I’ve been very concerned about Sega’s upcoming Alien: Isolation. VERY concerned. And I imagine that I’ve not been alone.
We’ve been burnt with games based on the Alien franchise before. Last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines was not a good game. Both publisher Sega, and development studio Gearbox got a good slap from the gaming community for releasing a game that was not quite as advertised. Even Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator before it, back in 2010, was a bit of a mess.
It was a brave move for Sega to give the franchise another go so soon. But it was an even braver move for The Creative Assembly, step up to the plate. Famous for their superb historical Total War real-time strategy games, the Brit developer was not the first studio that came to mind when I thought of a developer likely to succeed in creating an Alien game.
I did manage to get a brief bit of hands-on time with Alien: Isolation at E3. Whilst I was impressed, it is difficult to judge an entire game based on a carefully put together expo demo. I did, however, walk away with an understanding of why The Creative Assembly have moved out of their usual genre to create this first-person survival horror game.
It’s pretty clear that the developers are huge fans of the Alien movies, Ridley Scott’s Alien in particular. The E3 demo teased me with a game that looked very nice, showed promise and was very, very frightening.
Alien: Isolation is set between Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie and James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens. The game’s premise draws upon a scene in Aliens which originally ended up on the cutting room floor.
In the Aliens Special Edition, after spending 57 years in stasis following the events of the first movie, Ellen Ripley asks company man, Carter Burke, for information about her daughter. She is told that Amanda Ripley-McClaren died two years earlier aged 67.
The game puts players in the role of Amanda Ripley, now also a Weyland-Yutani employee and on a quest to find out exactly what happened to her mother. The flight recorder of her mother’s mining ship, The Nostromo, has been found and taken to the space station Sevastopol. And so Amanda goes there to investigate.
Following my limited access to the game at E3, Sega has been kind enough to let me have an extended preview of the PC version of game, which I’ve been playing for the last week.
And I’m telling you now, Alien: Isolation doesn’t disappoint.
The preview code placed me on board the Sevastopol station with a colleague in desperate need of medical attention. My first mission was to locate a medikit. From the moment the doors open onto the abandoned foyer of the game’s first level, I had an unnerving sense of foreboding.
It was great to casually explore the finely-crafted game environment in my own time without an E3 staffer hovering over my shoulder. The air in the station was thick with dust. Work stations and tables looked hastily abandoned. The combination of darkness and strobing lights created strange shadows and worryingly dark corners.
Unlike Alien: Colonial Marines, this is a game that looks exactly like its promo material, if not better. Sega have learnt from the mistakes of over selling their games.
In fact, the game looks incredible. I’m loathed to use the term photo-real, because it isn’t quite- but it is very close. In opting to replicate the retro-future of the movie’s 70s set design, the game environments look very familiar and have a realistic lived-in look.
The game’s realistic lighting, shadows and atmospheric effects are all first rate. Light a flare and the area explodes with red light, shadows dance off walls and anamorphic lens flares streak across the screen.
And it’s so important that the environments are as realistic as possible in order maintain the suspension of disbelief required to create such a frightening game. Alien: Isolation is possibly the most unnerving video game that I’ve ever played. I can seriously see people having heart attacks playing it.
The game is an unrelenting journey through stress, panic, fear and anxiety, usually punctuation by shock and/or fright. It’s almost too much. Several times I found myself just needing a break as the experience left me so on edge I ended up just plain exhausted.
The preview eased me into the game gently, first introducing me to a friendly human in need of medical attention himself. He offered to get me into the medical centre in exchange for my help. There was something in his voice that made me uneasy. Something in the delivery, just how calm it was in the face of such danger. I’m sure this was by design, the developers seeking to unnerve me however they can.
This early part of the preview introduced me to the game’s hacking mechanic- which I needed to access to a doctor’s office for the medical centre’s pass code. It’s simple enough, you use a hacking tool to find the frequency by rotating the left analogue stick (yes, I’m playing the PC game with an Xbox 360 controller) and then match the shape on the screen with the illuminated glyphs. Oh, and there’s a timer to stop you from dawdling.
Once in the office I accessed the doctor’s retro-looking computer to get the pass code. These computer terminals are dotted throughout the space station and offer up background information in the form of emails, videos and audio logs.
As I exited the room a recorded voice sounded a warning- something about a containment breach. Via radio, the Englishman tried to calmly reassure me (which actually made it worse- I was sure that he knew more than he was letting on).
I was moving up the stairs to toward the exit door went it happened. Right in front of me a ceiling vent cover clattered to the floor. As I edged back around the corner into an alcove, a shiny black shape slowly eased itself down in front of me.
The alien’s fluid movement, as it slowly lowered itself from the ceiling, perfectly captured the terrifying grace of its cinematic counterpart. As I peeked (pressing a shoulder button and the direction allows you to peek from behind cover) around the corner I could see the alien checking the corridor before stomping off.
The game’s artificial intelligent isn’t scripted, or at least doesn’t appear to be. This means that the alien (and the other in-game enemies) will do their own thing. They won’t follow a set path and no play-through is going to be the same. They will hear you and see you. They will also respond to distractions and lose you if you break the line of sight.
Amanda is armed with a revolver, some noisemakers, EMP mines, smoke bombs, flashbangs and flares. Littered about the levels are components that can be used to craft more items.
