I’ve used all of my tried and tested methods of hiding which have served me well through 25 years of gaming. I’ve hid inside lockers, I’ve tip-toed behind an unwitting enemy, and I’ve slipped under a desk to learn how enemies move around and what patterns they move in. I’ve even died and memorised which direction the bad guys went when they entered the room to give me the perfect hiding place. But nothing works. My old tricks have become redundant. And that’s when it clicks: Alien Isolation is out-smarting me. It’s too clever and too evolved for the usual tactics to work. I’m going to have to act like I was actually there myself, and considering I’m being stalked by a natural born killer that’s quite a scary thought.
Alien Isolation sets you up as Ripley – not the Ellen Ripley you’ll know from the Alien films, but her daughter Amanda. It’s 15 years since the Nostromo went missing, but its black box has been traced to the Sevastopol, a run-down space station being run by a series of AI and robotic machines and computers. Ripley is part of the team sent in to see what’s going on and to retrieve the black box, but it doesn’t take long for the fear to kick in and take over completely.
Let’s not muck about here, we’ve had games that have given a bit of a fright before – the Dead Space games were buggers for it – but this is something else. Before you’ve even encountered the Alien you’re feeling on-edge, the various hiding places setting the tone for what will soon become a fight for survival. Air vents open up options to sneak around without people noticing you, but anyone who’s seen the films will know that the air vents aren’t always the ideal place to be when there’s a huge killing machine also using them as transport. You’ve got the best part of an hour before things really kick off, by which time the controls will be familiar and the idea of sneaking around will be sitting comfortably with you, but nothing – and I mean nothing – will prepare you for the 20 or so hours you’ve got ahead.
There are several things which make this scarier than it ordinarily would be. The fact that weapons don’t really do a fat lot against the robotic Working Joes and do even less against the Alien, the fact that the save points are such a distance apart that you’ll have to replay a 20 minute chunk of game which has already made you have four heart attacks, and the fact that thanks to the excellent unscripted AI there’s absolutely no way to know what’s going to happen at any given point in time. You’ve got a handful of human survivors too, but you don’t know whether they’re going to be nice to you or try to take your head off from a distance. You can find comfort in your motion tracker, but even that can work against you – looking at it changes your focus, leaving everything up ahead in an out of focus blur. You can change your focus to what’s up ahead, but then the scanner loses focus, as it would in real life. It also makes a sound, so if you’re hiding under a desk waiting for the alien to clear off and dare to take a quick peek at the scanner, you could easily alert it to your location and pretty much throw in the towel there and then. There are things you can do to help yourself – Ripley is quite adept at making flashbangs, noise makers and various other things to distract or kill bad guys, and you’ll soon find ways to hack locked doors to gain access to useful places – but it’s easy to forget this when your heart rate has doubled and you’ve lost track of where you’re even hiding.
So using your own ears is probably your best option much of the time, listening out for the scrapes, bangs and conversations going on near you, and as such you’ll benefit from strapping on a decent set of headphones to help you out. Do make sure you warn everyone in the house in advance though; being tapped on the shoulder when you’re utterly engrossed in hiding from a room full of humans doing battle with the Alien isn’t a fun moment.
Visually the game is spot on, giving a flawless version of a 1970s future which fans of the film will feel very much at home with. There’s no modern computer screens, no super-advanced weapons, just an abundance of metal, low-res monitors and dry ice. Even the sounds and music are tuned perfectly to give the feeling that you’re not far from being in the film yourself, and only serve to enhance the tension as you sneak your way around the Sevastopol. Using light and shade is a handy sneaking tool too, but whereas other stealthy games let you move unnoticed in the dark, Alien Isolation is far cleverer than that and will respond to sound and shadow changes as well. When I said your normal hiding tricks won’t work, I wasn’t joking.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy all of this though will depend on how much you enjoy feeling on the edge of your nerves and a fraction away from screaming. I had to stop playing after an hour on a couple of occasions because it just got too much, but that’s exactly what this game should be about. Hiding from a highly advanced enemy, being hunted relentlessly, doing everything you can to survive, none of that should be a calm and relaxed occasion, and Alien Isolation makes sure it’s not. It’s by far the most frightening game I’ve played, not because it constantly makes you jump, not because the enemies have 15 heads and sneeze acid at you, but because it makes you feel like you’re the one surviving. You’re using human instincts to try and outsmart intelligent enemies who don’t think or act like any AI enemies you’ll have come across before, and despite the annoyingly sparse save points and just how unforgiving the game can be it’s a very, very well made game.
If you can hold your nerve, this could be one of the best games you’ll play this year. But if you can’t handle some frustration, and can’t handle being made to leap half way out of your own skin, it’s definitely not for you.
Reviewed on PS4