NOTE: This “Review” might contain some minor spoilers, but considering I only played about 30 minutes into the game, they would be VERY minor.
This is an almost not-played review of Alien Isolation. Almost not-played because I did attempt to play it, but less than 30 minutes of game time later I decided it was more entertaining to play with the cat flap. Or, to get some popcorn, a beer and pop on the original Alien DVD.
In a short and sweet and unambiguous statement: Alien Isolation is probably one of the biggest turds of a game I have come across in recent times. The fact is that 5 minutes into the game I wanted to turn it off again. I only played longer because I wanted to see more from a professional point of view. But after about half an hour I could not even use professional curiosity as an excuse to keep going.
Those of you who have read some of my other games reviews and design posts, will probably have realized by now that I have little to no patience when it comes to games. I am not a hardcore gamer that enjoys being challenged overly much. Now in my mid to late thirties I see games as a form of entertainment, I do not want to turn a game into a second job. I don’t mind thinking, and in fact I quite like it, but “puzzles” need to be presented properly and make me feel clever and good about myself to keep my interest. I consider myself an average, mainstream, gamer – and I think I am part of probably the biggest potential market share.
So I have to clarify. I THINK Alien Isolation is probably one of the biggest turds of a game that I have across in recent times, and that is because it is clearly not aimed at people like me. And that is ok! As long as Creative Assembly have consciously made a game which is not easily accessible and not very user friendly and their budget has reflected the smaller, much more niche, audience that is likely going to be attracted to the game, that’s totally fine and in fact, it’s good games like this exist! See one of my previous posts!
Having said that, essentially justifying Alien Isolation’s existence (not that they need me to justify it, but I do it anyway), I still think it’s worth taking apart the few bits and pieces of the game that I did see.
The first thing to talk about is the mixed bag of reviews the game has gotten. It was clear that the game would review well in the UK, Creative Assembly being a UK studio and with a massive Alien following and fan base in the country (in Europe in general it seems). The game fared less well across the pond, with bigger US publications generally giving itaverage reviews, highlighting some of the key pitfalls, which European publications seem to have overlooked thanks to rose-tinted spectacles.
You see in Europe we are content with old stuff. As long as the game faithfully sticks to the original canon, as long as it does not fuck with a masterpiece, as long as it gives players what they would expect from an ALIEN game, it’s gonna be pretty flawless. Add a bit of difficulty and punishing game-play elements, as well as throwing the player in the deep end and European reviewers (and to be fair a lot of European gamers) will love you for it.
In the US? Not so much. Alien is still seen as a classic, a masterpiece. But gamers of today, while aware of the movie, see it as something from 30 years ago. Which it is. Ancient. Who cares? So having a game, which really just replicates experiences and emotions and set pieces that a movie did 30 years, does not impress the average American critic nor the average American gamer. And why the fuck should it? Alien Isolation does nothing unique and new – it just copies what has been done before, and does so badly.
As much as i hate to quote Polygon, (Note: I have not read the entire article – this is a quote i took from Metacritic but felt obliged to link the entire article) but they have it spot on with this:
Alien: Isolation seems content to appear as a collage of borrowed elements from the films, with nothing new or original to say or show, eager only to get to the next reference.
And even in the short time that I played the game, that much was obvious to me.
Alien Isolation clearly is an Art driven game. Art direction, faithfulness to the original film, stands head and shoulders above all else. From materials, textures and colour palette to the actual assets, terminals, corridors and space suits – everything looks and feels authentic. It feels like you are on the Nostromo. The game is one big homage to the film and it has no identity of it’s own to speak of and it’s game-play actually suffers because of it.
The game starts with your character being brought to a massive space station, in orbit of a planet. The ship you are transported on is an exact rebuild of the Nostromo (a fact that is actually highlighted in dialogue) and the space station looks exactly like the refinery the Nostromo was towing in the film. There is no particular reason for this, but the game seems to scream “LOOK! We can rebuild what we see in a film! And we are capable of not adding any flavour and personal touch to it!”. The visual style and artistic direction simply is one of emulation and copying. The game looks good, even great at times, but where art should have allowed gameplay in, it seems to shut it out with a simple “It looks like this in the film! Tough!”.
This starts in the very first room. You, playing Ripley’s daughter (did it HAVE to be a Ripley?), wake up in an exact replica of the Nostromo cryo-sleep room. It being an exact replica of the film unfortunately means that it is extremely tight to navigate. Being told to walk around it, i did, and promptly bumped into every single sleeping chamber, bobbing camera and generally feeling like i did not want to move around.
