I'm holding my breath.
Huddled in a dark hallway in an abandoned medical facility, the only light coming from a flickering fluorescent bulb, I'm crouched with my back to the wall. There's a xenomorph walking around; I can hear it, but if I pull out my radar to pinpoint its location the alien will surely hear the beeping. That'll be the end of me. Luckily, the light is just enough to illuminate the shiny floor, and I can make out the creature's reflection as it investigates a room to my left. Now that I know exactly where it is, I slowly make my way a bit further up the hallway, and then pull out a flare, light it, and toss it down the hallway to my right. The xenomorph sprints after it, long tail dragging behind, and I stand up and run as fast as I can to the left where there's an elevator. As I hit the button to leave, I turn to see the the alien bounding in my direction, alerted by my noisy running. It’s screaming in anger. The doors shut just in time.
This is Alien: Isolation at its very best. The first-person survival horror game takes place 15 years after the original Alien film, and it aims to recreate that same sense of terror: you're stuck on a space station with a xenomorph, and you need to find a way to survive. The result is a game that’s exhilarating in its terror. There's an incredible thrill in hiding in a locker, or underneath a gurney with a dead patient's leg dangling in your face, and seeing the alien stalk by without noticing you. I held my breath every single time. Those moments are absolutely incredible, but the experience is unfortunately weighed down by a bunch of filler material that has you dealing with paranoid humans and murderous androids as well.
Alien: Isolation puts you in the role of Amanda Ripley (daughter of Ellen from the first film), who is searching for a flight recorder that will hopefully help her learn more about just what happened to her mother after the events of the first film. The recorder turns up at a space station, and Amanda heads there with a small team to see what she can learn. As you can imagine, things aren't going to well when they arrive: the station is a wreck, and the few survivors on board have become violent and desperate. The scripted story is largely forgettable, and takes a bit of a weird detour towards the end, but it does a good job of pushing you through the station where you'll constantly be hunted by the alien creature.
The xenomorph is really the core of Alien: Isolation. There's only one in the game, and the developers spent a lot of time ensuring it was as authentic as possible. The work paid off: the xenomorph is the most terrifying enemy I've ever come across in a game. It's not just that it seems so formidable — early on you have no real defense against it, though that changes a bit once you get a flamethrower — but it's cunning in a way that gaming villains typically aren’t. Those rare times when you get a good look at it, you can see it methodically investigating, using its eyes and ears to find anything that might be hiding. If there's a sound it will immediately head over to check it out, and when it sees you it leaps with terrifying precision. It genuinely feels like it's thinking. And it always seems to be thinking about killing you.
This creates a unique tension, because you never quite know when the creature will show up. It seems almost omnipresent: even when you don't know exactly where it is, and even if you've hopped in an elevator and sped to a different part of the station, it feels like it could show up at any moment. You can hear it in the vents. Early on you'll find a handheld device that lets you see where the creature is, but it only works at close range. By the time you see a blip on the radar it could already be too late. What makes the alien so smart — or at least appear that way — is that I could never really guess what it was going to do. Its actions always made sense, but were unpredictable in a way that kept me on edge.
Often when I'd die — which results in one of several gruesome death animations — I'd find the alien's behavior slightly different the next time I played. Since death was a regular occurrence, this kept the experience interesting, as each attempt was a bit different. In my case, this meant I played the game incredibly slowly, as I was terrified of being seen. On several occasions I found myself hiding under a desk for minutes at a time just hoping the alien would go away. That rarely worked. Instead, distractions like flares or hacking into the speaker system are necessary tools for diverting its attention. When in doubt, I'd pull out the flamethrower to give it an all-too-temporary scare.
It's not just the alien itself that's scary, though, it’s the entire atmosphere. Isolation looks just like the original film, with a retro, industrial take on science fiction. You'll walk through corridors that suddenly fill with steam, and the gadgets you'll use look ripped from a 30-year-old Radio Shack catalog. Even the gameplay makes things feel rugged and mechanical: you don't just push a button to hack a computer or pull a lever; they instead require multiple inputs. Everything takes a little more work, a little more time, leaving you vulnerable. Using a torch to cut open a lock is an agonizing few moments because the alien could be right behind you. Even saving — which requires punching a card into a wonderfully retro phone booth-like machine — takes time and carries the risk of death. The distinct look and feel is complemented by amazing sound design, as the space station constantly creaks and groans, creating an almost unyielding sense of unease.
When all of the elements work together, Isolation is incredible. If this was an eight-hour game that was just about escaping from a xenomorph, it might be perfect. The problem is that Isolation features a good amount of padding, and that padding is far less interesting than the core idea. Just like the solitary alien, the humans and androids on the space station are never happy to see you. Like the alien, your best bet is usually to sneak around these enemies, but doing so is tedious. (You can fight them, but bullets are scarce and gunshots make a lot of noise.)
The humans are particularly dumb, and will often stand in a single spot doing nothing for lengthy periods of time. The robots aren't quite as bad, but can be incredibly frustrating as it's virtually impossible to lose them once they've spotted you. This can sometimes force you into combat, and Isolation’s awful shooting controls make that a chore. But the main problem is that these sections lack the intensity that comes from being stalked by an alien. I was never scared when trying to find my way around a room filled with human survivors. It just felt like a stealth sequence in any other first person video game.
Isolation has numerous other issues as well. The human characters have awkward animation, and often their mouths won't even move when they're talking. The map can be difficult to read and the save points are oddly placed: sometimes I'd find myself able to save every five minutes, other times I'd be forced to replay long stretches of the game because there was no checkpoint along the way. And while the dark graphics help set the mood, they can also make it almost impossible to see certain key points like ladders or small items that you need to progress. It's almost like the developers spent so much time making the alien and the setting perfect, that other aspects of the experience ended up neglected.
The good news is that Isolation largely achieves what it set out to do despite these issues. This is a game that makes you feel like Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien film: scared, alone, and constantly on edge. I've never been so terrified by a game, for so long. No matter how many times I encountered the alien, I never felt comfortable in its presence. You need to put up with some frustratingly bland sequences to enjoy all of the good stuff, but it’s worth it. Isolation is so close to being the Alien game I always wanted that I don’t mind a few sequences where I’m forced to shoot androids with a shotgun.
Just don’t forget to breathe.
Alien: Isolation launches October 7th on the PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.