The first two films in the venerable “Alien” franchise are by far the two best movies in the series. Director Ridley Scott’s 1979 original still holds up as the ultimate science fiction horror story, with its immortal tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Director James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, “Aliens,” is arguably better than the original, although it goes in another direction entirely, swapping out the moody spookiness of the first film for a high-tech action movie approach. The “Alien” franchise has spun off five more films, if you count director Scott’s unintelligible kinda-sequel “Prometheus” from a couple of years back.
In the realm of video games, the sci-fi series has found another home, with a dozen or so titles and some decidedly mixed results. The first “Alien” game was actually a Pac-Man knockoff way back in 1982, and hardcore fans have been waiting for the perfect “Alien” game ever since.
Back to basics
Hitting shelves this week for PC and console, “Alien: Isolation” ($49.99-$59.99, rated M) isn’t perfect, but it’s easily the best “Alien” game yet. A creative blend of two genres – first-person stealth and survival horror – “Isolation” succeeds by going back to basics.
In fact, it all harksback to those first two films. Previous first-person shooter and action games in the series have taken their cue from Cameron’s action-movie sequel, with hordes of lethal xenomorphs squaring off against heavily armed soldiers. Last year’s half-baked “Colonial Marines” represented the nadir of this approach.
“Isolation,” on the other hand, cues off the quieter first film and places a premium on sound design, atmosphere and a persistent ambient dread. As with the original film, there’s exactly one alien in this new story, it’s essentially indestructible, and it’s on the hunt.
The story takes place just after the events of the first film and explores an interesting time in the “Alien” mythology. Players assume the role of Amanda, daughter of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the movies), as she investigates the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
Aboard the derelict space station Sevastopol, Amanda finds the usual ruins that suggest a xenomorph is on the loose. The biggest hint is all the corpses lying around. Armed with only a few small weapons and some useful gadgets, Amanda must try to survive while uncovering what happened to Mom, to the space station, and possibly to the future of the human race.
A lot of sneaking around
The first thing you’ll notice about the new game is the retro-futuristic style that mimics the art design of the original 1979 movie. Computers and displays have that clunky, boxy ’70s look, and the whole environment is a gorgeous mess of shadows, grime, mist and the occasional curtain of alien goo dripping from the ceiling.
The interface uses minimal heads-up display elements, so you can appreciate the atmosphere as you sneak around. Your most useful tool is the motion tracking device, which indicates the proximity and general direction of any other creature within range. That could be the alien, another survivor, or – in later passages – one of several rogue androids (“synthetics”) also aboard the Sevastopol.
As the levels progress, you’ll also gather items like a blowtorch for sealing off doors, or a flamethrower to fend off trouble. But most of the time you’ll be sneaking around, very quietly, peering around corners and hiding in utility closets. Players who like more action in their first-person adventures may find this monotonous, but I loved it. The superior sound design supplements all the eerie visuals, and it’s here that “Isolation” manages to recreate the paranoia and menace of the original film.
“Isolation” isn’t an easy game, and it takes awhile to get the hang of the stealth system. The enemy AI is scary smart, with highly attuned senses, and the alien is much more powerful than you are. Direct combat is instant suicide, and even running away seldom works against the speedy creature. Prepare to die – a lot – skewered by a barbed tail or chomped by that weird fanged tongue. Hiding and sneaking are your best and only options. In later levels, you can go toe-to-toe with the synthetics, so save your energy for that.
Storywise, the game is just OK, and the incremental busy work of exploring rooms, riding elevators and accessing terminals can get tedious. Some judicious level editing in the design process would have greatly improved the pacing. But overall, “Isolation” is a successful transposition of the elements that made the first film work so well, and a good opportunity to scare yourself silly this Halloween season.