You are prey. As you scrabble desperately at the floor, you hear the terrible sound of air sucked through the creature’s big, pointy teeth. You cringe in a locker, afraid to move. If it sees you, there’s no hope—you can’t run, you can’t fight, you can only pray for a quick death. Unlike previous games in the Alien series, Alien: Isolation takes it cues from the first movie, eschewing empowerment for paranoia. Weapons are almost useless, so you spend your time looking for places to hide and chances to dart forward when no one’s looking.
The game’s real contribution to the stealth genre is the titular alien. It circles hiding places, finds new routes, and even leaps back into rooms it just exited to see if you’ve emerged from hiding. Unlike the rigid pattern-walkers of other stealth games, this alien feels like an intelligent, deadly hunter, and it’s terrifying.
Like in any horror movie, the sound design is a huge part of the effect. The ship is filled with abandoned security devices that beep and whirr at guards who’re long dead. The environment’s creepily active mindlessness is a great tribute to the movie’s updating of the haunted-house genre. Even the sound of your motion tracker becomes part of the game play, as its steady beeping can be enough to alert the enemy to your position. When your tool for locating the monster can bring the monster down on you, the time you spend hiding in lockers stops being a chance to relax and becomes a series of high-pressure decisions.
Unfortunately, the mano-a-monster sections are surrounded by bog-standard “find the key to open the door” puzzles. And on the level of meat-and-potatoes game design, Isolation disappoints. Missions have unclear objectives and way too much backtracking, made more frustrating by doors that go from sealed to open for no good reason and checkpoints triggered by obscure means.
Sometimes the vague goals are an effective way of creating tension, forcing you to explore every inch of the map when every second in the open is an opportunity to be caught. But you may often find yourself more annoyed than afraid, not too scared to breathe, but instead yelling, “Where the fuck is the fucking door?!?!”
And while great strides have been made with designing the alien’s behavior, corresponding care didn’t go into the visual details. Its movement is stiff and weightless, and the humans have ragdoll physics that would’ve been unimpressive a generation ago. There’s an early scene where you witness the creature tearing through hapless humans, and it should be a terrifying preview of your own fate. Instead, it just looks like Legos being whacked with a stick.
Isolation, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, is well-served by originating with a property old enough to have deliquesced into geek culture’s soil, and it feels like the work of developers who’ve have been thinking about the perfect Alien video game since they were daydreaming in homeroom. When Isolation focuses on paying tribute to its inspiration, it beautifully evokes the sphincter-clenching thrills of the original, and it’s certainly a better translation of the material than any previous game in the series. But while it’s an effective homage, it’s not quite a great video game.