Why 'Alien Isolation' Is the Best Sequel 'Alien' Will Ever Get

Why 'Alien Isolation' Is the Best Sequel 'Alien' Will Ever Get

'Alien: Isolation' is the only release post-'Alien' that's worthy of the original Sega

Creative Assembly's 2014 horror game purposefully and masterfully evokes the best of its source material

Creative Assembly's 2014 horror game purposefully and masterfully evokes the best of its source material

God bless Ridley Scott, for releasing, in the year the director turns 80 years old, another movie about hapless space travelers being torn to pieces by a creature that looks – and acts – like an angry penis.

If this opening is glib it's because I am not sure that Scott's new film, Alien: Covenant, will be very good. This is based on the fact that his last Alien film, Prometheus, wasn't very good and, going further back, because none of the Alien films that have been made in the past three decades have been very good, either. In fact, since James Cameron's Aliens, the only release worthy of the name wasn't a film at all, but a game – Alien: Isolation, which showed a greater understanding of the ideas and imagery behind the xenomorph's enduring appeal than anyone in Hollywood has managed for 30 years. That's why Creative Assembly's game is, on the eve of Scott's new movie, worth another look. It's also why it's the best follow-up that Alien and Aliens are ever likely to get.

Isolation's action takes place largely on board the Sevastopol Space Station, a facility operated by a murky conglomerate called Seegson, whose stiff aspirational motto – "Tomorrow, Together" – is a knowing echo of the rival Weyland-Yutani Corps' "Building Better Worlds." The station is in disarray, a sign of Seegson's failing fortunes, a plight also reflected in the company's products – the station is filled with crash test dummy-style androids called Working Joes, and it's no wonder, we think, that Seegson is struggling when Weyland-Yutani is making synthetics with the sophistication of an Ash or a Bishop.

Isolation is a meticulous study of the look of Scott's original film. Alien has the same detail and depth of setting as the other great and influential science fiction movies imagined by wide-eyed artists and filmed by British technicians in the '60s and '70s, with their diligent practical effects and precise camerawork: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien. And Ridley Scott, an advertising man before he was a film director, is happy to let this functional future sell itself – the film opens with still and quiet shots of chunky consoles and whirring machines, of haunted spaces and industrial light.

The team at Creative Assembly seem to have absorbed this worn aesthetic of fat-keyed computer banks and hexagonal architecture whole hog. The game so observantly recreates the shadows and textures of Alien's world that anywhere you look while wandering through its metallic corridors could, with a squint, be a shot from the film. One of the most striking things about Cameron's sequel, before it explodes into an off-world war movie, is that it spends its first 30 minutes perfectly mimicking the visual style of Scott's film. Isolation does the same, capturing the atmosphere of Alien as a first step to delivering a worthy sequel.

And from making it look like we're in the film, it's only a short step to making us feel that way, too. Isolation is a game in the lean, uncompromising mode of Scott's original, rather than Cameron's follow-up. From the moment the alien arrives, unfurling itself from an opening in the ceiling, it is the dominant force of the piece, not so much an enemy to be fought as death personified in a pointy body with too many mouths.The game might give us weapons – a revolver, a flamethrower – but the creature can't be killed, just delayed, and this isn't a game about fighting so much as survival and escape.

Isolation's master stroke is that its creature is unscripted. It patrols and lurks, the pixel-perfect gangways echoing with ominous growls and thuds, and it reacts to noise, bearing down on tripped alarms or even heavy footfalls. This can be a little frustrating – there's never a sure-fire solution to any given scenario – but it also gives each encounter a dread thrill, a sense of battling something menacing and alive. There are few games happy to leave players feeling so underpowered – the paranoid temptation is to keep your motion tracker in view at all times, which can be deadly as the creature can hear the machine's pings, or to simply hide in a locker and wait for it to go away. There is no relief, no gradually acquired superiority, just you, forcing yourself to problem-solve a way past an unstoppable terror.

If the game is an atmospheric fit with the first film, it's a thematic continuation of the second. Initially, Isolation's decision to focus on Ellen Ripley's daughter Amanda feels emblematic of the relationship between games and film – the less-glamorous medium clinging to the coattails of its Hollywood cousin, keen for a connection no matter how tenuous. But it fits. In Aliens, Ripley finds a daughter to replace the one – we discover in the film's director's cut – that she lost while drifting through space, and the sexual imagery of the first film resolves itself into a sort of weaponised motherhood, with a relentless Ripley facing off against the alien queen. How appropriate, then, that our new hero should be connected to Ellen through the key Alien themes of maternity and inheritance, drawn into danger by her own relentless search for her mother.

This is, at any rate, a part of the Alien chronology I'd much rather explore than Alien 3 or, for that matter, Alien: The Rest Of Them. I've recently re-watched the Alien films in order, and by the end of Aliens, Ripley has been beaten and terrorized for over four hours, before escaping with her new surrogate family. At this point, I simply have no appetite to watch Ripley suffer any further, in response to which Alien 3 murders her loved ones in their sleep and sends her to a hellish prison planet populated by genetic mutants predisposed to attacking women.

Alien: Isolation is the counterweight to all this folly, as though someone took a hard look at everything that happened to the series after the first two films and said "Okay. Or…" Suddenly, Isolation's idea to leave Ripley drifting through space, to introduce the daughter she never got the chance to raise, seems elegant and merciful. It is a game that does right by Ellen Ripley by letting her rest. It is good to get to know Amanda just a little. And there's a cold comfort in the fact that, even though they've been pulled apart by time and technology, Ripley's daughter also faced the alien, and just like her mother, she survived.