Cowering under a table might not be anyone's idea of a kickass good time, but as leisure options go it's preferable to having your stomach lanced by the prehensile tail of a seven-foot death machine. Arguably more importantly, it's also preferable to replaying the same section of a game multiple times over. Such is life on the Sevastapol space station, where as Amanda Ripley—daughter of Ellen, star of the Alien movies—I recently spent several hours hiding in and under things while battling H.R. Giger's walking phallic nightmare. Spoiler: I mostly lost.
Several things are remarkable about Alien: Isolation , aside from the fact that a licensed, first-person horror game represents such a huge departure for the strategy specialists at Creative Assembly. Perhaps most startling is how fastidiously committed the game is to pure stealth as an archetype. I struggle to think of anything, beyond perhaps Outlast, which keeps the player so relentlessly under threat, with so few means of redress against your hunter. I'm also not entirely sure that's a good thing, but more on that later.
Less surprising is Alien: Isolation's fidelity to the source material. From the moment the game was announced Creative Assembly has been talking up the dread and tension of the Ridley Scott original, rather than the 'Nam-in-space shootfest of James Cameron's sequel. And with the Colonial Marines debacle fresh in everyone's minds, a more considered, slow-burn approach has to be welcomed.
What becomes clear as you step into Sevastopol's ominous corridors is that the team has knocked the look and feel out of the park and into orbit. Isolation will surely be the most faithful Alien game made yet. It really is like stepping back in time and onto the set: The chunky plastic buttons, the beige vinyl seats, the flickering green screen terminals–it's a chance to wander around in the golden age of dystopian lo-fi sci-fi, and for a horror nerd that alone is probably enough to secure your interest.
Better still is the sound. Trust me, when awards season rolls around Isolation's audio designers aren't going to have much room left on their mantelpieces. The constant thrum of industrial clangs and whirs, coupled with the menacing bleep-bleep-bleep of your motion tracker and the occasional snippets of eerie public information films, is menacing enough, but when you're under imminent threat there's this terrifying swell of atonal string music that's punctuated by the alien's unearthly screeeees and hisssses. It's absolutely horrible and quite brilliant.
As is the alien itself. The first time I see it, it uncurls itself from a ceiling vent and drops to the floor amidst flickering light and steam, about the width of a swimming pool away from me. The moment immediately feels memorable, which is remarkable given how dulled by familiarity the creature has become. Several E3s ago I was shown an early demo of Isolation, and my concern was whether a single monster—especially one that has been so over-exposed—could be scary enough to carry a whole game. But again, with judicious lighting and super detailed animation, they've nailed it.
You swiftly learn just how dangerous this version of the alien is. In terms of aggressiveness it reminds me of those dogs from Hotline Miami which, once alerted, fly at you like furry homing missiles. Let the alien spot you and you'll barely have time to fumble for the run button before your face gets ripped off. As if matters needed making worse, the alien doesn't patrol predictable routes. You can't just learn its pattern and evade accordingly. It doubles back, switches its search area, and reacts to the smallest noise.
Theoretically, you can use various homemade devices to startle or misdirect it. (You've also got a revolver, but honestly you might as well try flicking elastic bands at it.) Ripley Jr. must be a fan of MacGyver re-runs, because she can whip up all manner of IEDs using the crafting system, including flashbangs, pipe bombs, EMP mines and a noisemaker. In practice, I found using any of these tended to accelerate rather than prevent my evisceration. In one particularly disastrous sequence, I attempted to torch some non-friendly humans in the medical facility, only to bounce the Molotov cocktail straight back into my face. GG.
For the most part I found that foregoing the DIY shenanigans and focusing on constantly switching between the map and my motion tracker was the only way to plot a (relatively) safe route to the next destination. An additional word of warning though: the creature can hear the tracker's bleeping, and will zero on it, making the tool a classic risk vs. reward tradeoff.
The objectives that cropped up during my hands-on—find a trauma kit for an injured NPC, collect a keycard, use a cylinder to reactivate a cooling system—were all fairly standard survival horror stuff. Having to regularly hide in lockers, another genre staple, also felt banal quite quickly—the stealth cliché equivalent of shooting red barrels. What keeps the experience sharp, though, is the sheer menace of the alien. Access a new area and you might get a few seconds of grace to explore unmolested, but soon it's followed you in and is stalking the corridors, evil tail swishing.
It's that feeling of relentlessness which worries me though. While I already have little doubt that Alien: Isolation is going to deliver pretty spectacularly on the sensation of being alone, faced with an implacable enemy, I'm less clear on whether that's actually going to be a fun experience to have. I respect the decision not to make this a shootybang game, but there's a reason most stealth and survival horror games—I'm thinking specifically of Splinter Cell, Dead Space and Manhunt—give you the chance to turn the table on your aggressors. I think players need to feel powerful at some point, if nothing else to blow off steam after the stress of being constantly chased. Without that, what are the enjoyable bits actually going to be? Just staying alive long enough to trigger the next section?
Let me put it another way: I love horror films, but I'm not sold on being in one yet. From a design point of view instadeath, which the alien almost offers, is a risky idea to experiment with. You're going to die—spectacularly, gorily—a lot, and when you do you'll be bounced back to your most recent save point. The space station uses telephones dotted around to record your progress, because obviously any quicksave system would nix the tension completely. However, that makes the placement of these hugely important. Even in the few hours I spent with the game, I found myself repeating several sections more than half a dozen times, racing through some parts because I knew the alien wasn't a threat in them, while trying to remember to pick up the scrap and items I needed for crafting along the way. There's a danger here that the fear could turn into frustration.
It's important to remember, though, that I've only seen a slice of the game taken from somewhere in the first half. The hunter/hunted paradigm will likely switch up significantly elsewhere in the game, with other threats (human and synthetic) roaming Sevastapol on whom to unleash your pent up aggression on. Only viewing the game as whole will confirm whether or not Isolation's hide-and-seek dynamic holds up over the course of the entire game.
Weirdly, I think it's actually a role-playing game. Not in terms of skill trees and stats, but insofar as the more you can suspend disbelief and allow yourself to feel like you actually are Amanda Ripley, trapped in a confined space with a creature built purely to murder you, the more impressive the experience is going to become. There are also some lovely set-piece scares, like a corridor suddenly erupting in flames or an NPC being yoinked into a darkened room by the alien's spindly hands. This is going to be a game that absolutely begs to be played in the dark with a decent set of headphones. You'd just better hope that Amanda has strong knees, because she's going to spend a lot of time crouching in the dark. In space, everyone can hear your joints pop.