This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Alien Isolation.
Welcome back to the second week of our excursion to opposite-land, where the carpets go on the ceilings, people eat feces and poo out breakfast cereal and somehow the best games going are AAA movie franchise tie-ins, with simultaneous PC releases, so they don't have to indulge next-gen consoles and can leave them to wallow in their Jacuzzis full of stale cum. You know, whatever you think is currently the thing ruining video games, be it publishers, misogyny, social justice , Mumm-Ra or lead in the water pipes, it seems to be doing a fucking poor job of it, because games have been pretty good lately. Maybe that's the equivalent of saying "Ooh, it's a bit cold today, so much for global warming." But I digress.
Alien Isolation: I didn't put a dry heave in between that one because it's still grammatically correct without a colon. We do indeed spend a lot of time being isolated by an alien. And the other meaning is also true, the alien itself is pretty isolated. Maybe you'd have more friends, Mister Alien, if you didn't keep drooling everywhere and sexually assaulting people. I learned that in high school.
So after Aliens (HRUUH) Colonial Marines was as entertaining as pushing a television aerial into your nasal cavity and tuning it to the Antiques Roadshow, Alien Isolation has taken things back to an even earlier drawing board and as far as it's concerned, there's only one Alien film and only one alien. Anything that gets within a six foot radius of it might as well be inside a giant food processor, and "Predator" is mainly a word used by committees reassessing British children's television of the middle-late twentieth century .
Set fifteen years after the film, the now-adult daughter of Ellen Ripley, Amanda, is brought the news that a flight recorder has been recovered containing data and what happened to her mother's ship. This data is promptly sent to her in an email attachment and she gets a bit melancholy for ten minutes before getting back to Championship Manager. Not really! This is a faithful reproduction of seventies-era sci-fi, where "hi-tech" meant grimy beige panels with low-res CRT monitors jammed wherever they could fit. So the only way to see the data is to go in person to the station where it's being kept and look at it once the data alchemists have chiseled it onto a stone tablet.
I've said in recent years that AAA can't do survival horror anymore because survival horror lives or dies on subtlety and AAA games are always obliged to put the money on screen and are as subtle as a small child at a birthday party after fifteen cups of blackcurrant Fanta. But never let it be said that I can't admit it that I'm wrong, and I'll murder anyone who says otherwise.
Alien Isolation is the game Dead Space wanted to be. It's so subtle that for the first hour or two, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've mistakenly bought Angry Space People Isolation instead. There's a lingering waft of Bioshock in the air as Amanda arrives at a decrepit space station where the residents have descended into a violent, self-interested survivalism, straight from the wettest dreams of libertarians. But this failed utopia is founded not on objectivism or white supremacy, but on being piss-terrified of getting the top of your head gnawed off every time you walk under a drop ceiling.
If you think this game is starting to sound slow-moving, then you are right on so many levels. I spent more time on my hands and knees than the prostitute envoy to the mole kingdom. The game isn't above a bit of ridiculous action spectacle in the later bits, but I'd say it earns it by slowly boiling up to that point. It's big budget wearing the skin of low budget, soberly resisting the urge to speed up or extend beyond tight corridors and compromise the claustrophobic atmosphere. Not so insecure that it needs to swan about in its prettiest dress to prove that big daddy Sega loves it the most.
When the alien finally does show up, uncoiling and plopping down from the ceiling in front of you like a big drippy shit into the cereal bowl that is your life, it's almost without ceremony: no cutscene, no scripted action set piece, it just shows up and it's on you to start slowly backing away, hoping to go unnoticed like you just blindly wandered into the bathroom during granddad's birthday blumpkin. The game shines then when you're hiding under a table with thumb in mouth and cereal bowl on head, keeping one eye on the motion tracker as something thumps sluggishly around the room like it forgot what it came in here for. Organic tension-building and unscripted jump scares are made all the more effective by their unpredictability.
But it doesn't take a school playground monitor to point out that you can't just play tag for twelve hours straight, and I feel the game struggles a bit to fill the space in between the alien encounters. While the alien's having one of his lengthy coffee breaks in the green room, your main obstacle is rogue androids, also known as "We won't bring up the protocol droids from System Shock 2 if you don't!", that aren't particularly scary or interesting to avoid. They walk briskly up, throttle you for a second, then you beat them off and jog to somewhere else while they walk briskly in hot pursuit. They're more of an annoyance than a scare and they just refuse to finally bugger off from the plot.
Also, while the slow boil is initially necessary to build suspense, there continue to be overlong sections in the mid-to-late game where absolutely bugger-all happens, like the one bit where you put on a space suit, plod along an external rig, mash a few keypads and then plod all the way back. You've built suspense, Alien Isolation. It's a very nice suspense, you can stop building it now. No, I don't think it would look nicer with a conservatory! Put that trowel down before I smack you with it!
I said earlier that the game has the attitude of a lower-budget indie game, so of course it has a fucking crafting system to add an exploration element as you ransack the cupboards for old cotton reels and string. But very little is as useful as crafting one noisemaker, hurling it into the far corner of the room and then scarpering in the opposite direction.
But despite all that and being a touch overlong, Alien Isolation is worth it for the rock-solid tension. Although one last weak link as Amanda herself. She's got the same problem Lara Croft had in the Tomb Raider reboot, getting strength of character confused with, "getting enough shit kicked out of you to fill every cereal bowl in the housewares department". She spends most of her time merely reacting to a sequence of unrelated betrayals and random accidents in a run of inexplicable bad luck worthy of a gypsy curse. Making her a silent protagonist might have worked better, if only 'cause that would explain why she never says "Sure, I could go alone into hostile territory yet again to fetch your key card. But how about instead, you eat the contents of this cereal bowl?"
- His stepmother was an alien: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- So if you're having problems with xenomorphs in your drop ceiling remember to check your Alien Insulation
- *orchestral sting*