There’s nothing in Amanda’s arsenal that is going to actually be able to kill the alien. You are only going to distract it. Throwing flares or noisemakers alerts the alien and distracts it enough to slip past it, providing it doesn’t see you, of course.
Amanda does have one of the franchises iconic motion-detectors in her possession. There were times, though, that I wished that she didn’t. When you view the motion detector your focus is limited to the device’s screen, blurring the view in front of you with a depth-of-field effect. It’s a logical and nice touch. But it also adds a bit of extra stress to an already stressful situation. In most games you only deal with what you can see. In Alien: Isolation you have accommodate that which you can’t as well.
Watching that blip on the motion detector screen and listening as the beeps get quicker is one of the most stressful things I’ve come across in a video game. Sure it’s been done in previous Alien games, but never as good as this. It’s terrifying, especially when you put the detector away and the focus switches to the alien STANDING RIGHT THERE!
For me, this first encounter with the alien lead to multiple deaths, each time respawning at the nearest save point.
The lack of an autosave means that if you forget, or you can’t find the save point (or Emergency Registration Points as they are known in-game) you could find yourself in a bit of a loop, having to endure revising the same sequence again and again. With the developer suggesting gamers play on the hard setting, this makes the lack of autosave especially harsh.
The section I was in did have a save point. Trial and error meant that in the end I had a save just before the trigger point for the alien’s arrival. The thing about using those save points, and literally every other action in the game, is that time doesn’t stop. If you think running from save point to save point is going to work, it won’t. That alien is going to get to you before the save process finishes. Same with tapping away on a terminal in front of the alien xenomorph- don’t do it.
After meeting a gruesome death and having respawned I took the opportunity to explore the area, safe in the knowledge that the alien isn’t going to make an entrance until later. I was able to experiment with some of the game’s other mechanics. In one room, I found the area’s power control box. There were a number of systems and a finite amount of power available. I could switch lights, alarms, cameras, air purifier, vent and door access on or off dependant on available power. Whilst I didn’t find adjusting systems to be the solution this time I would later on.
To get to that passcode protected door, I used a bit of patience and Amanda’s best weapon: the ability to crouch and crawl under tables, gurneys and desks. If you in the crouched position and approach an object that you can get under Amanda will slip herself in and hide.
There’s also lockers and boxes that can be used as hiding spots. But they don’t always work, with the alien often hearing your breathing (yes, you can hold your breath) and then ripping the door open. You can also get around enemies via under-floor crawl spaces and ventilation system. Be mindful that the alien also favours the vents.
It was more luck than judgement that got me through the door in the end. Which closed shut behind me, apparently leaving the alien trapped in the other section. Any relief I had from my escape was short-lived as I heard a clattering above me. The creature was in the ceiling and still after me.
I’m really not sure about the game’s pacing. Whilst playing the preview I experienced a continuous and unrelenting sense of fear. There were no cues to suggest that I was safe at any time, and to be honest, I don’t thing I ever was. I had a bit of a problem with this. Being in a constant state of anxiety isn’t all that much fun. You need the downtime, those moments when you think to yourself, “wow that was close”. You never seem to get a break- that alien can be, and probably is, around every corner.
It’s not just the seven foot tall alien xenomorph relentlessly hunting you that you need to worry about. The station has a few humans out to kill you as well. Whilst they will fall if you shot them, the shots will attract…unwanted attention.
Even when you bump into humans- when you’d ordinarily think, “ah, time to fight just these guys”, the alien can appear out of nowhere to attack and kill your human assailants before, of course, turning its attention to you.
The game also features some less than friendly synthetics- androids, who present their own challenge. As opponents they are as unrelenting as the alien and the humans, but they don’t run and they don’t shoot you- they just calmly walk towards you. If they do get hold of you, however, they will beat you to a pulp. These brutal melee encounters with the synthetics are very reminiscent of the emotionless way that Ian Holm’s Ash attacks the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. A well-placed EMP mine should be enough to stun them long enough to hit them a few times- cue that gross milky “blood” spurting out everywhere. They don’t do fire very well, either
The game’s real strength comes from the developer’s attention to detail and their reverence towards the source material. This is never clearer than the obvious work that they have put into bringing the alien, itself, to life in the game.
In order to be convincing and provide players with the same level of fear as in the movies, the alien has to look good, and it certainly does.
As I huddled myself under a table the door to the room opened with a hiss. I knew that the alien saw me enter. Slowly it paced around the table. With deliberate footsteps I could see the creature’s feet, perfectly animated with each joint moving naturally as it was brought up and then back down on the floor. The alien’s tail dragged across the floor, with the sharp end independently moving about. It was horrible. Bloody frightening. Then the thing bent down to take a look under the table. It didn’t see me, but I came close to wetting myself.
As I’ve pretty much continually mentioned throughout this write-up Alien: Isolation is a very frightening game. Personally, at least for this preview build, I think that the game is also little too unforgiving. As good as I found the game, my anxiety levels were pretty much sapping the fun from the experience a lot of the time. As it is right know I can see that a lot of gamers, especially hardcore stealth fans, loving the game. But I can also see a lot of less patient people are not necessarily getting on with it.
For better or for worst, Alien: Isolation is the Alien game that the fans have been demanding. The games slavish attention to detail has successfully recreated the tension and stress of the original movie. It looks amazing on PC and the Jerry Goldsmith inspired score, complete with haunting pan flutes, tops off what I believe will be the most faithful digital recreation of the Alien franchise to date.
Alien: Isolation comes out on 7th October for Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.