I like the way space looks in Alien: Isolation—the inky blackness of the void outside, the amber starlight spilling in through a window. It’s resplendent. But you don’t get to see much space in Alien: Isolation. Instead you get to see the monochromatic hallways of the Sevastopol space station, variously scorched and graffitied. You get to see a lot of dreary offices, abandoned and indistinguishable, as well as any number of sleek metal access tunnels, disused elevator shafts, and dimly lit vents. But what you get to see most of all in Alien: Isolation is lockers. The interiors of lockers, more specifically—person-sized coffins of the same dull gray steel, each fitted with a narrow window of horizontal slats. You’re forced to spend many hours standing in these lockers, waiting, staring ahead at the same postcard tacked to the inside door, at the same Post-it note bearing the same message—Please order more of above—stuck on every one of what must be many hundreds of lockers littered throughout the station. All you can do is get used to it.
It would be fair, I think, to describe these lockers as suffocating—intolerably so. Finding yourself relegated time and again to the Sevastopol’s invariable refuge simply isn’t interesting, let alone fun. The game is unreasonably, punishingly difficult, even on the easiest setting, to the degree that I frequently abandoned it mid-mission in frustration, returning only when I mustered the patience to soldier back in. And yet, as far as I can tell, this is all very much the point. It’s apparent that Alien: Isolation is frustrating by design. It is also unfair by design, oppressive by design, and perhaps even—frankly—unfun by design. This is a game whose chief objective is to authentically simulate the experience of surviving in the presence of a Xenomorph, the acid-blooded, razor-toothed, virtually invulnerable creature at the heart of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Fifteen hours and probably a thousand deaths later, I emerge from this simulation convinced of its accuracy: If I ever find myself alone with one of these things, it’s safe to say that I will die—swiftly and brutally.
This enlightening conclusion was reached after little more than an hour—with more than a dozen left to go. Scarcely has a game conspired so transparently to inflate its running time. Straight pathways are conveniently obstructed to redirect you along a needlessly protracted alternate route. Save points are staggered at distances just far enough apart that I often died before reaching them. Even the simplest primary objectives are divided into compartmentalized sub-objectives and diversionary tasks, as if the game were an apathetic school teacher assigning time-filling busywork. Early on, a routine quest to retrieve medical supplies for an injured companion becomes Sisyphean. You begin, naturally, by investigating a nearby medical facility—where, you expect, medical supplies will be readily found. Well, not on the Sevastopol. Instead you are introduced to a certain Dr. Kuhlman, who informs you that, while he has no medical supplies on hand, he does in fact know where to find some, if only you’ll help him with a few brief tasks…
It’s obvious where this is going. It’s a cliché of the 16-bit era—find the widget to give to the man to receive the map to find the key to open the door to the cave where the treasure is kept, and so on, ad infinitum. After recovering what the good doctor Kuhlman asks of you, by the way, you do soon come upon the hotly anticipated medical supplies. But then, the elevator you need to take breaks down, and you’re asked to find another one, and when you do it’s missing a part, which you’ll find in a nearby wing, guarded by—well, never mind. In total, primary missions 5, 6, 7, and 8 (of 18) are dedicated in their entirety to bringing medical supplies to your wounded colleague—to the completion of a single objective. It got to the point that I hardly had any idea what I was doing, or why, beyond the immediate task in front of me. Does the game intend to articulate something with this ambiguity? That the world is chaotic? That survival involves a great deal of unglamorous work?
Through all of this there remains Alien: Isolation’s main attraction: your locker-bound encounters with the Alien himself, that slobbering tumescent creeper. You first enjoy a glimpse of the jet-black baddie when it slithers down from a ceiling duct, piercing the man in front of you in a helpful demonstration of its lethality that, unsurprisingly, you narrowly escape. The Alien apparently doesn’t take this defeat very well, because from there on out, it’s after you with a vendetta, popping up periodically to chase you around whatever office or laboratory you happen to be roaming unawares at the time. Not that it proves very deft at this whole hunting business. Simply crouching under a table or, as already bemoaned, shoving yourself inside a nearby locker is usually enough to throw it off your scent, and it’s all the Alien can do to putter around the place aimlessly hoping you’ll give up and wander out.
Is any of this scary? Often, yes, insofar as I remained terrified of being killed and forced to replay the 30 minutes since the last save point. Mostly, it’s just annoying. (There are deadly androids, too—even less scary and much more annoying.) The Alien isn’t a particularly gifted hunter, but it does have certain advantages over you—namely that it is faster, stronger, and cannot be killed. If it sees you, you die. If it hears you, you die. Sometimes it doesn’t see you or hear you but you die anyway, for some reason. And all the while, you’re resigned to standing still inside a dull gray locker, hoping that the Alien will trot off long enough for you to dart out of that one into another. Horizontal slats. Picture postcards. Please order more of above. These are the perennial accoutrements of locker-bound living. If I ever see them again, it will be too soon.
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4