Though she’s long considered one of the great cinematic heroes, Ellen Ripley has generally been a forgettable one when it comes to video games.
Steely in her beliefs yet unafraid to show emotion and a friend to felines, the character made famous by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” films possesses as much thoughtfulness as action-star bullheadedness. It’s a combustible cocktail of very human emotional traits that until recently were not easily translated into action video games.
But is it any wonder the video game industry has struggled to turn “Alien,” especially the 1979 sci-fi horror film of the same name from Ridley Scott, into a notable game? After all, it’s a story in which firing a gun at the enemy, one that bleeds corrosive acid, is essentially suicide. So guns, the favored weapon for nearly all interactive heroes, are largely useless.
“Alien: Isolation” is an attempt to strip things back, the video game equivalent of a venerable band returning to the basics. The look is straight out of 1979, complete with slow-loading computers that display blocky green text, and the feel is one that plays as a homage to the first “Alien” film. The plot is a little different, the setting is new (a space station rather than a ship), but the atmosphere is gratifyingly familiar.
In almost every respect, it’s more of a direct lineage to “Alien” than even James Cameron’s militaristic 1986 sequel “Aliens.” The genetics of Scott’s film are everywhere, including in the protagonist, Amanda Ripley (daughter of Ellen).
She has driven into an industrialized deep-space outpost in the hopes of discovering what happened to her mother and is buoyed by the hope that the flight recorder of her progenitor’s ship, the Nostromo, has resurfaced 15 years after its disappearance.
The space station is close to deserted, but not, in fact, deserted enough. Though the game’s vision of the future is born in the past — imagine, perhaps, crawling through an empty and left-to-ruin Space Mountain — it can be inspiring to explore. While the setting of “Alien: Isolation” may be bleak, it doesn’t feel impossible; the crew quarters and station logs are filled with hints of optimism at spaceflight.
This is important, as players will be spending a lot of time alone. For a large bulk of the game (the portion of the game that is quite good), it is just the player, solitary, versus the alien.
But make no mistake: It’s Amanda, and not the unmistakably H.R. Giger-designed creature, that is the star of “Alien: Isolation.” If anything, the alien can be a bit silly, sometimes chasing after a flare as if it’s a dog toy. But much like the films, the less we see of the monstrosity, the better — and the more frightening.
The most harrowing aspects of “Alien: Isolation” often involve little to nothing happening. Amanda will be walking through a corridor or crawling through vents with only an old-school motion tracker by her side. A blip, the alien, will occasionally appear on the device, and a noise, sometimes a nearby door, will suddenly open or close. “Alien: Isolation” is a difficult, stressful game, and it’s not uncommon to have Amanda spend 10 minutes simply hiding in a locker.
Doltish humans, many of whom are on the station to steal supplies, and a few too many evil corporate androids also populate the colony. Still, the development team at Creative Assembly made one very wise choice for the title: There is only one alien, and it cannot be killed.
Amanda cannot outrun the alien. Amanda cannot blast it. Amanda can fire a gun if human looters are giving her a tough time, but the noise from the bullets will likely attract the alien, which will then kill Amanda. Amanda can run away from those looters, but the noise of the footsteps will also attract the alien, which will then kill Amanda. “Alien: Isolation” is about escape, and staying silent.
Missteps occur when “Alien: Isolation” adheres too closely to its Minimalist aesthetic. In the too-few scenes in which the game pulls back to let Amanda lead a conversation, we see the ways in which her stubbornness holds back her fear. More of this, and more of Amanda’s personality, would have raised the emotional stakes and further ramped up the tension.
Though this is a first-person game from the point of view of Amanda — a rare female lead and one who is blessedly more complex than almost any of her male counterparts in a mainstream title so far in 2014 — “Alien: Isolation” still falls prey to some outmoded ideas, namely that the main character is a vessel for the player (as if I’m going to forget I’m a dude sitting on my couch). She’s more silent than not, reminding players more of Weaver’s on-screen creation than forging a new path.
As the game progresses, so do appearances by the alien. While stealth and silence remain paramount, the game is strongest in its first half, when one can go hours with only a glimpse of the creature.
It’s here where it’s clear that “Alien: Isolation” learned many lessons from “Alien,” including the most important. That is, a Ripley doesn’t need much company. Well, maybe a cat wouldn’t have hurt.
Developer: Creative Assembly
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Price: $59.99 (consoles)
Release date: Tuesday
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