by Patrick Greene
For our full audio review, click here!
When Alien: Blackout was announced just days into 2019, it was met with a hurricane of bad publicity. And anyone even tangentially familiar with the gaming industry over the past few years could understand why: we’ve been told time and again that the future of gaming is mobile, and anyone who’s tried to play anything remotely “serious” on a mobile phone can tell you it’s almost always an awful experience.
I, too, cringed during the BlizzCon announcement about Diablo Immortal. I, too, boycotted Star Wars Battlefront II because the loot crate system was so clearly a cash grab.
I, too, desperately wished for a sequel to Alien: Isolation, which is not only the best Alien game ever made but one of the great survival horror experiences of our era.
And I, too, felt my stomach sink when the new Amanda Ripley game Fox had been teasing turned out to be a mobile experience looking for all the world like a Five Nights at Freddy’s clone.
But you know what? I’ve been playing Alien: Blackout in beta for nearly two weeks, and I want to go ahead and give you the bottom line right up front: it is available today for purchase on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore, and we wholeheartedly recommend you buy it.
It’s mobile for a reason
Getting the obvious out of the way—it’s cheaper to develop a mobile game, and Fox is already deep into production on the Cold Iron Studios shooter coming later this year to PC and consoles—there are actual storytelling reasons for this being a mobile experience.
In Blackout, as in Isolation, you play the role of Amanda Ripley. Having survived the nightmare aboard the Sevastopol, Amanda has been hiding in the vent systems of the abandoned Mendel space station (a Weyland-Yutani vessel). She’s hiding, of course, because she’s not entirely alone: there’s a xenomorph on board. She’s been able to survive this far by patching into security systems with a rudimentary, handheld terminal.
And here’s the first stroke of genius in Blackout: because we play entirely from a first-person perspective, and interact with our environment almost entirely through this terminal—which exists in real game space, and can be put down and picked up—our mobile devices start feeling like the terminal itself. That simple design choice engages our imagination: turn the lights off, put some good headphones on, and you’ll forget you’re playing a “mobile” game at all.
More on gameplay in a moment.
So does it “feel” like a mobile game? The answer, in my honest opinion, is not at all. There are zero microtransactions, and the developer has publicly stated that there will never be any. You aren’t incentivized to earn coins. There are no ads. You aren’t unlocking cool new hats for Amanda to wear.
It’s a completely immersive, in-universe experience from beginning to end. Even the menu designs, which are reminiscent of Alien: Isolation, feel thought-out. Minimalist, with a touch of cassette futurism.
You pay $4.99 USD once, and you get access to a full experience that I’ve personally played for more than ten hours and haven’t gotten bored of yet.
A little help from my … friends?
The game begins when a Weyland-Yutani ship carrying four crew members is forced to dock at the Mendel for supplies. Realizing this crew is her best bet for getting off the station, Amanda reaches out to them via the handheld unit. Without key components, the crew is stranded—so you quickly reach an agreement to help get the ship flight-ready in exchange for safe passage.
Luckily for the crew, Amanda is an engineer. She’s managed to restore power to sections of the ship using solar panels, but the panels only provide power for eight minutes before the system cuts out and you’re in a blackout.
Try to avoid that.
Most of the game is played via a map of whichever deck you’re trying to guide the crew through at any given time. From this map—which exists on your phone just like the overlay exists on Amanda’s portable unit—you can open and close certain doors; monitor patches of the deck via motion sensors; and scroll through a handful of security feeds. You can also check in with members of the crew, telling them to hurry up, hide, etc. You can set objectives for different crew members (which is often vital, given the ever-expanding objective lists and the consistent eight-minute cutoff). They’ll have to divide to conquer, but the second they divide things get much more complicated.
The xenomorph, which resembles our dear friend from Isolation (closely modeled on Big Chap), is genuinely terrifying. I still get a little chill when I pick him up on one of the security cameras—especially if that camera shows his tail thwipping up into a ceiling vent, where I’ll be forced to track him using nothing but my ears (all the while guiding the crew through their tasks).
And this brings me to the next little brilliant mechanic in the game: this entire time, Amanda is vulnerable. In order to use the handheld units, she has to patch in to emergency power reserves controlling door access. And to do that, she has to open the doors of whichever tunnel corridor (or room) she’s in. So in order to access the map—and to keep an eye on the crew and the Alien—Amanda has to leave herself totally vulnerable to a sneak attack.
