In the 35 years since Giger’s terrifying, implacable space alien first stalked the ragtag crew of the Nostromo, sequels and spin-offs have slowly but surely neutered the once unkillable beast by ignominiously twisting it into screeching, bull-rushing cannon fodder. And games have done their part to contribute to its decline, reaching an embarrassing nadir with last year’s dreary Aliens: Colonial Marines, which cemented the xenomorph’s transformation from unstoppable killer into a monster about as scary as a paper target on a firing range. But Creative Assembly has changed all that.
The key is in the title. Alien: Isolation lifts the concept of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film by stripping back pulse rifles, predaliens and power loaders, and focusing on a singular xenomorph that stalks players through the game’s creaking corridors. Dropped into the engineering overalls of Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, the story picks up fifteen years after her mother went missing as she ventures aboard the remote space station Sevastopol where the Nostromo’s black box recorder has been picked up. Unfortunately, the station has also picked up an Alien.
The majority of time in Isolation is spent crouched in the shadows, nervously studying your motion tracker for any sign of movement, while the ship’s groaning and clattering pierces the ominous silence. When the formidable Alien does emerge – slowly unfurling from a ceiling duct or rearing its head around a corner in an air vent – it’s a moment of terrifying, immobilising fear.
You can’t defeat it. Instead, survival is a nerve-shredding ordeal, ushering the player to silently retreat into a locker or use the surroundings to create a temporary distraction. Keeping your approach varied is integral to staying alive, as the Alien’s impressively intelligent AI learns from your actions and demonstrates progressively unpredictable behaviour.
These encounters occur in self-contained, dimly-lit environs of varying size. Some are populated with malfunctioning androids and others with hostile survivors. Using the latter as live bait is the cause of much fiendish gratification, but other less sociopathic options become available later when you’re handed a flame-thrower and given the blueprints to craft other handy gadgets.
Isolation’s greatest strength is how it sustains this unrelenting sense of tension across its sizeable campaign. While objectives are rudimentary in nature (mostly involving re-booting defunct systems), the staging is credible and authentic, taking small steps towards its big shocks and predictable narrative twists. In perfectly capturing the essence of Scott’s original, Creative Assembly has given us a creature to be feared again, and delivered the scariest game of the year. Prepare to scream.