Alien: Isolation - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
I first played Alien: Isolation at EGX back in 2014. It was a taut, claustrophobic experience, but I didn’t die once during the twenty minute demo section I played, much to the confusion of the PR staff. I spent most of the game moving between lockers and desks, walking at a snail’s pace so I didn’t alert the alien. I bought the game off the back of that experience and, of course, never played it. It seemed like a very well-produced game, as the Game of the Show award attests, so I came into this one hopeful for something pretty special.
Fifteen Minutes In
Fifteen years after the events of the first film, Amanda Ripley has gone off with some Weyland-Yutani staff to retrieve the black box of the Nostromo, and hopefully find out what happened to her mother Ellen. The recording is on Sevastopol station, the last location that the Nostromo docked at. After Ripley wakes up on the transport ship Torrens, has a quick shower and meets the crew, Sevastopol station looms into view. It’s damaged, and a radio communication has reported there’s been a serious incident.
As intros go, the pitch is classic Alien. For all of the differences between the films (perhaps excluding Resurrection), they each did a decent job of grounding the story before things went nuts. The Torrens is a rudimentary vessel with aesthetic nods to the 1979 film’s ship, but on a smaller scale. Weyland-Yutani made things functional but rough around the edges (cost-cutting is probably why they became a ruthless megacorp in the first place) and that design is expertly recreated in Isolation. The voice acting so far has been great. Samuels and Taylor are plummy English types, the captain of the Torrens is American, obviously, and Andrea Deck — at the tender age of 20 — is doing a fine job with Ripley. I’m off to explore Sevastopol station with the Brits.
I can’t imagine anything going wrong.
Twenty Minutes In
Barely got out of the Torrens’ airlock and started a space walk before debris pummeled us. Taylor and Samuels have disappeared into space... somewhere. I managed to board the Sevastopol. Alone.
Things are going spiffingly well.
Thirty Minutes In
The cutscenes are pretty impressive for a six-year-old-game. There’s still an element of the uncanny valley about the models, but that’s something I expect will finally be ironed out in this decade.
Turns out Sevastopol station has some serious structural problems. Also, where was my welcoming party? There was no prosecco and nary a canape in sight. I’ve literally almost died. You’d think someone would have bothered to check I’m OK. It also looks like the station is manned by a bunch of Neanderthals. Graffiti everywhere. Doors locked due to a lack of electricity. Crates blocking rooms. Outrageous. This will be going in my report.
I restored one section’s power and three Sevastopol staff ran out and immediately disappeared again without so much as a “hello”.
I’m sure everything will be fine.
One Hour In
Everything is not fine. I met a Scottish chap named Axel who provided some great exposition and showed me how to melee attack people. It handles pretty clumsily and I feel helpless without a gun. This is a game that is crying out for weapons. I’m sure I’ll find some soon. Possibly not though, given this is a survival horror.
Ah yes, the horror element. It manifested in the form of an alien which impaled poor Axel before running off. Why didn’t it kill me at the same time? Not a clue. Anyway, it looks like the station is filled with crazies out for themselves. The area I’ve arrived in utilises a switching power system which means I need to route power from one place to another to access different rooms. Also, there’s a huge lobby filled with gun-toting station inhabitants who want me dead. I’m not sure why, since I could potentially be their way out. So far, the story logic is a bit iffy.
An Hour and a Half In
I spent thirty minutes trying to sneak around the lobby to pick off the four goons firing at me. I tried luring them out to the corridor before hiding in vents, but this posed two problems. Firstly, they hang around the vent entrances for an unspecified amount of time — sometimes commenting that they “know I’m here!” and not moving, sometimes sodding off after a few seconds. Secondly, getting in and out of vents is an absolute ball-ache. A combination of running to the vent, waiting for it to open, crouching and entering when prompted makes the whole ordeal painful. Add to this the fact that Ripley can only take a couple of bullets before I hit the game over screen, and the whole survival package starts to become frustrating pretty fast.
In the lobby there’s a console which lets me blast out vapour from the air-con unit to obscure things, but it only happens on the first floor. Consequently I found myself getting picked off from all over the place, while the goons congregated on the ground floor. I’m sure there is supposed to be some sort of strategy using the environment to try and take them out, but I tried numerous things including hiding behind things and under things and it made no difference. In the end I utilised the time-honoured method of gaming the system by hiding next to a solid stairwell, making some noise to lure them to my location, then smashing their face in with a wrench. This is absolutely taking advantage of what seems to be woeful AI programming and I make no apologies. Call me Mr. Cheese.
Also, when I kill one of the idiots I can pick up their revolver ammo… but no revolver. I can see the revolver they were carrying on the floor, but cannot collect it. What sort of nonsense is this? Am I supposed to fling bullets at people with my hands? Or is the game waiting to deliver a shiny revolver to me in a different location as a grand gesture?
An Hour and Forty Minutes In
Yes. Yes, it is. I found a revolver on a desk and triggered a cutscene. Yay. For every atmospheric beat there is something that breaks the immersion and reminds me that I’m playing a game. I still haven’t met the alien in actual gameplay, but now I’m faced with a series of doors all requiring different means of entry: keycards, plasma torches, ion torches… it’s a wonder anyone was able to get any work done here. I now also have a decoding device which lets me hack doors using a simple code-matching minigame. So simple, in fact, that I suspect the real challenge will be doing it when I’m under pressure.
Three Hours In
I’m torn. So far I’ve seen the alien twice, both of which were in cutscenes. The main threat has come from the frankly irritating Working Joes — androids with murder on their mind, rather than doing what they should be doing, which is fixing the damn ship. They also absorb a ridiculous amount of bullets and smacks over the head with my wrench before they go down. So, there’s a game about an alien where the alien is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps this is the “isolation” reference. Maybe the alien just wants to be left alone.
