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Alien Isolation: Survival of the weakest

by Steven Wong, shacknews.com, Jun 27, 2014 11:00AM PDT

Alien: Isolation puts players in the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, fifteen years after the events of the first movie. She heads into space in search of her missing mother, and instead discovers an almost inherited relationship with one of the most aggressive xenomorphic life forms in the galaxy. She ends up getting trapped on a space station with the deadly alien, and her one goal is to make it out alive.

The atmosphere of Isolation is inspired by the 1979 film, where flickering monochrome CRT monitors are part of the future technology. There’s no better example of this than the iconic motion detector, which is big, clunky, and provides a small amount of useful information. It scans across a 2D plan across a narrow field right in front of you. On top of all that, its beeping can draw unwanted attention. Yet, even with all these drawbacks, the motion detector is the most useful tool you have… which is probably indicative of how screwed you are.

Playing Alien: Isolation is like going through a vicious Groundhog’s Day. This alien is no joke. It’s bigger, faster, tougher and way meaner than you. It moves unpredictably and has the single minded goal of seeking you out and ripping you apart. Isolation puts an extreme emphasis on the “survival” part of survival horror.

The playable demo starts in a small room and one simple goal: make your way to the exit. So, I started picking up everything I could see, including the teasing flamethrower. The miscellaneous hardware can be combined in an old-school adventure game sort of way into gadgets like a noisemaker to draw the alien away from you. However, you have to find a safe place to construct your tools, because the game doesn't pause while you duct tape your gear together.

It turns out that it doesn't really matter what you piece together. Even the flamethrower has very limited value, since it quickly burns through its fuel and only temporarily repels the alien before it swings back to impale you with its tail. The best way to get through the game is to keep moving, stick to the shadows, and hide whenever you can in closets and lockers. Hiding doesn't guarantee safety either, since there were plenty of times when the alien was able to hear my breathing from a distance before sniffing me out. Then it tore the door off the locker I was hiding in before tearing into me because I was a bit too slow on holding my breath.

I tried a dozen times to sneak past the alien, using different paths and strategies each time, but never managed to get very far. Each iteration was like an exploration mission, where I would locate a new tunnel or hiding spot before the alien found me and punched a hole in my skull. Despite my best efforts, I never managed to get very far in the level.

The first few tries were intense, and I tried to concentrate on every sound in an effort to make it a few feet further than my previous run. Then, at some point, fear gave way to anger. I started to resent the alien, and wanted to set up a trap, maybe using the flamethrower, to distract or mislead it. Or at least deal it some pain after it slaughtered me for the eighth time in a row. Eventually, I started to run through the motions of the level in an effort to beat the alien. Survival became an incidental condition of winning. I sought out alternate paths, pulled out the motion detector at every stop, and tried to move quickly without making too much noise to hide behind crates. Nothing worked. After a couple rounds of that, with a little more mounting anger each time, I knew that I had had enough. But even as I walked away, a part of me wanted to stay and continue trying to outsmart the alien.

Alien: Isolation certainly won’t be a game for everyone. It doesn't even have the same hardcore appeal as Dark Souls, where if you can get the right gear you’ll stand a better chance of surviving. There is no right gear in Isolation. You’re a frail human, with no combat skills or weapons, who is being hunted by a vicious monster. Perhaps the game hit on a nerve, and inadvertently became a psychological test. I probably responded the way I would in the face of any other overwhelming challenge.

The presenters in the theater demonstration appeared to do well, although even they ended up dying at least once. The presentation’s level took place in a hospital wing of a space station and was significantly more complex than the demo, and it included survivors that might be friend or foe. A man carrying a shotgun roamed the halls, and it’s only through careful observation that you can figure out if he’s likely to help or harm you. It turned out he fell into the latter category, so the presenter remained hidden from him.

There are a lot of opportunities to hide in Isolation. You can duck behind, under, or in a long list of objects. If hiding from a killer alien isn't enough stress, then finding door key cards will certainly add to it. Players will also have to search through computers for key codes, which adds a new level of tension, since there’s a chance you’ll be killed while staring at the screen.

It turns out the shotgun carrying NPC came in handy, as he distracted the alien for a few moments while Amanda tried to activate the hospital’s evacuation sequence. While manually working a series of levers and buttons, she awakens a synthetic. In Isolation, synthetics don’t look exactly like humans yet. Instead, their skin is white and rubbery, and their eyes glow. They can be helpful, but can be just as dangerous as the alien, depending on the encounter. Androids are also pretty tough to destroy. The presenter used the environment to set the synthetic on fire and it still managed to walk around for a good long while before it shut down.

Alien: Isolation captures the essence of what survival horror should be like, perhaps more so than The Evil Within. The player has access to gadgets, but they’re not very reliable. The main emphasis is on quick thinking and steering clear of potential threats until you can figure out if they’re friend or foe. The last thing you want to do is get into a combat situation.

Coping with being so helpless takes a strong mind. If you can steel yourself against a rapidly decreasing likelihood of making it through the day, then definitely check out Alien: Isolation when it releases when it releases on October 7 for the PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles.