After waiting for 30 minutes I’m lead into what can only be described as a ‘staging area’. Above me the ceiling is obscured by a soft fog. Lights are flashing around me and darkness is creeping. Stumbling through a dark door a screen greets me. Dark and flickering with static, there’s a job to do. Much like Amanda Ripley hunting for her lost mother, I volunteered. Freely, I gave my life to Alien: Isolation.
Now sitting down and taking a quick glance at the controls, the screen kicks in with a short story primer discussing the story of our protagonist in Alien: Isolation. Amanda Ripley is the daughter of the iconic Alien character Ellen Ripley who hasn’t seen or heard hide nor hair of her much-loved mother for fifteen years. Upon hearing about the flight recorder from the Nostromo being discovered at the Sevastopol trading station, Amanda volunteers to go out to investigate for the Weyland-Yutani corporation in the hunt for the lost vessel and most importantly her mother.
Just after this primer what could be described as the tutorial screeches into life. This short video introduces the mechanics available to Amanda during Alien: Isolation. Amongst the usual crouching and running controls an instantly recognizable blip can be heard accompanied by the seminal view of the Motion Detector. Franchise fans will be pleased to hear that its implementation is not just faithful, it exists as an incredible reproduction exactly as any fan might expect it to be. Instead of looking streamlined sleek and modern it sticks to the much older technological style of the films. It might have been fifteen years since Ellen Ripley left for her voyage, but technology hasn’t come along any further.
This is the very first thing you notice when playing Alien: Isolation. Creeping through the claustrophobic corridors and flickering flashs of light doesn’t feel like you’re traversing a modern representation of the precedent made by Ridley Scott’s original horror classic. You feel as though you are walking through the corridors seen in the films. Visually Alien: Isolation – at least on PC which is the version I was able to play – looks simply outstanding. I can say hand on heart this game took my breath away, one of the attendants even commented on it by tapping me on the shoulder and asking if I was okay as my lungs filled during a euphoric fit of joy.
Lighting flickers and cast shadows across objects scattered around you creating terrible voids of light, each one taking the form of a creature of nightmare. Surfaces may not be the typical Sci-fi shining sheets of composites and metals shown to us in games such as Killzone, instead being dull metals scattered with thick plastic surrounded CRT screens, but their muted sheens are even more inviting than the screenflare-filled games we are used to today. Textures are brilliantly detailed with each one looking like it not only could be used but has actually been used.
True horror is not born from what you can see, it lurks in what you can’t.
Taking your first steps through the corridors after being struck by the images in front of you the audio kicks in. Amanda’s footsteps ring around the metallic surroundings with an almost frightening level of reality. Added to these smaller beats are the thumps and scrapes of a poorly maintained space-station creaking around you. The only thing I can say about this to even do the sound justice is imagine two pieces of sheet metal being scratched along one another. You know that slight jolt you get in your bones at the high pitched and discordant sound? Alien: Isolation brings on this feeling deep inside your skeleton.
The second best part of Alien: Isolation’s sound design is how certain noises can imbue fear with no visual stimuli. After making my way into a small clearing, complete with the disemboweled corpse of a less fortunate soul, a hiss pierces the air behind me. With my heart already pumping I crouch and instinctively bring up my motion detector. There’s nothing there though. A thought crosses my mind. Perhaps the Alien isn’t moving. Maybe it’s just sat there watching me from the dimly-lit background. After taking a quick brave pill I dare to investigate only to find something so simple the urge to slam my forehead with my clammy palm is almost unstoppable. A micro fracture hisses in the corner of the window.
Alien: Isolation doesn’t just leave you to wander around aimlessly bumping into anything that’s nailed down being scared by the sound of air escaping. The motion detector includes a small indicator to point Amanda in the right direction. It doesn’t lead you to exactly where you need to be, but it gets close enough for you to use a little brainpower to find what you’re looking for. After turning on the power Alien: Isolation decides that I’ve had enough calm nostalgia for one day. The station goes dark and a primal nemesis makes itself known. The Xenomorph hunter.
This beast is never completely visible due to the lack of light in the demo but there’s enough light to know what it is and what it wants. It’s hunting you down, trying to kill you.
