"Crew expendable." Few words cut so purely to the core of the Alien saga's narrative. Whatever the situation, the state of play between humans and the series' extraterrestrial menaces, "The Company" line remains simple, emotionless, and lethal.
Of all the Alien-related video games to have emerged since the original 1979 movie was adapted for a 1982-released (and Pac-Man-biting) Atari 2600 title, it's 2014's Alien: Isolation that perhaps most effectively recreates, in an interactive medium, the feeling of being a part of that crew. Of starring amongst the souls scattered amid the stars, sent out to some distant rock or shattered space station to, more than likely, one way or another, die horribly.
Isolation was a wonderful love letter to the industrial design of the first two films, all hulking great bulkheads and tight, terrifying air shafts, monochromatic computer displays and handmade tools, which found its canon position in Alien lore between the events of Ridley Scott's suspenseful Alien and its 1986, action-orientated sequel directed by James Cameron, Aliens. Casting you as Amanda Ripley, facing ostensibly a single, undefeatable alien, its sprit was absolutely in keeping with Scott's picture.
It did drag its heels though, plot wise, delivering its story across 20-something hours when it might have been more effective as a tighter, sub-eight experience. Your opinion may vary, of course—all I know is that when I set about seeing Isolation through, I didn't.
I lost interest with the initially testing but ultimately formulaic cat-and-mouse-ness of it all, the constant ducking into lockers and the numbing persistence of the threat, which ground me down after nine or so hours. Which is a real shame given my great love for the first two films, and a lot of the related media, including several video games.
I've written before about both the 16-bit Alien 3 adaptations—each unique to Sega and Nintendo systems, each special in their own ways—and the excellent DS title Infestation, which is the greatest Aliens-like (as in, it expertly echoes the second movie's mood and mayhem) game available, through 3DS backwards compatibility, for any current system. For "Alien Day", though—which it is, right now, April 26th (4/26, get it?)—I wanted to try something new. Something "authentic." Something short, sharp, and as much as I hate feeling this way with video games, scary.
Which is why I'm hunkered down in the Nostromo's server room, in the role of Captain Dallas, desperately trying to weave between points of cover, keeping any and all obstacles between me and that eight-feet-tall, acid-bleeding beast over there. While I took a fair swing at Isolation, it's only now that I've got around to downloading its two pieces of Alien-inspired DLC, Crew Expendable and Last Survivor. As brief encounters, neither is going to outstay its welcome—that problem that Isolation had, with repeating its hide-and-sneak formula ad nauseam, simply won't have time to manifest.
It makes sense to play Crew Expendable first—purely chronologically, it takes place before the events of Last Survivor, and is pitched as an alternative take on the Nostromo crew's attempt to blast their unwanted guest out into the great void of space. In the movie, it's Dallas who ventures into the ship's labyrinth of ducts, in an attempt to shepherd the creature towards an airlock—unsuccessfully, as it turns out. So, I play as Dallas, for accuracy's sake, but the DLC allows the player to choose from him, Parker or Ripley.
The latter character, who'd go on to be the central hero of the following two movies (and the antihero, I suppose, of the fourth), is the obvious star of Last Survivor, which recounts the sequence of the movie where the Nostromo is set to self-destruct—and the grisly discoveries made during it. I'm yet to play it—I'll save it for the next Alien Day, perhaps. Right now, Crew Expendable is enough to shred my nerves. I wanted authenticity, I guess, and I nearly got it.
In Alien, Dallas is, depending on the version you watch, either killed in the ventilation shafts, or captured by the beast and cocooned, as the 2003 "director's cut" shows us. In my playthrough of Crew Expendable, he violently expires in the ship's server room, a few frantic bursts from the flamethrower not enough to keep the beast at bay. Should have kept them short and controlled, huh.
I don't mind, though, as it's inevitable—Dallas doesn't make it, and Isolation being canon, one of only two video games to be so (beside the still-so-bad Colonial Marines), naturally its makers aren't going to toss too significant a spanner into the established, overarching narrative. But, being a video game, there's a second chance here. And a third. And, wouldn't you know it, a fourth.
Lambert's awful "Oh god it's moving right towards you" directional skills see my Dallas die a couple of times in the air shafts—and she's supposed to be the ship's navigator, for crying out loud. But, several minutes on from my first demise, the alien's in the airlock and we're ready to pop it and… Ah, shit. Zero closure, then, in two senses of the word.
But, again, of course that's how Crew Expendable, which only lasts about 30 minutes if you're a scaredy cat like me, and significantly less if you bolt to each waypoint without too much caution (good luck with that), is always going to play out.
It is Alien, after all, from the environment—which, as this great PC Gamer piece by Andy Kelly literally illustrates, is very close to the sets of the movie (seriously, if you're any kind of Alien nerd, go read that immediately)—through to most of the cast providing new voice-over lines, and the plot of this vignette.
And the sound. Allow me a second on that. The sound here is truly magnificent—as all the raised hairs on my arm are a testament to. From the iterant, almost antagonistic pulse of the motion tracker to the heavy scrape of metal on metal as shafts open up, the groaning and creaking of the ship, the stuttering blips and whirs of computers, the clatter of stuff just falling down, and the continuous mechanical whine of the tension-stretching "music," it's the audio of the Crew Expendable DLC that really puts you in the picture. And while we're all totally familiar with the noise the alien makes, that sinister hiss, when it cuts through the mix, coming out of the dark, nope.
Yes, the set dressing is fantastic, too—but Isolation's starting ship, the Torrens, already did a fine job of semi-replicating the Nostromo's crew quarters, which is why some of the visuals here carry with them a twofold sense of déjà vu, stirred both by first movie and main game.
But I don't think I'd want it any differently—that I wanted it to be anything but The Movie With Me In It. That's what I got, and while I was late coming to it, partially because Isolation didn't do it for me long term, I'm happy to have experienced the DLC, on a very appropriate day. Crew expendable, indeed. Something tells me, with apologies to the good, hopeful people of the Covenant colonization spacecraft, so very close to theaters, that it's always going to be that way. You have my sympathies.