It’s been said that even in the earliest storyboards for Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien, there was a distinct intent to move away from the space opera of Star Wars and the utopian ideals of sci-fi films made within the preceding decade.
With the Destiny beta in full swing in impressive fashion, and the Asimov-inspired No Man’s Sky inspiring much excitement with its promise of inter-planetary space exploration, Creative Assembly’s foray into the Alien lore hopes to imitate the impact of its source and act as a timely reminder that even if no one can hear you, space should be a place for screaming.
After a long absence of horror in the AAA gaming market I thought I was ready to test my mental disposition on whatever monstrosities awaited me within Alien: Isolation. Thankfully, I was very wrong.
Things started off encouragingly well for an Alien enthusiast like myself with the grainy VHS-style introduction. The instantly recognizable chirps of analogue text scrolling across the screen highlighted that the game could easily have been made in a vacuum by a team that was never subjected to the canon-damaging stupidity of Gearbox’s recent aberration Alien: Colonial Marines, or it’s equally ugly cinematic sisters; Alien: Resurrection and the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs.
Look if you dare: Alien Isolation screenshots
Look if you dare: Alien Isolation screenshots
The player has collected enough materials to make a Molotov
The alien has just been alerted by the Sevastolink screen
Player is hiding from another human survivor
Player has a noise maker and is preparing to use it
Player has seen the alien and will need to hide fast
The alien has been here before
Alien walks past a victim
Isolation is drenched in the lore and aesthetic of Scott’s original vision and is a direct sequel to the unfortunate events that befell the crew of the Nostromo. As Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, you’re lost in the claustrophobic corridors of the Sevastopol, a ship that from the outside looks like a nightmarish oil rig, and inside resembles a decaying morgue decorated with abandoned bunks and kitchen tables all bathed in washed out chrome and beige plasticity.
Truly terrifying horror games rely on an iconic backdrop and in the spirit of Resident Evil’s creaking mansions and the uneasy streets of Silent Hill, the Sevastopol is a chilling prison that reciprocates feelings of dread around every corner.
The xenomorph, however, is dread made flesh (and acid). It is the singular insurmountable threat that appears in the preview alpha I was ‘treated’ to, as handguns, molotovs and even the series’ iconic flamethrower merely repel it for a fleeting moment of respite. The alien terrorised my entire playthrough with increasingly frantic blips on Amanda’s motion tracker acting as the only indication that the menace was close by.
I’m told that the dynamic AI of the hyper-sensitive alien is clever enough so that spawn points are never the same for each do-over, and any excessive noise will immediately alert it to your current whereabouts. Unlike most stealth games there is no illusion of safety once you become accustomed to the game’s technical loopholes, which gives a palpable sense of realism to the horrors within. To put it bluntly, if you’re thinking of cowering in the many lockers littered around the Sevastopal, you’d better make sure the ultimate predator didn’t see you close the door behind you.
Aside from the alien, I also encountered several humanoid inhabitants in the ships quarters, none of which I was any eager to see again. Whether it was the dead-eyed, synthetic creation or the gun-toting human survivors I wouldn’t expect a welcome party at any point upon the game’s final release.
In order to survive you’ll be relying on scraps as, in horror game tradition, ammunition is scarce and gunshots are a surefire way of attracting unwanted attention. Of much greater use are distractors, a makeshift device that when thrown emits enough noise to distract the xenomorph or even lure it towards other hostile threats. A simple flashlight becomes a key tool in the fight against the crawling shadows - although you can’t count on its batteries holding out for too long.
Materials that you gather on your crawl around the station act as components for each possible item in a real-time crafting system that is similar to that of The Last Of Us. Do you gamble on an EMP grenade to disable the android, or play it safe and patch yourself up with a medpack?
In my brief time with Alien: Isolation it portrayed itself as a tense mind-game that balances risk with survival and leaves you with physical chills. Do you cower in safety and wait for calm or attempt to sneak quietly in the darkness? Do you risk the enclosed infrastructure of vents and tunnels or run wildly towards the exit?
Whether this clever interplay between player instincts and human self-preservation can withhold a full game length is yet to be seen, but as the cold sweat on my hands began to evaporate I was left with the feeling that I might well be having a few sleepless nights upon its release this October.
And while there are unfortunately no current plans for its release to the general public, I can also safely say that the virtual reality prototype of Alien: Isolation that debuted at E3 this year is positively bonechilling. Taking full advantage of the increased positional tracking present in the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 the range of interactive movement and feeling of immersion is astonishing, so much so that a face to face with the snarling xenomorph made me physically recoil in terror. It’s a haunting experience that I’ll not soon forget, even if I’d so dearly like to.