Three Hours and Ten Minutes In
I got off at a transit station and nonchalantly strolled around for about fifteen seconds before the alien appeared and ripped my face off.
Six Hours In
I think I’m up to speed with the main gameplay loop now, but it isn’t engaging. Travelling from hub to hub finding different ways to power different things (doors, terminals, vents and so on) is pretty dull. The alien stalks the corridors but is more of an inconvenience than anything truly menacing, though the music never fails to make my arse clench when the high-pitched screech of strings blasts into my ears… only for nothing to appear or happen. It’s effective, but feels cheap.
I’ve met a few people, some openly hostile, others who are barring access to areas unless I help them — and that almost always ends up worse for them. There are also odd rooms containing people who pay no attention to me wandering around, like some dialogue hasn’t been triggered even when I am literally staring them in the face. The game might be only six years old but it doesn’t feel like it’s dated well.
Additionally, the crafting system is an absolute arse. I have no idea why someone thought holding down a button to select a radial inventory followed by a bumper to craft something was a good idea. Especially when the game relies on you hiding for 75% of the time or creating tools and meds on the fly. In an open world title like Horizon Zero Dawn, that kind of controller prestidigitation was fine and actually became intuitive. Here, I am constantly checking which buttons I need to hold down and none of it feels natural. Three years is a long time in the evolution of gaming mechanics.
Fifteen Hours In
I have rerouted more power in more situations than a veteran at the National Grid. The game has been a bit of a slog, in truth. The handful of people you meet who are on your side are barely fleshed out, the history of the station is relayed through text on monochrome computers, and the subplots played out on audio files are deathly dull. Unless you find backhanders about supply exchanges scintillating, the optional elements of the game are really not worth seeking out.
Armoury-wise, things have improved so I now have a series of distracting explosives, a shotgun and a flamethrower. The alien can be scared off by this last weapon, which means that I can now run around the station with a lot less care. However, the last three hours have basically been alien-free as Working Joes have tagged in for the game’s main antagonist. My task is to run from elevator to transit to server room, or a variation on this theme, slowly ticking off the plot clichés. Friendly person turns on you? Check. Friendly person sacrifices themself for you? Check. Worse still are when mechanics arbitrarily get disabled for the sake of bumping up the difficulty. One puzzle had me following coloured cables to devices to disable them in order; the lighting was poor, but for the entirety of the puzzle — and only for this period — I couldn’t use my torch. Why? Reasons.
It feels like I’ve been playing for twice the amount of time that has actually elapsed. I don’t think this is a good thing.
Seventeen Hours In
After the obligatory jaunt around the alien’s nest — built in record time, no less — a tense stand-off with Working Joes while trying to overload a reactor core was one of the game’s highlights so far. More powerful androids appeared out of nowhere which were resistant to most weapons other than a bolt gun. For some reason, they’re wearing macs. I guess that layer of water resistance is good against stun batons, too. I’m also ignoring the fact that I had to give up all of my weapons before stumbling upon an identical set just lying around a couple of hours later. Bizarre design decisions like this combine with graphical glitches which cause dropped weapons to float in the air, resulting in a very uneven pace and the sign of a AAA game in need of some final polish.
Twenty Five Hours In
I’m done. This game was far too long. The last couple of hours were padding at its finest; one gem of a task was rerouting power (can you believe it?) to a door which then overloaded a generator, requiring more backtracking than a government declaration. Face huggers made an appearance and were infuriating in larger numbers — since the revolver’s firing time was next to useless, it forced me to use my precious flamethrower fuel to kill them. Most of the tools available to me (EMP, smoke grenade, pipe bomb, and so on) felt extraneous. Even the tracker, a tool which is supposed to aid you in keeping an eye on the alien's movements, was more of a hindrance since it could hear its usage and I achieved better results chucking a noisemaker into a room and sodding off in the opposite direction.
And worse, the plot went completely off the rails — you might want to skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers here. For the entire game, the alien killed you if you were caught. Not so at the end, where you were captured unharmed and hung up in a cocoon. Amanda, having been smashed around the ship like a human pinball as various decks exploded, somehow had the strength to break out of it. No reason was given for her life being spared. Furthermore, the alien had created an entire nest so vast in so short a space of time that you have to wonder whether xenomorphs had ever heard of sustainability. Do they eat each other if there’s no food? Is there some sort of space Deliveroo? And as for that ending… well, I was furious. How did the alien get onto the Torrens? Was it already there? Did it kill the captain? How much oxygen was in Ripley’s tank? How long passed before the ship’s light illuminated her in those final beats? So many unanswered questions, so many inexplicable developments.
In trying to ramp up the action and drama at the end, Alien: Isolation fell prey to the same thing as most horror films of this ilk: incomprehensibility, followed by a blatant set-up for a sequel which will likely never be made. The first Alien film was a bona fide classic. The second was unnecessary, but a decent action film. After that, the lore which no-one needed or asked for turned the series into a bloated mess. Sadly, Isolation did both too much and too little with the IP here, padding out a game to an inordinate length, but not filling that playtime with enough narrative interest to make it worth sticking around for. There were some fun, tense sequences but they mostly occurred when the alien was nowhere in sight. The xenomorph felt more like a nuisance than a real threat, much like Mr. X in the recent Resident Evil 3 remake.
I had high hopes for Alien: Isolation, but they were dashed after the ten-hour mark. It was pitched as a survival horror but ended up an odd hybrid of FPS and space station repair sim. Still, now it’s over at least I won’t have to reroute power to another goddamn door.
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