Creative Assembly’s greatest challenge with Alien: Isolation was always going to be keeping the title’s gruesome game of cat and mouse interesting over the course of a complete campaign – and it would have succeeded, if it knew when to roll the credits. There’s always a cry from money conscious consumers for more content, but SEGA’s spooky jaunt through the Sevastopol space station would be a lot stronger if it had a good half of its content cut. It’s not that the white knuckle stealth action on display here is bad – at times, it’s top notch – but the padding becomes borderline comical, as the title teases you with umpteen conclusions, only to require you to turn on one more generator or to find yet another alternative route.
To be fair, we get what the Horsham-based outfit’s going for: this is supposed to be Amanda Ripley’s day from hell, and the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s cinematic alter-ego is certainly put through the figurative wringer over the course of 20-or-so nail biting hours. On board a Nostromo-inspired vessel in order to learn a little more about the disappearance of her mother following the events of Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece, the sweaty 26-year-old finds herself dragged into a story with more plot twists than an American soap opera. To be fair, there’s plenty of fan service here if you’re looking for it, much of which can be discovered on old-school computer terminals located throughout the world. Poor characterisation prevents the plot from ever really taking off, though.
Not that it matters, because the star of the show is the Sevastopol itself. Where previous Alien titles have attempted to modernise Ron Cobb’s iconic set designs, this game embraces the late 70s silliness instead, packing every inch of its pseudo-futuristic corridors with flashing light bulbs, chunky computer monitors, and yellowing plastic work stations. It culminates in a really memorable visual style, which is polished off with more smoke machines than a West End theatre – the thick clouds of volumetric gas augmenting plenty of period appropriate atmosphere. It’s a shame that you’ll spend a good chunk of the game back tracking through familiar scenery, but you’ll never really get bored of the retro theme that the developer has so lovingly adopted.
Unfortunately, the gameplay has a little less longevity. As you’d expect from any competent horror title, there’s a real slow build-up here, with the first few hours amounting to scene setting more than anything else. However, not long after your first encounter with the titular extraterrestrial, you’ll find yourself loitering beneath hospital beds and in storage lockers in order to escape from the snarling space invader. At first, this is incredibly tense: a lack of equipment coupled with intense artificial intelligence means that your only option is to hide. However, once you pass the halfway point, you’ll find yourself kitted out with Molotov cocktails and flamethrowers, and suddenly scorching the foul beast to get it to retreat becomes your primary method of survival.
It’s still really difficult, of course; one wrong move and you’ll have a new appendage protruding from your stomach – but a lot of that early tension gets lost as you become more and more capable of dealing with your eight-foot adversary’s attacks. Equipment is limited, so you do need to take some care when dealing damage, but a scavenger’s mentality will see you through the campaign without really breaking a sweat. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that the biggest source of tension comes not from the foreign foe itself, but a loss of progress; saves must be registered manually, so you’ll frequently find yourself tiptoeing from one telephone to another, desperate to log a checkpoint so that you don’t have to play through the same sequence twice.
And once you become aware of that, you’ll start to realise that the title is cheating a little. Later sections – which we won’t spoil – pit you against waves of one-hit kill antagonists, and subsequently, you’ll celebrate save points as if they’re actual escape pods. Not that Ripley will be seeing many of those, of course, because she always seems one malfunction away from safety. Strip away all of the looming threats, and the core game loop tends to hinge on missing key cards and out of action power generators. There’s a point towards the end of the torrid affair where you’ll slope through a sequence of space age offices in pursuit of an exit door, only to learn that the power’s gone out, and you have to make a second trip to where you just came from in order to turn it back on.
You can certainly sense the star rolling her eyes during these moments, as you’ll be doing the exact same thing, so it’s definitely successful at putting you in the protagonist’s industrial boots. At least it gives you more opportunity to play with the character’s makeshift toys, which can be constructed using a less elegant interpretation of The Last of Us’ crafting system. Smoke bombs, flash bangs, and other such explosives can all be fashioned from a radial menu, and, unlike in other games, these all come in handy during the course of the campaign. The title’s at its intergalactic best when you’re playing factions off each other: a Noisemaker, for example, can be used to draw the alien towards a group of looters, which will not only clear out the room, but provide you with an opportunity to slip by.
It’s a shame that you’ll be hearing a lot of repeated dialogue during these moments with human adversaries, as that can tend to destroy the atmosphere a little. In the case of the Working Joes – synthetic employees turned bad – it makes sense that they’d repeat corporate chants while going about their business, but the third or fourth time that you hear a piece of fleshy bait remark that they’re being followed, it sort of breaks the immersion a little bit. In fact, the voice acting is dire throughout, with many of the performances flat, and the animations poorly matched. Ripley does just enough heavy breathing and screaming to make you feel her plight, but the supporting cast is average at best.
The same can’t be said for the overall sound design, though, which is frankly outstanding. While the visual presentation shows signs of the game’s cross-gen development – flashy lighting effects aside – the audio is frankly phenomenal throughout, becoming one of the primary aids in your escape. Those with a good pair of headphones or a strong surround sound system will find themselves instantly at an advantage, as you can use them to place the position of enemies, and subsequently plan ahead. The scanner is useful in this instance, too, but because it can draw unnecessary attention, we actually found ourselves playing by ear a lot of the time, which is a stunning endorsement of the attention to detail lavished on this part of the production.
It’s just a shame, then, that, as mentioned, the campaign struggles to come to a timely conclusion. We don’t have a problem with a meaty single player mode – quite the contrary, in fact – but there are enough ‘one more thing’ moments in this adventure to make an Apple presentation blush. By the time that you reach the credits at the end of the escapade, you’ll be practically punching the air – and not because you’ve got off the Sevastopol with all of your limbs intact. Still, if you’re gagging for more once you've reached the finale, a Survivor mode recycles environments from the core campaign, and sees you staying alive for the sake of a leaderboards place. Of course, the amount of time that you spend here will depend almost entirely upon your desire for more of the same.
Padding is Alien: Isolation’s unfortunate undoing, as there are a few too many recycled moments throughout the course of its seemingly never-ending single player campaign. Still, when it’s on form, this is a nail biting affair, as you use sound and cunningly constructed items in order outwit your incredibly intelligent enemies. Outstanding audio and impressive art work make this more than just another bug hunt – but you’ll be rolling your eyes rather than flinching in fear at points during the outer-space escapade.