On the cinema screen we’ve ricocheted from disappointing movie sequels, to the utterly wrong-headed Aliens vs Predator, to Ridley Scott’s inexplicably dumb Prometheus. There have been some half-decent stabs at Alien games, but that run ended last year with the half-baked, and ill-finished, Aliens: Colonial Marines. It was the gaming equivalent of opening up a Big Mac to find just a couple of burgers with no baps, and a note saying "Sorry - we ran out of buns".
Admittedly, with the running and the shooting and the testosterone army boys and the phallic hardware and that, Aliens certainly lends itself more naturally to video games than its predecessor.
Now Alien Isolation has been out a while, and everyone's sort of gone "Oooh", it’s easy to forget that it’s actually quite a brave game (although not brave in the same way as, say, someone who drags a drowning/sizzling nurse out of a burning duck pond).
This review is so late that there seems little point in recapping everything you probably already know. Except... Oh! We simply must!
In short: Alien Isolation plays as a pre-Aliens sequel to the original Alien movie. You fulfill the role of Ripley’s daughter, looking for clues to her mother’s disappearance (spoiler: she's floating in deep space, dummy). You end up stuck on some space station along with a handful of nefarious sorts, a bunch of unpleasant androids, and one deeply unpleasant alien. And so on and so forth.
It’s first-person, but it’s not a shoot ‘em up – it’s about surviving while trying to draw the minimum amount of attention to yourself. Which seems like a reasonable philosophy for life. You have to go through the usual video game nonsense of doing Thing A to unlock Door B, and while there are weapons they're not terribly useful. Ammo is in short supply, and enemies - especially the androids - are hardy, to say the least.
Heed these words: this is about as authentic a representation of the Alien universe as you’re going to get. There are none of your flat screen holographic tellies littering the setting – it’s all chunky, retro hardware.
What’s more, it gets what Alien was about - the slow build, the sudden bursts of noise, the lighting, the hisses of steam – more successfully than any game ever has done before. Character models could be better, but when there's not another human on screen it's close to perfect.
But as you probably know, Isolation’s main selling point is its alien – a creature that is driven by AI rather than pre-programmed set-pieces. it means that no two games will ever be exactly the same. Unfortunately, if world building is Isolation’s greatest strength, its titular creature - and this is a deal-breaker - might be its weakest.
The alien is smart and unstoppable – literally. You might be able to scare it off for a bit, with some flames, or distract it by making noise, but the thing is relentless. For large swathes of the playing time you’ll literally be going over the same section again and again – in part because save points are well-spaced, and in part because it just. Keeps. Killing. You.
Over and over and over and over.
We appreciate that there’s a brewing trend to make games harder. Be it Dark Souls or Hotline Miami, we’re becoming used to replaying the same bits. And that's fine. Somehow it matters less when you die in battle, and are able to enjoy the game mechanics of the repeated play-throughs.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Isolation you’ll mostly die from tip-toeing down corridors, hiding in lockers, or under hospital gurneys, praying that the damn thing doesn’t see or hear you. We hesitate only briefly before saying this: it’s boring. Boring and bit unfair.
Somehow, Alien Isolation – for all its atmosphere and - becomes an exercise in endurance, and a test of your capacity to stomach repetition. Like being force-marched over Welsh hills for a week, you might look back on it with a sense of achievement and relief, but you probably won’t be able to say you had a lot of fun. And weren't games supposed to be fun? Isn't that the whole point?
SUMMARY: Imagine hiding in a succession of different cupboards for weeks on end while being hunted by a monster. It's as much fun as that.