The monster’s arrival kicks my motion detector from fairly passively beeping every so often to screaming at me. When you go to check the motion detector it’s not just a HUD element that pops up on screen however. You focus on it turning everything around the motion detector from being blissfully clear to horribly blurred as Amanda’s vision follows a realistic pattern of losing your clearer vision of the environment when focusing on something closer to yourself. A realistic representation of depth of field. While you’re still able to make out your environment in this fuzzy state its not clear enough for you to rely on it.
Add a darkened creaking space vessel, a creeping primal alien monster, and a reliance on a piece of technology which takes away what little you can see. The result? Heart in your mouth tension.
I’ve sat in a darkened room at home playing video games for well over a decade now. Through the time when Resident Evil was actually scary. When Silent Hill introduced the mannequin-humping Pyramid Head. Even through the more recent terror train of Outlast. With all these behind me, sitting in this room amongst thirteen of my peers is the most scared I’ve ever felt playing a game. Jump scares do show themselves to get your blood pumping but the beauty of Alien: Isolation is it learns the lesson Ridley Scott taught the world with the original Alien. True horror is not born from what you can see, it lurks in what you can’t.
Lurking alongside the horror in the shadows is perhaps a glimpse at a crafting system in Alien: Isolation. During gameplay you are able to pick up scattered objects which glow a faint orange in the area as well as hiding in storage containers and the like. Examples I found include pipes, explosives, and gasoline. We know that Alien: Isolation is going to be a weapon free zone where your task is to hide and not to fight so these are obviously not going to be used in that respect. Maybe they are going to be implemented as ways to access lockboxes to give you more items. Maybe they are even going to be used to make traps. The appearance of gasoline brings to mind the disdain Xenomorphs have for fire so perhaps it could be used as a way to stop your hunter accessing you down a certain passage. We will have to wait and see.
At the final turn during the gameplay gifted to me a brilliant sequence. Your own personal stalking nightmare uncurls from the roof in front of you and Amanda ducks into cover only to be given a close up look at that spiked tail. Her reactions both physically and vocally are astounding. She restricts her movements trying to avoid causing alarm and her voice breaks with what honestly sounds like true fear. During filming of the original Alien, actors were not told what would be happening to immortalize their terror on screen forever. It’s unlikely to be the same here but a bow has to be given to Amanda’s voice actress who does an astounding job conveying pure unbridled terror.
After this close encounter of the terrible kind you have to flee to an airlock. The station creaks around you for reasons which I won’t divulge and you’re stuck in a confined area with the Alien with only your sneaking skills to save you. Unluckily for Amanda, I’m about as sneaky as a radiator so she died several times as I got to grips with everything. Something I can say with certainty is the death sequences are fairly harrowing. Seeing the Alien’s tail spear through Amanda’s chest before wrenching itself loose in full view as she looks down at the foreign protrusion jutting from her abdomen in particular. Coming a close second is when the Xenomorph knocks her to the ground only to crawl over her terrified before that classic rasping screech pierces your eardrums and its second mouth spears forward sending the screen black.
…how this creature moves. How it stops, how it starts, how it moves with the liquidity of poison combined with the coiled ferocity of a snake.
When I managed to sneak successfully Alien: Isolation hits its stride. The motion detector is as much a help as a hindrance to your survival. Leaning around corners only to see that signature head leer around a door-frame actually made me move in my chair as I tried with all my might to get Amanda’s head out of decapitation range. Flicking the flashlight on to illuminate your destination in constant fear it will alert the Alien is as powerful a risk-reward action as it can ever get. Even hiding behind a waist high generator using the Xenomorph’s hiding place against it pulls your kidneys up into your ears. Creative Assembly captured many important things from the films but the most amazing is how this creature moves. How it stops, how it starts, how it moves with the liquidity of poison combined with the coiled ferocity of a snake.
Finally I completed the demo and all I could think was “I need more of this in my life”. It’s not in the vein of recent Alien games which have fallen well short of the mark. Gone are the laughable Aliens. Thrown to the wayside are the shoddy gun-play stages. Torn to shreds is the rulebook for making a AAA Alien game. This is what Alien fans have always wanted. I may have only played it for 10 minutes but Alien: Isolation gives the franchise life again in the video game space. Keep an eye on this one. Keep the other on the shadows.
This preview build was played at a behind closed doors event on PC at EGX Rezzed on March 28th 2014. Some details and information may be incorrect as development progresses