Thanks to a slick opening that includes nostalgic narration and busted-tracking-on-the-VCR visual effects, the first five minutes of Alien: Isolation are far and away better than any piece of last year’s dreadfully disappointing Aliens: Colonial Marines. But by the end of the 15 to 20 hours I spent with the Xenomorph survival horror show, I wish I’d stopped after the first half-dozen. That’s not to say Isolation is anywhere near as bad as Colonial Marines, but its crime is equally egregious: it is a great idea that, in practice, not only wears out its welcome, but drags on so long that it almost completely erases any trace of the fun I once had. Which is a whole different form of horror than I was expecting.
Isolation impresses out of the gate not only due to the aforementioned intro, but because its art direction and sound design dutifully nail the vibe of Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film. I can’t stress this enough. From the DOS-based “futuristic” computers and their scan-lined CRT monitors to the fear-enhancing, violin-screeched orchestral score, Isolation clearly did its homework in the A/V department. My favorite aspect of the presentation is the atmospheric use of fog. From wisps of smoke that billow out of air vents to clouds of white mist that obscure your vision when you rewire an area’s life-support systems in order to aid your stealthy objectives, Isolation certainly looks and sounds like a part of the Alien universe.
Considering this is a survival horror game, it takes a bit longer than I expected for the alien to show up and cause trouble. I wrote off not feeling threatened for the first hour, though, because it seemed only fair to give Isolation time to lay a foundation and establish its setting, tone, premise, and characters. Amanda is likable, with a clearly defined tough-as-nails personality befitting of her mother, Ellen Ripley.
Once the Xenomorph does start stalking you through the dark and creepy Sevastopol space station, Isolation hits its stride. It is an absolutely stressful game to play - by design. About 99% of your hunter’s movements and actions are unscripted, so you genuinely never know if it’s going to leave you alone for minutes at a time, crawl into the ventilation ducts in the ceiling and then immediately drop back down, or sniff around the room you’re hiding in for three minutes, forcing you to wait it out. The slightest sound, light source, or sight of you will cause the serial-murdering lifeform to charge and kill you. It’s impervious to your weapons - be they a pistol, shotgun, flamethrower, or crafted items such as Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs. In fact, only the latter three of these can even annoy the alien enough to force it to temporarily leave the area. A slower, quieter crouched walk from locker to storage cabinet to under a desk is often the safest method of progression, but as you’ll come to learn, the alien’s unpredictability is both Isolation’s greatest strength as well as its most crippling weakness.
The typical encounter in Isolation goes like this: you get a warning pulse from your painstakingly recreated motion tracker, hear the unsettling sound of the alien spawning into the area as it drops in from an overhead air duct. You hide in a locker, storage cabinet, or under a desk, stare at your motion tracker until the creature completely leaves the area, and then you proceed as quietly as possible toward your next objective.
And for the first several hours of gameplay, that formula works to tense, satisfying effect. Yes, you’ll die - a lot. Manually activated, wall-mounted telephones are the only way to save your progress, so reaching the next one genuinely feels like a miniature victory unto itself, and getting impaled by the alien before you can pick up the receiver is a dramatic defeat. The clomping of the alien’s footsteps, the bassy whump of it skittering around in the air vents above you, its angry shrieks and hisses, having to lean back and hold your breath as it sniffs for you while you’re hiding in a locker, inches away from its acidic spittle - they all make Isolation very good at ensuring that you’re never comfortable while trying to get the hell off the Sevastopol. A handful of timed hacking minigames you must complete while the creature can be lurking anywhere are also high points of fear.
Unfortunately, the campaign mirrors the Sevastopol itself: the longer it drags on, the more it falls apart as it begins to tumble out of orbit and towards a gas giant. Ripley’s nightmare became my own as Isolation moved its goalposts back so many damn times that it was almost comical. First is an oddly extended, alien-free stretch midway through that pits you against aggro androids instead of organic terrors. Mercifully, the bots can be killed, but not without well-placed headshots from firearms that are cumbersome to reload. That, and the scares disappear without the singularly lethal force stalking you. This is not a first-person shooter, though it occasionally pretends to be.
Worse, I strongly believed that Isolation was ending on at least two separate occasions, with the second of those times even seeing the resolution of Ripley’s original motivation: to get some sort of lead or closure on her missing mother. It turned out I wasn’t even close - I had another few hours to go, but now without any real reason behind it. Your objective is a final-sounding “Escape the station” for a good eight hours or so, but with so many errands to do along the way - not to mention the incessant and irritating backtracking across the entire ship - Isolation falls into a pit of frustrating repetition from which it cannot escape.
Rather than throw a new gameplay twist at you, Isolation, like so many games before it, simply spends hours making you run a fun-less gauntlet and contend with everything it’s thrown at you so far simultaneously, including human, android, and extraterrestrial foes. Fright dissolved into frustration as I got killed from behind for the umpteenth time - even as I was crouched motionless and out of sight in an air duct. The survival-horror joy found in the campaign’s early hours is completely and permanently erased. Even when you finally - finally! - reach the end, it’s an underwhelming conclusion that doesn’t adequately pay off the 15-20 hours you just survived.
And in hindsight, playing on hard difficulty - which I only did because Isolation actually describes it as “the recommended way to experience the game” - was a terrible decision. It means the Xenomorph can get you anywhere at any time, giving you no opportunity to avoid death, and run you down if it hears so much as a pin drop. Sure, a flamethrower blast or Molotov cocktail can ward it off for a moment, but alien-repelling resources are extremely scarce.
Alien: Isolation seemed like the perfect Alien game on paper, and for the first handful of hours it even seems to deliver on its promise on the strength of its outstanding art and sound that faithfully recreates the ambiance of the classic horror film. Instead, what was the Great Xenomorphic Hope ends in another disappointment for a license loaded with interactive-entertainment potential. It’s a shame that Isolation doesn’t track stats. It may seem strange to complain that a game’s too long, but when the genuine scares of being hunted by an unstoppable predator are so diluted by repetition and padding, Isolation’s epic length really does work against it.