How Alien: Isolation can change the way you play games

This week, we're highlighting the top five titles in our Game of the Year 2014 list. Alien: Isolation ranks at #3 - and here's Lucas Sullivan's take on what makes it so awesome.

I'll admit it: the only Alien movie I've seen involves Bill Paxton. Oh sure, I've picked up plenty about the legendary franchise from pop culture osmosis - facehuggers, chestbursters, how much everyone seems to despise Prometheus. But until I played Alien: Isolation, I'd never experienced the intimate terror of being trapped with a single xenomorph, as in the original movie. Unlike fellow editor Dave Houghton, I can't yet appreciate how Isolation so perfectly captures the look and feel of Ridley Scott's film, elevating the standards for licensed games to new heights (though I promise to remedy this with the power of Netflix). But even without a cinephile's perspective, I still find myself loving Alien: Isolation from purely a gamer's point of view.

Within the first hour of exploring the Sevastopol space station's ominous corridors, I had an epiphany. Isolation delivers the same sense of wonderment and immersion that defines two of my most beloved games from the past decade: the original BioShock and the Tomb Raider reboot. Unless you've already played Isolation, you might be scratching your head as to how a tense survival horror game could equal - and in some ways outdo - such gaming greats. Allow me to explain.

Let's start with Tomb Raider. Like Lara Croft's most recent iteration, Amanda Ripley is a strong-willed, relatable protagonist. Since I had very little recollection of her mother, Ellen, from the films, I had to accept this Ripley at face value: an intelligent woman with a level head and an unyielding will to survive. Like Croft, Ripley is not a violent person unless her life is on the line. But unlike in Tomb Raider, where Lara's reaction to her first kill feels like a story beat that's quickly swept aside, making Ripley bash another human's brains in with a maintenance jack felt like something more. It was a turning point - not just for the main character, but for me as a player.

See, I had intended to play through Isolation as a pacifist. It's my usual M.O. to live and let live - that's been my preferred path in games like Dishonored, Mass Effect, and Deus Ex. But as I learned during the very first encounter with enemies - delirious, gun-toting scavengers, in this case - Isolation made me realize that I had to kill if I was going to make it out of the Sevastopol alive. If you didn't know, Isolation is a game as brutally difficult but mechanically fair as Dark Souls 2.

Using lethal force isn't required to beat the game - I've seen the achievement/trophy to prove it, though I have neither the skill nor patience that would require. And after dying nearly a dozen times while trying to peacefully sneak by the looters, Isolation made me change my deeply ingrained habits. I killed another person to escape a dangerous situation, and there was no going back. The impact of this moment wasn't force-fed to me with some canned cutscene of Ripley in post-murder hysterics. It was driven home simply through my own self-reflection, which is an exceptionally rare feat for any game.

In fact, adopting a kill-or-be-killed attitude wasn't the only meaningful change that Isolation invoked in me. I'm usually an item hoarder, but the limitations on gadget pieces encouraged me to craft and use makeshift tools whenever possible. Isolation marks the first time I've ever willfully utilized the 'lean-look' button in a video game. My completionist instincts were soundly nullified whenever there was a threat between me and a collectible. And my main coping mechanism when playing survival horror is turning the sound way down; something about loud, abrupt noises makes me want to soil myself. But this time around, I was rocking the cranked-up headphones. Isolation's sound design is incredible, delivering so much ambience and crucial information in such smart ways.

The rhythmic clicks and whirrrs of the Sevastopol's '80s-looking machinery make the station feel like a run-down computer lab. Audio logs warp their first syllable like aging tape recorders, which sounds natural and disturbing at the same time. The soft squeak of your boots as you slowly inch past hostiles will make you instantly stop in your tracks. When you finally do encounter the alien, paying attention to the noises it makes will save your life. Hearing its raspy breath and drool dripping down from an overhead vent means that it's time to turn around, now. Stomping footsteps heighten the terror of hiding under a desk in the same room as the alien, but they also let you know when it's safe to come out - provided you can distinguish between the sound of the alien's vent crawling and ground-level skulking.

That all brings me back to the BioShock comparison: Isolation's world-building is on par with the grandiosity of your first trip to Rapture, thanks to the abundance of small details and environmental storytelling. Browsing through Sevastolink email exchanges and stumbling onto the alien's vivisected victims lets you slowly piece together what led to these horrific events, and what's next for you if you don't escape. Like Rapture, the Sevastopol balances its dark, dilapidated interior with some scenes of serene beauty. Gazing out at the sun, stars, and nearby planet feels just as breathtaking as admiring the bottom of the sea from an apartment window.

In BioShock, you very quickly learn what to expect from the opposition. Splicers will always try to kill you, while Big Daddies have a problem when you get near their Little Sister. But in Isolation, who your enemies are isn't so cut-and-dried. I remember stumbling into sight of another Sevastopol survivor, causing us to both pull out our revolvers simultaneously. Neither of us could tell what the other's intention was. We both stood there staring with our guns drawn, for what was probably five whole seconds that felt like ten minutes. I took a step forward, and he fired a shot; all I could do was return the favor with one between the eyes.

Knowing how to react to a situation is so much more comforting than uncertainty, and Isolation plays with this in a way BioShock never does. Some scavengers are perfectly happy to let you back off if they've spotted your hiding place; others will shoot you in the back of the head without warning. Working Joe androids will sometimes glitch out and choke you to death; other times, they're just as civil as their speech programs would lead to you believe (though that only makes them slightly less creepy). Unlike BioShock, where every potentially threatening entity is either an invincible ally or a kill-on-sight target, Isolation brilliantly asks you to feel out each confrontation before expending precious resources and (potentially) attracting the alien.

I could go on about Isolation's incredible bits of design. The way power outages make you feel safer while hiding in the dark instead of telegraphing a jump scare. Hacking minigames that actually seem appropriate. The way your motion tracker is a source of both terror and comfort; the former whenever there's movement nearby, the latter when you just want to alleviate a tense silence with its soothing green glow and chirp-like crackles. But really, all I'm trying to say is that you should play this game. No matter your affinity for survival horror or the film series that spawned it, Alien: Isolation does an astounding job of making you remember old favorites and break old habits.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucas likes his games like he likes his music: eclectic. With all the weird and wonderful stuff he's played over the years, the two of you are bound to feel the same way about something!
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