to fear, and is as immersive as it is unsettling. The levels are intricately designed with plenty of hiding places and multiple pathways to your goals. It’s full of malfunctioning systems and broken doors, eerie noises in the distance, and the lights flicker
    and fade, or fail altogether. Ridley Scott’s low-fi vision of the future is perfectly captured, and everything from the green scan lined CRT monitors to the clunky push button machinery looks like it's plucked straight from the Nostromo itself.

    The game often has you returning to the same locations you’ve previously visited much later in the plot, and though some might bemoan and malign this feeling of backtracking, it does a great job of making the space station feel more like a real setting rather than a series of pre-designed maps haphazardly strung together in an arbitrary sequence. Also you’re usually coming back with a new set of tools and gadgets that can open up new rooms and passageways.

    JUST LIKE MOM
    However, Alien: Isolation does have a few minor problems. Firstly, the story runs a little bit long, and particularly towards the end of the game the cautious stealth approach required to bypass threats often feels at odds with the mounting narrative tension. While some of the later plot developments and supporting characters will urge you to make haste and rush towards your goals, the best course of action for survival is to entirely ignore the situation at hand and the pleas of your allies, and merely take your time.

    The other problem is that after a while, with the tension rarely subsiding, the near ever present threat of the alien loses its impact and becomes just another obstacle to overcome. It’s a bit like having the volume permanently cranked up to eleven on a speaker after a while you just get used to things being loud, and a few shrill high notes here and here will soon fail to startle.

    The plot can also feel, at times, more like a derivative homage to source material than a unique story in its own right, following a predictable slow burning path where everything that could possibly go wrong for Amanda does indeed go wrong, meanwhile the nefarious corporations work behind the scenes to ensure their economic interests are preserved at the expense of human life.

    That aside, Alien: Isolation does an amazing job of building an attachment between the player and Amanda. She inherits a lot of Ellen Ripley’s characteristic resilience, but there’s a real sense throughout the game that she remains emotionally damaged by the loss of her mother at such a young age, with her voice trembling whenever she is mentioned. Keeping with the title, most of the game is spent with the younger Ripley frightened and alone, and she has limited contact with her allies. It really helps to build a sense of immersion, as she, like us, does her best to outlast the unrelenting and remorseless xenomorph. It’s a near faultless story-driven experience, full of heart-pounding thrills, a nuanced stealth based core gameplay, and brilliant characterisation.

    CREW EXPENDABLE AND LAST SURVIVOR
    Following the main story there’s plenty of optional content to enjoy, with a timed score and objective based Survivor Mode pitting players against Alien in a locked-down section of the Sevastopol. There are also a couple of DLC missions, with Crew Expendible and Last Survivor allowing you to play out the final moments of the Nostromo’s voyage.

    LOW-FI TECH, HI-FI SOUND
    Alien: Isolation also features a fantastic soundtrack of fully orchestrated original music inspired by the film, with the score dynamically adapting depending on what’s going on in the environment and cuing emotional responses. But perhaps best of all the music will often dissipate, leaving nothing but the chilling sounds of the alien in the distance

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