Alien: Isolation is not a fun game. Thankfully, it’s also a great game, and no, that’s not an oxymoron. At least it doesn’t have to be.
For some time now, game makers have had access to budgets and technology that would allow them to craft experiences as varied and sophisticated as you might see in film, TV or any other medium, but have been held back by the fact that many still see video games as sophisticated electronic toys. Video games are allowed to occasionally scare us or tug at our heartstrings, but beneath that, at the mechanical level, they’re still expected to delight our caveman brains that like making things bounce around and go boom. Underneath the grimy exterior of a Resident Evil or The Last of Us, the simple, eager to please heart of a Mario game still beats.
It turns out we actually owe Aliens: Colonial Marines a debt of gratitude. That game was so apocalyptically, embarrassingly bad, it forced Sega to do something unprecedented (at least in the mainstream gaming sphere). In order to erase their crime against games from our memory, they let developer The Creative Assembly make a horror game that wasn’t just scary on the surface, but terrifying and unpleasant right down to its core.
I’m not exactly sure how Creative Assembly achieved it, but the feeling of claustrophobia almost never lifts from Alien: Isolation, even when the corridors and small offices occasionally give way to larger areas. A thick, hazy atmosphere permeates the air, characters are all coated in an clammy, sticky sheen during cutscenes and your vision is, all too often, blurred, obscured or distorted. Unlike, say, The Last of Us, where you’re frequently compelled to stop and take in the technically brilliant loveliness of Naughty Dog’s post apocalyptic world, you won’t want to do anything but escape Alien: Isolation’s nightmarish sweat box as quickly and efficiently as possible. There’s no petting the giraffes moment here.
It’s never worth f*cking with these guys.
Alien: Isolation doggedly refuses to serve up cheap, violent gratification. A lot of survival horror games start you in a vulnerable state, but once you get the grenade launcher or Magnum in Resident Evil (or its many imitators) it’s a blood-soaked free-for-all. You never leave that vulnerable state in Alien: Isolation. The Alien is invincible, and the game’s creepy Worker Joe androids may as well be. Humans on the other hand, are almost too easy to kill. The number of enemies I’ve killed during my time with Alien: Isolation could be counted on one hand — my revolver sits unused and unloved in my inventory. Violence is usually unsatisfying and almost always a bad strategic choice in this game.