Review: ‘Alien: Isolation’ Is Proof Great Games Don’t Have To Be Fun

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.

Uh, thanks?

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.

Most of your time with Alien: Isolation will be spent staring at your low-resolution, Game Boy-green motion tracker. The motion tracker is a brilliant bit of misdirection — the game assures you it’s there to keep you safe, but in reality it’s the game’s greatest source of tension. The Alien is only seen in brief glimpses — you might see it, with your own eyes, for maybe 30 minutes of Alien: Isolation’s 15 hours. Most of the interaction with the Alien happens via the motion tracker’s beeps and that tiny, barely decipherable number that indicates how many feet away the monster is. 60 feet…40 feet…beep, beep, beep…is it in the vents? Is it right around the corner? Is it just to the left of the locker you’re hiding in?

Your greatest friend and enemy. 

A remarkable amount of what makes Alien: Isolation work so well happens in your own head, which is incredibly brave design choice, but also the game’s biggest bone of contention. Detractors will argue that sitting in a locker starting at what amounts to an electronic calculator for minutes at a time is boring, and yeah, if you remove all context and atmosphere from the equation, that’s true. Ripley watching the monitors in Aliens is also boring. So’s Jack Torrance sitting at his typewriter in The Shining. I suppose to some unimaginative people a motion tracker is just a motion tracker. A locker is just a locker. The alien doesn’t exist until it’s on screen, and until it shows its scaly ass, the game is boring. If you’re that kind of person, this game is not for you.

Of course Alien: Isolation isn’t perfect — no game is. The game’s map is clunky, objectives aren’t always communicated as clearly as they could be and it could be tightened up a bit. 15-hours is a good length, but a lean, mean 10 – 12 would have been better. That said, in terms of atmosphere and capturing that sense of dread you find in the best scary movies, Alien: Isolation is as close to flawless as any horror game I’ve played. Alien: Isolation isn’t just suspenseful or grotesque. It doesn’t just manage the occasional jump scare. It puts a sick knot in your stomach the way only a game that goes beyond superficial creepiness could.

But it isn’t fun. At least for fairly wide swaths it isn’t. You’ll end a typical session unsettled, red in the face and maybe a little angry, but you’re unlikely to forget anything you just played for a long time to come. Know what you’re in for before you buy — if your life demands escapist entertainment at the moment, you probably won’t have a good time with Alien: Isolation. If, on the other hand, you’re ready to truly test your nerves and, occasionally, your patience, then Alien: Isolation might just blow (then eat) your mind.

This review was based on the PS4 version, which was provided to the writer by Sega.