Alien: Isolation is a sweaty, anxiety-provoking, intense horror experience. It's also a love letter to the universe of the first— the best—Alien film, a world dense with texture and dystopian meaning, ripe for this kind of body horror.
In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, an engineer and daughter of Lt. Ellen Ripley (the star of the Alien movies). Like her mother, she's a capable, intelligent, human protagonist—someone who cares about others in her environment and uses her smarts and ability to keep a cool head to make it through increasingly hellish situations.
You need to think like Ripley to make it anywhere in this game.
That's thanks to the fatal, terrifying AI of the central alien creature stalking the station. There are other threats—cold blooded androids, desperate human survivors, the fact that the station is falling apart—but the alien is what you'll remember. It's what I remember best, hiding in lockers and under tables while it stalked the station. Praying I could complete engineering tasks quickly enough before it sensed me in a dark corner.
The creature feels dangerous and unpredictable in ways that game AI very rarely does. It feels somehow unglued from the other conventions of the game, let loose in this world. Outside of a few clearly scripted events, it seems like it really has a mind of its own—and the game can't help you if you run afoul of it.
There's also a bleak, beautifully realized world to explore here, and even the threat of meeting an untimely end couldn't stop me from seeking out every email or audio log or room that told part of this story. Like the rest of the Alien universe, the fiction is an indictment of a dark, corporate-run future, where human life is expendable, and shadowy companies run everything.
It's why Sevastapol is falling apart at the seams. It's why the terrifying cargo from the first film found its way into the station, and why the stories of the people who lived there—regular folks just trying to get by—are so affecting.
Alien Isolation is a bold vision for a AAA game in the modern era, where most big-budget games make the player practically super-powered, able to best all comers. In Isolation, Combat is rare and even more rarely a good idea. You need to use stealth and smarts to make it through Amanda Ripley's 24 (realtime) hours on Sevastapol station. It's a fantasy about survival heavy with anxiety and disempowerment. I have no idea how it passed any boardroom or budget meetings, but I'm so glad it did.
The game does have flaws—it's such a loving rendition of the universe that I got the sense the developers never wanted to leave it, and it overstays its welcome. And by the end, there are some very cheap deaths, which made for frustrating repetition.
But it's the vision that keeps the game together to its tense final moments. This is pure, uncut Alien, in game form. It's terrifying, it's hard to process, and it is brilliant.