You cannot “beat” Alien: Isolation. The game resists that term with all its might. You can only survive Isolation, rushing from one corner to the next, desperately hoping that what little fuel you still have in your flamethrower can drive away the creature stalking you through the darkness. The sweat on your hands makes even the basic door opening mechanics a life-or-death situation, with every noise a potential dinner bell to your pursuer. Nothing in your arsenal can kill the alien, you understand– only delay it. Death stalks between the stars and it follows the child of Ellen Ripley.
Obviously, I loved this game. Everything, from the script to the game mechanics to the level design makes you hyper-aware of your powerlessness against the alien and provides you with a constant sense of being hunted. The game follows a fairly standard design blueprint where you acquire tools that open new up areas as you progress through the game. But unlike in The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, where the tools you acquire mean player empowerment, the tools in Alien: Isolation only make you better at running away and hiding. Make no mistake, no power fantasy exists here. This game makes you excited about picking up flashlight batteries.
The only victory I can glean from the game comes from a.) surviving the experience and b.) seeing where the developers, Creative Assembly, made concessions to the second installment of the movie series, Aliens.
From the outset, the game makes it clear that it draws its inspiration from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, not Aliens. No Colonial Marines, no pulse rifles, no queen alien. But there are times when the developers create a situation for themselves where they deliberately acknowledge the legacy of my favorite action movie. For most of the game, the alien stalks you from the shadows of the industrialized space station you share, much like it does in the original film. But when you descend to the reactor core, you open the elevator doors and see something totally unlike anything else in the game, a sight that horrified my character but made me roar with joy.
Just like in Aliens, your character goes into the hive armed with a flamethrower. Just like in Aliens, you watch the floors and ceilings for any sign of a facehugger. Just like in Aliens, the creatures blend in with the walls and stalk you inside their home.
But this amazing sequence makes the critical mistake that Aliens avoids: it treats this sequence as the end of the second act, a build up to the actual climax. Aliens uses this same sequence as a climax and structurally, it works much better. Why would I want to go back to the horror and fear of Alien when I just got a taste of the action and adventure present in Aliens?
Creative Assembly deliberately made an Alien game, not an Aliens game. And that works just fine, but they run into a choice when emulating that original movie. Either they don’t acknowledge anything from the sequel, making their game a more pure successor to Ridley Scott’s original but turning off fans of the sequel (like me), or they insert sequences like the hive assault and then try and return back to their original tone after those sequences.
But just like in the movie series, when you go from Alien to Aliens, you can’t go back. Alien 3 tried rewinding the clock and while I like that movie a good deal more than most people, it still feels like a step back. Some might argue that this sense of escalation leads to a Michael Bay system of upping the stakes each time, but I would say in response that the the threat of the alien doesn’t require expansion past Aliens levels, but it also can’t go back down.
Alien: Isolation tries de-escalating in the space of a single game. After you purge the hive, you see multiple aliens burst out and escape. But only one ever stalks you at a time, even after that point! Oh sure, the whole gang of them shows up in the final scene of the game just for the sake of a dramatic reveal, but once you give me Aliens in your game, you can’t go back.
I loved Alien: Isolation. Loved it. But I hope that for their next game with the license, Creative Assembly charges forward into the territory of James Cameron’s film, rather than sticking with the original. Because this time, it’s war.