The original 1979 “Alien” film is rightfully regarded as a classic. It’s a perfect, seminal meld of science-fiction and horror. James Cameron’s 1986 follow-up “Aliens” is widely-loved, the way it shifted genres and pivoted its story and themes off the first one impressed viewers. From then on, the franchise was an absolute mess. “Alien 3” and “Alien Resurrection” were bizarre, panned tangents, the “Alien vs Predator” movies even moreso, and Ridley Scott’s prequel series has gone over over lukewarm with many. Ancillary media like comics and video games naturally leaned more to the commercial side than anything else, though they had their fair share of the bizarre too (like an honest to god Batman/Aliens crossover).
“Alien: Isolation” positions itself in opposition to all that sort of wider franchise thinking, setting its feet very firmly in the aesthetic of the original film, with some concessions to the more action-heavy overtures of the second film in terms of combat gameplay mechanics. It feels more a tribute to “Alien” in video game form, at its most successful when transposing the successes of that film into the medium of video games, at its less successful when coasting off the superficial trappings of the first two films and general fan goodwill.
Given how much the later films in the franchise, not to mention other extended media, awkwardly built off story elements of the first two films in very pointedly commercial ways, it’s commendable how faithfully and clearly the developers at Creative Assembly worked to create a story that fitted in with the first films not just in terms of plot and characters, but thematically as well. The premise of the game is that the player controls Amanda Ripley (the deceased daughter of the film series’ protagonist Ellen Ripley that was established in “Aliens”) as she investigates the disappearance of her mother, following on fifteen years after “Alien” and preceding forty-two years before “Aliens”. The connection doesn’t feel forced and the writers don’t push the link too far. Creatively, Amanda’s motivations make sense, and there’s no litany of cameos or wink-wink lines to unnecessarily keep linking it into the films.
The story is keyed more into the dehumanising corporate and the alien as representative of rape themes of the first film, while bridging into the concerns around motherhood and family bonds of the second film. It’s rare to see developers of licensed games not just perform the perfunctory plot machinations to wedge a story into a franchise with some semblance of sense, but to actually thoughtfully integrate the new story in a way that makes it structurally and thematically fit into the greater franchise.
That level of care is clearest in the game’s aesthetics. The depth of detail and accuracy to the original film’s style is stunning. It’s a gorgeous tribute, fantastic design. From the smallest environmental details, to the grand world of the Sevastopol, the game’s ship. The working class construction of the first film’s Nostromo is realised excellently here as a separate setting that fits right into that aesthetic.
The game’s actual gameplay also, for the most part, tries to feel appropriate to the first two films. The motion tracker is integrated well into the gameplay. The androids in the game are there to justify frequent combat, ever the “necessary” active gameplay mechanic to justify a game being a game at all. The androids as realised in the actual films (the first two anyway) wouldn’t make too much sense as an endless litany of villains, but the writing of the game works around this, setting the game around a company separate from the film’s Weyland-Yutani, with appropriately different (much lesser quality) androids. The game is rife with clever workarounds like this, that fit both the game itself and the wider universe neatly.
The actual weapons are mostly appropriate to the films. Nothing would feel too out of place if not for the game’s pacing…it’s so repetitive and stretched out, employing the same scenarios and gameplay mechanics over and over, that the game erodes a lot of its goodwill as it goes on. Depending on the difficulty level played, that can get very frustrating very quickly. And it’s a shame, because there’s so much the game does right, that for the most active aspect of the gameplay to almost become a handicap. What was meant to be scary and tense, and indeed was (the first few times…), becomes rote and irritating. Then the curtain falls away and what works in the game starts to feel artificial too; the seams really start to show. So, so much padding. Quick-time events. Shoehorned crafting systems. Everything so repetitive. No iteration. The shine of what the game does right wears off. It doesn’t help that the third acts descends into some outright repetition of the first film, instead of carving its own path. The game being a third (or less) of its current length would have sustained the magic, but of course that’s commercially unfeasible. A shame.
The game excels in so many areas (the appropriately lo-fi aesthetic, the sound design, the atmosphere for much of the game, some of the writing) that it’s a shame the active gameplay wears everything down after a while. Still, a worthy effort and a uniquely strong experience for a licensed game. Three motion trackers, and a flamethrower.