When this happens—and it does, a lot—you typically have a matter of a second or two to figure out which direction the Alien is coming from and which door you need to close. This might not seem like much, but as the game goes on you find yourself SURROUNDED with open doors.
And as soon as you close the door, your terminal goes black. It’s been powered down. So then you’re in a situation where you have no idea where the Alien is, what your crew is up to, etc. All you can hear are distant noises of scuttling and screaming.
One of my favorite aspects of Isolation is the fact that you have to really earn your progress saves. Not only are save points far from one another, but the machines take time to operate. And you’re completely vulnerable during that process. It’s great, then, to see the developers of Blackout using that same idea in a mobile game. The terminal takes FOREVER (in reality only about two seconds) to power on again. But you are completely and utterly blind during that process. And when it’s back on, you have to race to play catch up or you will lose any idea of where the xenomorph is.
The key to advancing is keeping as many members of your crew alive as possible, and this is where I see real potential for replayability. Between my iPhone and my iPad, I have five different concurrent save files at different stages and with different crew members alive. It’s great fun to try switching up tactics—once you get a feel for how the Alien’s AI operates (it’s not as sophisticated as Isolation, but it’s quite good), you can start taking real chances. Opening and closing doors in different areas to draw attention towards regions where you’ve got a motion tracker running; telling one crew member to run into xeno-infested territory so another crew member can finish a time-sensitive task; creating Alien 3-esque channels to direct the Alien around to certain places where he’ll have fewer escape options; etc. I look forward to swapping strategies with you all. I think we’re going to have fun with this, doing speed runs etc. as we get better.
The final stages are honestly brutally difficult. I haven’t been able to keep more than one crew member alive going into the final level, and that’s made things extremely complicated. But also VERY fun. The stakes are increasingly high (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there), and the possibility of making fatal mistakes goes up quickly.
In other words: it’s a real game. You’re going to have to work at it.
The Devil in the details
One of the reasons Blackout doesn’t feel like a mobile game is the consistent attention to the production design. The sound design and the musical score are both top-notch (I would buy that soundtrack in a heartbeat). The orchestral score, composed for this project, is hauntingly evocative. If you play this without headphones on, you are going to be getting only a fraction of the full experience.
Because you’re trapped in a hole most of the time—and because the security cameras and motion sensors only give you direct monitoring capabilities for a fraction of any given map—you HAVE to use your ears to make it through. Seriously, crank up the volume. You’ll hear faint scraping sounds when the Alien’s in the ductwork; you’ll hear crew members breathe heavily when the Alien is close; you’ll hear the Mendel shuddering in the vastness of space. And you’ll hear the voice acting, which is absolutely triple-A quality. The characters are distinct, and their personalities shine through as the game progresses—making it especially fun to try beating it with different combinations of them.
And the graphics are just astounding for a mobile title. I’ve played via screen mirroring at length—casting from my iPhone to an Apple TV and a Chrome Stick—and I can’t get over how good it looks. It’s not Alien: Isolation: the Alien will occasionally change direction unnaturally, crew members’ mouths don’t move perceptibly when they interact, etc. But none of that really matters, because virtually everything you see is via a closed-circuit TV system. And when you see from Amanda’s first-person perspective, it’s extraordinarily high-quality. Textures, shading, etc. It looks like a console title.
Is it Five Nights at Ripley’s?
No. I get the comparison—and there are some direct mechanical similarities, in that security cameras play a major part and you’re vulnerable as the creature moves around—but they feel nothing alike. I enjoy FNaF to a degree. I’ll play it for ten, fifteen minutes. But Alien: Blackout is much more strategically deep, and SO much more immersive.
After one day of playing Alien: Blackout, I was prepared to give it four out of five stars. I was blown away by how much fun I was having, but I was nagged by this constant thought of “Oh, but it’s not Isolation 2. At the end of the day, we’re getting this instead.”
But having played it at length, now, I am giving it five out of five. It stands on its own, and to enjoy it for what it is is to separate it from what it isn’t.
It isn’t a sequel to Alien: Isolation. I still hold out hope that we’ll see a sequel (or a side-story from Creative Assembly) someday, and maybe we will. But that’s not what this is.
This is Alien: Blackout, and it’s fucking awesome.
Go play it and see for yourself.