The Alien: Isolation reviews dropped on Friday, and now the game is out on Steam. After a week of playing it in the dark with headphones on, I emerged back into the light and decided that I loved it. Some other critics, however, weren’t as impressed, and I was surprised by its mixed reception. Sealed away in my bubble, playing it without discussing it with anyone, I was convinced it would be a clean sweep of high scores.
This is actually a good thing. It proves that The Creative Assembly have created something interesting and worthy of critical thought and discussion. It definitely isn’t a game for everyone, with its glacial pace and focus on tension over action, but some of the criticisms I’ve read have mystified me. So I’ve decided to talk about a few of them here. I’m not saying these people are wrong, or that I know better than everyone else. I just disagree, and that’s a healthy, positive thing. I always love it when a game inspires debate among critics, and Isolation has certainly done that.
“It’s too long!”
When my editor handed me Isolation to review, I was pretty excited. I love the original film. Like, really love it. But I was still unsure about it, because I thought it might be little more than a long, gruelling game of hide-and-seek. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that, in fact, the game is full of variety and brilliantly paced.
As I say in my review, it’s constantly mixing things up to keep you engaged: removing or adding parameters to the stealth, mixing up enemy types, and shifting between different environments. I wasn’t bored once, nor did I ever feel like repetition was setting in. Games can be too long, but I never felt like Isolation outstayed its welcome. I was actually a little disappointed when it ended, because I’d fallen so hard for that world and atmosphere, and I’ll be starting my second playthrough tonight.
I really don’t understand accusations that it’s too long or that it repeats itself. I think one of its greatest strengths is that it doesn't just recycle the same set-piece over and over again. The alien is a constant threat throughout the game, but the different layout of each area you face it in, the variety of gadgets on offer, and its dynamic AI means it never feels like you’re just going through the motions.
“It’s too slow!”
As well as its overall length, some have criticised the pace of the moment-to-moment gameplay. To me, this is a serious case of not getting it. It’s a game based on a film that is itself incredibly slow. That beautiful, sustained opening shot of the Nostromo’s corridors before the crew wakes up from hypersleep. The extended sequence with Dallas in the vent shaft. The fact that you don’t see the alien itself for over an hour.
This is what makes Alien such a powerful, nerve-wracking horror film, and I think The Creative Assembly have captured that feeling perfectly. Isolation is a game designed to be played, and savoured, at a steady, careful pace. It’s a detailed, atmospheric world that demands to be absorbed and thoroughly explored.
The encounters with the alien see you inching slowly through the levels, holding your breath, trying not to make a sound, and that’s why they’re so scary. If you’re playing the game and you’re trying to rush to the end—perhaps, for instance, to get a review filed on time—you’re going to find it, inevitably, frustrating.
“The AI is unpredictable!”
Unpredictable AI can be a curse in stealth games, but it’s actually part of what makes the alien in Isolation so formidable and intimidating. It makes sense for a guard on patrol to be predictable, but a genetically-engineered, perfect killing machine? This creature is supposed to be devious and intelligent—like it was in the films—and you simply can’t create that illusion with an enemy that follows an obvious routine.
There’s an incredible amount going on in the alien’s terrifying, oblong head as it hunts you down. It actually learns from your behaviour, meaning you can’t repeatedly rely on the same techniques to outsmart it. Some have accused it of being ‘psychic’ and of magically being able to locate you. But in the 25 hours I played, I didn’t get this impression at all. If you’re meticulous and cautious, it’ll never see you. But the tension lies in the fact that you’re a fallible human, and the slightest mistake—like bumping into a chair or darting into a locker in its line of sight—will make a fool of you.
Obviously the alien isn’t actually intelligent. It is, after all, just following a set of AI routines written by some programmers in an office in Horsham. But it’s the sheer amount of reactivity that makes you think it is. Compared to your average video game enemy, who dropped out of school when it was 14 to become a juggler, the alien has a master’s degree from the School of Convincing Artificial Intelligence.
Okay, so maybe I’m the outlier here. As I type this I’m sitting atop the Metacritic listing for the game with the 93% I gave it for PC Gamer. So it’s clear I like it more than a lot of other critics. But that is, once again, a sign that this is an interesting game that's worthy of discussion.
I loved it, and I know a lot of other like-minded writers and non-writers who love it too, so I don’t think I’m completely off the mark when I say that Isolation is, so far, my game of the year. I’m genuinely interested to hear what you guys think once you’ve had a chance to play it for yourselves tonight.