In space, nobody might be able to hear you scream, but we’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of disappointed sighs. Fans of the Alien movies have been burned in the past, most recently by Aliens: Colonial Marines. Developer Creative Assembly is taking a refreshing approach with Alien: Isolation. Rather than mine James Cameron’s space-marine classic Aliens for inspiration, they’re going back to where it all started: Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror film, Alien.
We scratched the game’s surface in an earlier preview, but I’m going to take a deeper dive. I was able to play and watch a demo of Alien: Isolation for several hours, and I walked away confident that this could be the Alien game that actually gets it right. Here are some of the biggest reasons I’d say fans have reason to hold onto hope.
They're using the first film as an inspiration
The differences between Scott’s original movie and Cameron’s 1986 sequel couldn’t be starker. Scott introduced us to the xenomorph, a terrifying creature with a memorable way of making an entrance (this is your cue to clutch at your chest). Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley faced off against the alien monster as her crew dwindled one by one. It was slow-paced and terrifying. Aliens took a completely different approach. Instead of battling a single predatory beast, the film’s squad of United States Colonial Marines battled hundreds of the skittering abominations. It was thrilling in its own right, and it provided a template for games including Doom and Gears of War.
At this point, however, the things that made Aliens so much fun – Hudson’s panicked cries of “Game over, man,” Vasquez’s tough-girl attitude, the overall group dynamic – have been aped so much that they’ve lost much of their novelty. For whatever reason, Alien hasn’t inspired so many copycats, which opens up tremendous opportunities for devs like Creative Assembly.
The most obvious thing I saw was when my demo started was the game’s low-fi approach to technology. The art team was told not to use anything from beyond 1979 as inspiration, and that design mantra permeates everything you see. The game takes place in a place called Sevastapol Station, which features living quarters, shopping areas, medical facilities – the works. The areas I explored were filled with old-school touches, from huge push-button computers and incandescent lights to the way the game’s map UI buzzes and flickers onto the screen like a VHS tape with poor tracking. We don’t see many games using this era as inspiration, and it is an interesting change of pace.
Bug hunter, or bug hunted?
You can shelve your dreams of mowing through hordes of xenos. As Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, you’ve been trained to be an engineer. And unlike another famous video-game space engineer, I wasn’t armed with deadly equipment to help even the odds against the xenomorph. Instead, my mission was to get from point A to point B alive. It was tougher than it might sound.
The first time I played the demo, I wandered through the halls of Sevastapol Station until the xeno reared its ugly domed head. It skulked off down a hallway, and I pulled out my motion tracker to get a bead on it. I did my best to stay behind it, eventually finding a spot of cover. It wandered around for a while, clearly hunting for me. I waited, watching, trying to get a read on its patrol pattern. As it turns out, I probably could have waited all day.
Creative Assembly has built the alien (notice the singular there) to take advantage of its senses. If you run, it’ll hear your footsteps and head toward you. If you make the mistake of peeking out from cover just a bit too far, it’ll notice your head and attack. It can hear the sound of a locker closing, turning what you thought was a temporary refuge into a vertical coffin.
In other words, this alien isn’t the bullet sponge you may have grown accustomed to. Amanda will eventually become armed with weapons and traps (which can be found or crafted), but she’s still far from invulnerable. Creative Assembly says the alien will learn, too. As one example, the creature could pick up on the fact that the silence between magazine reloads indicates that Amanda is temporarily vulnerable and act accordingly.
The effects add to the experience
There’s plenty of eye candy in the game, but it does more than make everything look nice. Alien: Isolation’s lighting is impressive, creating multilayered shadows that are perfect for a xenomorph to blend into. The station’s hallways and corridors are lined with tubes and pipes, which also provide a bit of camouflage for the creature.
There were two touches that stood out in particular during my hands-on session. First, when you have your motion tracker in front of you, your gaze focuses on its low-fi screen. Everything beyond that is blurred out in a depth-of-field effect, just as it is when you’re working with something close up. Keeping track of the blip could mean the difference between staying alive a few more precious seconds or facing a game over screen, so it’s important to pay attention to the tracker. At the same time, it’s easy to see how the creature can slide into view unnoticed if you aren’t paying attention to your surroundings. Juggling focus was an unexpectedly interesting part of the demo.
The station is also well lit in some areas, and it may take a few seconds for Amanda’s eyes to adjust to the low light when she steps out. If you’ve been hit by a flash-bang in any contemporary FPS game you’ve seen similar effects. It’s handled quite naturally in Alien: Isolation, however, and I thought it was worth mentioning.
It is scary as hell
Alien: Isolation is survival horror, through and through. Though Amanda will eventually get ahold of weapons, Creative Assembly says it isn’t a shooter. I know we’ve played the role of characters who weren’t trained killers, but who just so happened to be excellent at it, so I’m curious to see how that plays out here. I can say when you’re unarmed and just trying to find sanctuary from the alien, it is one of the most tense games I’ve had the pleasure to play.
When the demo started, it felt like being tailed by Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. Once I started to realize that the alien wasn’t on a track, the experience started feeling more desperate. I settled into a groove of rushing in short bursts from cover to cover, and taking advantage of lockers for hiding spaces whenever possible. I watched a few of my co-workers try the same demo, and it was interesting to see their different approaches.
One editor stuck dangerously close to the xeno, as if taunting it. When it seemed as though the creature was onto him, he’d back up ever so slightly. It was like a tense form of dance, and it ended with a few deaths. Another made aggressive beelines for the mission objectives, pausing only to die a few times.
The creature’s unpredictability adds so much to the experience. It might take a few steps and stop, waving its head crest around as though sniffing the air for any trace of Amanda. Then it might bolt forward a few yards before slipping into a grate. I never felt comfortable being near the alien, which is exactly how things should be.
We’ve shot enough of these monsters. Maybe it’s time we fear them once again.