Alien: Isolation Hands-on Preview - Alone in the Dark
Written Tuesday, January 07, 2014 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Imagine a proper Alien game. One where you’re vulnerable, one that’s scary, one that manages to translate the fear and tension of Ridley Scott’s original movie into an interactive experience. Imagine that.
Nobody has really done it before. We’ve had far too many video game spins on James Cameron’s more action-oriented sequel, Aliens. These games have bullets and flamethrowers and xenomorphs galore, with gung-ho marines capable of dropping iconic monsters at will, empowered and unthreatened. We’ve had that. But we’ve had precious few that make you feel alone and fragile, while quite violently crapping your pants.
Until now. Possibly. Late last year I was invited to play an unannounced title at The Creative Assembly’s offices in leafy West Sussex, England. After a short presentation I was lead into a darkened room, given headphones and a controller and left to my own devices to play what immediately became one of my most anticipated upcoming releases.
Alien: Isolation promises to be the Alien game I feel like we’ve all been waiting decades for. In the demo section I played, viewed in first-person, my character didn’t have any guns or grenades, flame-throwers or mechs. In fact she didn’t have any weapons at all. Isolated on an eerily empty spaceship, all she had for protection was a motion tracker. She needed it, because there was a single, terrifying menace lurking in the shadows.
Here’s the setup. When Ellen Ripley left Earth to work on the ill-fated space freighter Nostromo, she promised her daughter Amanda that she would return home in time for her 11th birthday. But as we know, Ripley didn’t come home, and Amanda never saw her again. Fifteen years later and now working for Weyland-Yutani, Amanda hears that the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been recovered and is being held at the remote trading station, Sevastopol. So she sets off to discover her mother’s fate. But there’s also something else there waiting for her.
I only pressed fully forward on the thumb stick once during the entirety of my time with Aliens: Isolation. I was too scared to do otherwise. Pushing further would have meant that Amanda strolled or walked briskly. Nope. Instead I crept, every step filling me with dread that it may alert the xenomorph. Wanna know what happened when I did push the stick fully forwards? I died within two seconds. I’d tell you what the death animation looked like but I had my hands over my eyes and was squealing like a girl. It’s a genuinely scary game.
My mission was to reach an airlock and get off the ship, hacking devices and collecting the necessary items along the way, all without alerting the attentions of the prowling alien. Armed only with a motion tracking device and its telltale bleeps, I had to crouch, hide and otherwise skulk my way around the gorgeously detailed environment, slipping past the ripped-in-half Synthetic and a familiar Drinking Bird toy on the way to safety.
We had one hour to play the demo. I died once, largely thanks to the fact that I was tip-toeing around like a scaredy wimp, making it out of the airlock in just over 30 mins. Others didn’t fare so well, stepping out of the demo room an hour later, visibly shaken. One colleague was sweating buckets, slightly traumatised. I’m assured that another had found a locker on the ship and had spent most of his time in the demo hiding, peeping through the slits at the xenomorph creeping around outside, too scared to move.
The ships feels like it belongs in Alien, like it was an unused set found somewhere at Shepperton Studios, dusted off and relit. The team at The Creative Assembly has had access to the original archives, painstakingly building rooms, corridors, logos and clothing that can stand alongside the original designs. It’s a 1970’s vision of the future. As such, the technology is chunky and tactile, all knobs and fuzzy CRT screens. There’s not an LCD or a touch screen in sight and the environment gains from it. There’s also some exceptional lighting, with dull blue glows and patches of darkness lending a truly ominous tone.
And then there’s the xenomorph itself. The demo successfully made H.R. Giger’s fearsome monster cast its shadow over your every move, even when it wasn’t there. It’s not always prowling around, it’s not always in view, or on your motion scanner, but you know it could pop out of the shadows at any moment. And then when you do see it, it’s fleeting, peered at from behind a desk or through the slits of a locker. I’m assured that it also doesn’t have a set, scripted path, instead reacting dynamically to movement and noise. Alert it and you’ll die, there’s no running or fighting it off. Just death.
So that’s all brilliant. Based on the demo I played, Alien: Isolation is one of the most exciting games I’ve ever previewed, a terrifying survival horror game with some iconic imagery. But there are caveats.
First up, we still don’t know what you’ll be doing when you’re not crawling around in fear of your life. The Creative Assembly says that the game will contain some kind of combat, primarily against enemies of the non-alien nature. The reasoning, and it’s sound reasoning, is that the experience would otherwise be too intense. The pace needs to change. Yet we have no idea how that is going to pan out, what it will look like or how it will play. Question marks remain.
Also, the eponymous alien. During the demo, it did its job, scaring the crap out of me constantly. But I never got the chance to poke at the machinery and investigate the AI. It could be that if you’re not playing along with the fiction, if you tease the xenomorph out and test its responses, exploiting its programming, then the whole thing comes tumbling down. For example, although the alien responds to noise and movement, it can’t hear your motion tracker bleeping away, something the developers say was deliberately overlooked for the sake of the gameplay. It makes sense, but we don’t know how many similar concessions have been made, nor what effect they will have.
And then there’s The Creative Assembly itself. It’s a fine developer, with a strong track record. But it’s a track record of quality, primarily PC-only strategy games. Its abilities to develop a AAA survival horror title across numerous platforms is untested. On the evidence of the demo, there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about. But attempting to pre-empt the quality of an entire campaign, with massive chunks of gameplay about which we don’t even know yet, based on half an hour of play, is an impossible task.
But maybe I’m being too cautious. Alien: Isolation has the potential to be phenomenal. Like the xenomorph itself, it has come out of nowhere and sent a shiver up my spine. I’ve wanted to play a game like this for as long as I’ve been aware of the original film. And now it looks like I might get it. It’s so good in fact that I’ve written this whole preview without once mentioning the mess that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Except just then. Bugger.
Alien: Isolation is out on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4 and PC later this year.