How hard would it have been to extend the space by about 30%? Accept the fact that it’s a game and the player will walk backwards, run around and generally move through the space – not see it on a 2D screen. 99% of the players would not have noticed the difference. But of course it would not have been authentic.
The same is true for the bridge of the ship you are on at the start. It is an exact replica (as far as i can make out) of the Nostromo bridge. As is the canteen area. Same rules apply: it’s a pain in the arse to move around freely and you get stuck or snag constantly. Yes, some die hard fans of the film will appreciate the level of authenticity. But from a game-play point of view it is just very uncomfortable.
Which brings me to the next part of the game which is influenced heavily by art and actually hampers game-play. They call it “Lo-Fi”, which in theory makes sense, because that is what the film had. Believable technology, almost analogue, mechanical – it looked beautiful in the film and, more importantly, it was futuristic for the time.
Watch this clip:
“If it couldn’t have been built on the original ‘Alien’ set in 1979, it won’t be in Alien: Isolation”. Many of you might well think that’s great and admirable. But in reality I found it to be horribly limiting. It’s probably the biggest load of pretentious shit an artist can come up with. “Oh look! Not only do we not have an idea of our own, but we actually think that’s cool and hip! Never mind that it means gamers will have a harder time! Who cares! We are making an interactive movie!”.
You see I play games on consoles (predominantly), on 47 inch TV, sitting about 3 to 4 meters away from it. All these little CRT screens you see in the clip? They are tiny on my TV. The text is pixelated, hard to read and trying to decipher button prompts or text in the game gives me a headache. It might well be ok on a PC screen, with the player less than 1 meter away, but on a console device and bigger TV it simply does not work properly.
There is a fine line between authenticity and playability and Creative Assembly does not even bother toeing that line – they go authentic all the way, with not a care in the world for playability. No obvious consideration for console users. It is clear they are, and always have been a PC developer at heart.
But it is not only playability that has no place in this game. It is the game itself which really has no place in this interactive movie. I honestly think that if Creative Assembly would have had the choice, they would have preferred to make this entire project into a movie. They clearly expect the player to go about in a very linear fashion and do exactly as the content developers (I refuse to call them designers) expect them to do. The game falls apart when you do not do as you are expected to.
Take dialogue for example. Ripley initiates dialogue with a random crew member. If the player walks off during the conversation, like i did, they will still talk to each other. It does not even matter if i am 3 rooms over and there are 2 closed steel doors between me and the other character. I am still having this conversation and i can still hear it. Obviously the content creators did not want me to walk off. But i did.
Then there is inconsistency. Some objectives are marked on the map, others are not. The first 2 objectives are clearly displayed on the map (you are not told how to bring up the map though – that only happens about 30 minutes into the game, when you don’t really need the hint anymore). But then it stops with objectives, or at least some of them.Having talked to some friends who played the game, several of us were stuck when first arriving on the Sevastopol Station – we were tasked to “Find Help” and ran around in circles for 10 minutes before finding a very small crawlspace we had to go through. There was nothing marked on the map – if I had not been fucking around with the fire (trying to suicide jump into it – which I could not, thanks to invisible collision), I would never have seen it.
In the first 30 minutes of the game I have experienced more inconsistency and hampered game design than i have in any other game in the last 5 years, if not longer. Judging by videos, reviews and comments from some of my friends, the game aims and delivers an authentic Alien experience – it is an Art driven copy of a film. For that audience it will probably be a gem. For anyone else, expecting to have proper game-play mechanics, for game-play to take the lead from time to time, for usability and common sense to overwrite the requirements of copy/paste art; for those of us who want a GAME and not an interactive movie, Alien Isolation delivers nothing at all, and we better stay away from it.
If I want an Alien experience I can watch the movie. It is condensed nicely into about 2 hours. I get scared and excited and I can see all the amazing Lo-Fi. I don’t have to force myself through hours and hours of painful and un-intuitive interaction to get the same result. I’d rather just suck on an alien egg.
If Creative Assembly set out to pay homage to Alien and stay as authentic as possible with not a single fuck given to playability, they have achieved just that. It won’t be for everyone. Hopefully it’s for enough people to allow them to at least break even.
If you are a die hard Alien fan and want to be able to walk around a virtual copy of a movie set and you are also a fond of taking a cheese grater to your nipples: 9/10
If you like Alien but care more about game-play than hyper-authenticity and you also think creativity should be more than copying what came before: 3/10