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'Alien Isolation' Review: Horrifyingly Fun, Or Just Horrifying?

03/10/2014 14:00 BST | Updated 03/10/2014 22:59 BST

'Alien Isolation' is out on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC from Tuesday October 7.

Key Features:

  • Full single-player campaign
  • Available DLC set on the Nostromo (with the original cast)
  • 'Survivor mode' lets you revisit missions in new ways

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The Verdict:

'Alien Isolation' is a first-person video game inspired by Ridley Scott's 'Alien'. That probably sounds awful, because historically these games are awful.

This is different.

Yes, you're going to be running around a giant spaceship evading human looters, android enemies and one very deadly xenomorph. But you're not going to be killing much in 'Alien Isolation' - and certainly nothing extra-terrestrial.

In this game, unlike 2013's risible Colonial Marines, you're not a gun-toting soldier. You're Amanda Ripley, daughter to Ellen Ripley (of the movies). You're something of a badass but not a superhuman maniac. Not at all. This is a game about what it might actually be like to have to face down the Alien and survive.

What does this mean? It means you're alone, you're weak, and you're going to die.

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After some brilliant opening cinematics you'll find yourself stuck on a haunting, abandoned, dying space station. The craft is beautifully lit ,modelled on concepts for the original Alien movie, and it's impossible not to spend a full 60 minutes just gawping at the quality of the visuals, especially on next gen consoles. Even the rotating planet (Jupiter? maybe Jupiter) outside the windows looks incredible, until the ship decides to close the shutters with a decisive thump and lock you inside. (The ship is also a character in its own right, and you'll learn about its story and its crew gradually through 80s-style computer archives, environmental details and audio tapes scattered around the halls.)

Then, after about an hour, the alien shows up, and it begins stalking you.

You can hear it in the walls. You can sense it approaching. It hides in vents and tunnels, it beeps on your motion sensor. You can't outrun it. You can't kill it. Then you see it. It's walking slowly… seeming to test the air for your scent. You think it hasn't seen you. Then it spins, charges, and deals you one sickening blow.

Then it will kill you. Over and over. For the rest of the game.

It's terrifying. Tense, stressful and horrible. It gave me literal nightmares. The AI is clever and learns from your gameplay style and how to exploit your flaws and fears.You will hate playing it at times, and it will beat you at its own game, relentlessly, without pitch.

Andyes, you will die. You will die a lot. You will die so much you don't even care any more. because this is a hard game. Rock hard at times, even on easy. There is no auto-save, and even the save points themselves are tough to use since (a) you don't know where the alien is when you do it and (b) using it is loud, takes time, and attracts the alien. These emergency stations are also spread very far apart, meaning you'll often have to repeat quite a lot of very risky gameplay, and a fair bit of boring 'hacking' of doors and so on, just to earn the opportunity.

It's also true that the sheer amount of confrontations with the Alien eventually dulls its impact. It's not that scary when you're hiding from the Alien under a table for the 400th time, it's just sort of annoying.

The game allows you some tactical options to evade both the alien and your human enemies. First, you can hide in lockers, boxes and vents. This is horrifying, though, because the alien will still find you and the game will force you to hold your head back and stop breathing while it investigates, and then the screen turns red, and you breathe out, and then it rips you to pieces. The hiding mechanic is also ultimately frustrating, because once you're in a locker it's hard to get out and away in time to actually escape.

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There are also lots of gadgets and craftable objects you can use to help your fight against the beast, like flares, noise generators and eventually a flame thrower, which you put together from inexplicable scrap you find lying around. You even get a revolver, if you dare use it. But you shouldn't, because that will instantly attract the alien, and you will die. Which as we mentioned is sort of the point. Nothing you build or find will kill it. There is no escape.

The good thing about all of this is that the core of the game plays extremely well. You will rarely, if ever, die as a result of crappy controls or unsolvable glitches. You will always be rapt by the sense of place, atmosphere and delicately detailed environments. You will always feel pretty close to a solution to each problem, even on your tenth run at an objective, and for some players it will prove to be a hypnotic, glorious and endlessly fascinating experience.

The bad thing is that for most people it's almost certainly unplayably hard, totally unforgiving and cumulatively extremely frustrating. You'll exit your hiding place, throw a noise blaster, hear the alien run for it, then crouch around the corner and towards the safety of an elevator sure in the knowledge that you're on your way to glory. Then you'll look down and see its spike jutting through your stomach. It found you and killed you, and you won't know why. Then you'll have to replay half an hour of hiding in lockers to get back to the same point and die again.

This game is not for everyone.

Isolation is the most convincing (and best) Alien game ever made. In terms of atmospheric richness it's probably the most impressive game based on a film I've ever played. It's haunting, scary, sometimes funny and dark.

But it's also depressing, hard, brutal and vaguely upsetting. If you're not prepared to get very, very annoyed you should probably give it a miss. Which is tragic, because in a few fundamental ways, 'Alien Isolation' is one of the best games I have ever played. It is so intensely scary, atmospheric, frustrating and addictive it's almost unbearable.

The problem is that it is unbearable. For me.

After hours of gameplay, what I ultimately realised -- to my slight dismay -- is that while I love this game, and the clarity with which it recreates and expands on the core essence of the original 'Alien' film, I am just so much happier when I am not playing it.

I can't give it less than five stars - it's immaculate simulation. But it's an immaculate simulation of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming evil. For me that just wasn't, ultimately, a great way to spend my evenings.

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