By: Mark Walton
Perched high above the desks of the artists, designers, and programmers of Creative Assembly are two screens. For three long years, they’ve been playing Alien on loop, and the motion trackers, burst chests, and exploding air locks of Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi classic are being ingrained into each and every pixel the team produces. There are rooms where the film’s original score is augmented and morphed into new melodies, and the screams of a xenomorph are meticulously tweaked for just the right amount of gut-wrenching terror. Walls are covered with original prop schematics and costume designs, photos of the cast are littered around desks, and old VHS copies of the film are stretched and played with a jiggled scart cable to create a lo-fi look.
It’s a reassuring sight for any fan who has been burned by the likes of Aliens: Colonial Marines and Aliens vs. Predator. That Alien Isolation is based on Alien rather than the more obvious choice of the gun-happy Aliens is a refreshing move too. The claustrophobic corridors of the game aren’t stacked high with flamethrowers and plastic explosives, nor are they packed with dozens of canine-like xenomorphs of the kind seen in Aliens. It’s just you, armed with nothing but a motion detector and a prayer. Alien Isolation is survival horror in its most lean and terrifying form: there’s not even a HUD overlay to break immersion–and if you actually see the alien, chances are it’s the last thing you do.
Alien Isolation started life three years ago as a small demo that lay the concept bare: few weapons, a focus on the lo-fi sci-fi aesthetic of the original film, and a single, terrifying alien on the hunt. It’s a testament to the strength of the original demo that Isolation has strayed little from its original concept, although naturally, things have been smartened up a tad. There’s a story featuring Ripley’s daughter Amanda, who, 15 years after last seeing her mother, is sent by Weyland-Yutani to recover the flight recorder of the Nostromo aboard a remote trading station. The visuals are sharp too, being suitably dark and moody, yet paying great homage to the film’s stark set designs. There’s even a fuzzy, VHS-like grain to get the nostalgia juices flowing.
Much like the film, the action’s all very restrained; the tension is maintained with a rising orchestral score, the mechanical clunk of a door, and the looming threat of a xenomorph attack. Exploring the station means keeping a watchful eye on the motion tracker (which also acts as a guide towards mission goals), with its sporadic beeps raising the heart rate far more than an alien onslaught and a flamethrower ever could. Objects from the station’s missing crew litter each room, with a toy robot’s random musings providing a brief respite from the horror. Many of the objects can be collected, and while they had no use in the demo, I’m told that a crafting system is in the works to let you create small weapons and traps to solve puzzles and launch the odd counterattack.
Without the luxury of a weapon, stealth was the only option in the demo; I went from solving a plasma cutting puzzle to experiencing an alarming power cut to hunkering under a desk, as both Amanda and I were in a blind panic. I couldn’t see the alien at this point, but the hefty clunk of its feet on the metal floor and its bloodcurdling howls were paralysing; I simply couldn’t bring myself to move from underneath the desk. Only after taking a few minutes to regain my composure did I crawl my way towards a door and try to escape.
Holding the motion tracker out in front of me, I tried to sneak away and keep the alien at a distance. But it was clever. Earlier I was shown the impressively complex decision trees used to bring the alien to life, making it actively track a player’s position within the world and hunt, rather than just move along a scripted path. Certainly, I never had the same experience twice, and a single misplaced footstep or an overeager glance would cause the alien to come hurtling towards me. This is an absolutely terrifying experience when it happens. A certain panic set in as the beeps of the motion tracker got closer together; I wanted to do nothing more than run as fast as humanly possible to get out of there. Naturally, the alien was faster.
When faced with a 10-foot xenomorph (increased from 7 feet in the movie) and absolutely nothing in the way of defence, panicking is a natural reaction. That very reaction is precisely what makes Alien Isolation so terrifying, and so different to anything else that has come before in the Alien franchise. That feeling of utter helplessness, of knowing that you’re completely outclassed by a superior being is at the heart of the film, and is skilfully re-created here. Hiding in lockers as the alien presses its horrifying face up to the vents and peeking over cover to catch a glimpse of its spindly tail are incredibly tense moments. So tense, in fact, that I’m not eager to experience them again in a hurry.
Alien Isolation isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard, unnerving, and utterly ruthless, which is exactly the way it should be. After years of battling endless streams of aliens with a pulse rifle, it’s nice to be reminded exactly how scary they can be. Granted, SEGA and Creative Assembly certainly aren’t strangers to an impressive demo, only for the final product to wind up a little disappointing. But with three years of development already under its belt, Alien Isolation is off to an impressive start–one that’s mostly enough to make me forget about the shambles that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Mostly.