Alien: Isolation preview: hands-on with Creative Assembly's ambitious sci-fi horror

Chris Thursten


'Aliens' is a brilliant name for a movie sequel, when you think about it. It's a one-word pitch: remember that terrifying, implacable, unkillable alien monster? Well, now there are more of them. Let your imagination do the rest.

The trouble comes when the escalation doesn't stop. Almost thirty years after Aliens, Giger's monster isn't scary any more. It's cannon fodder, a fast zombie, a banana-headed moron . Games have finished off what the movies started, completing the xenomorph's transition from unknowable terror to lunchbox mascot. Lunchbox mascots, in the main, are not a credible threat.

I played Alien: Isolation for forty-five minutes, and in that time it did more to rehabilitate the alien in the part of my brain reserved for things that scare the shit out of me than any game since the original Aliens versus Predator. That's the highest praise I have to offer, and more than I'd thought to hope to get out of the reveal of a new Alien game, particularly one from a developer known for grand strategy games and the odd wonky fantasy action title.

But here we are. Creative Assembly have gone and made an Alien game that is actually scary, the game that you have probably been asking for in comments threads since Colonial Marines disintegrated on launch like a crap rocket made of blank cheques and publisher's tears.

There's still time for Alien: Isolation to stumble - I'll get to that later. First, though, I want to explore why the version I played worked as well as it did.

It's an Alien game, not an Aliens game

The key's in the name. Creative Assembly claim to have ignored every development in the franchise that followed Ridley Scott's movie. That means no pulse rifles, no jarheads, no queens, Praetorians, predaliens, and so on. It's an Alien game, and as such it's in competition pretty much exclusively with the (surprisingly excellent) Spectrum RPG from 1984.

You play as Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, fifteen years after her mother blew up the Nostromo and vanished. In Aliens, Ripley wakes up from cryosleep to find that 57 years have passed and Amanda has died of old age; Isolation posits that her daughter spent at least some of that time being chased around a space station by a xenomorph of her own. Creative Assembly have tapped veteran comic book writer Dan Abnett for the story, who you may know from the Warhammer 40,000 novels or his work for Marvel.

Haunted by her mother's disappearance, Amanda Ripley joins Weyland-Yutani as an engineer, where she is approached by a company executive claiming to have located the Nostromo's black box recorder on a remote space station called Sevastopol. Amanda signs on with a mission to investigate, but becomes separated from her crew on arrival and finds the station itself in crisis, its surviving population panicked and fighting among itself. Also, there's an alien.

The alien won't always necessarily arrive at scripted moments.

Long-suffering Alien fans will be used to retcons, and while Isolation's plot is a convoluted excuse to call the protagonist 'Ripley' it nonetheless seems well-considered, particularly when compared to the far more egregious trampling of franchise history that Colonial Marines was guilty of. Importantly, the influence of the original film isn't simply in the plot: it's in the way the world is constructed, and the kind of things you're asked to do in it.

When I begin playing Amanda's inventory consists of a hacking tool, a handheld motion tracker, and an adjustable flashlight. I opt to never use the flashlight, ever, on the basis that if an acid-blooded horror wants to murder me I'd rather it didn't know where I was. The motion tracker must be raised by holding a button - there's no HUD - at which point a depth-of-field effect wipes out your peripheral vision. You can look at the tracker or look where you're going, but doing both at once is a challenge.

The first task I'm given is to find a blowtorch to open a locked bulkhead, and it's already scary. The environment is split between well-lit rooms and pitch-black corridors. The space-station groans and creaks constantly, like it's under stress, and a sudden thumping in the pipes above me makes me jump. I opt to crouch and crawl around as slowly as possible, just to be on the safe side.

This screenshot is very close to the version I played - it's a stunning-looking game.

There are lootable containers stashed away underneath tables and in dark corners, and in these I pick up bits of scrap that hint at a crafting system - not present in the demo, but heavily implied.

Eventually I make my way to a long, horseshoe shaped atrium with a few labs and a power generator. I am under no direct threat that I know of, but I play incredibly cautiously. The trepidation reminds me of playing Amnesia for the first time, knowing that the developers have something nasty planned but not knowing when or how it'll make itself known. As in that game, I take note of anywhere I might later hide - in this case, lockers dotted around the outer wall that I can leap into if I need to.

I power up the generators and run to complete my objective, which is to extract some information from a computer. Hacking it involves a minigame where, after dialing in the correct frequency - think Arkham Asylum's similar system - you have to match a geometric shape by keying in its component parts. It's a little gamey, but far less than hacking games tend to be. It's no Bioshock Pipe Dream, for one thing.

Then, the alien shows up.

The lack of a permanent UI contributes heavily to the atmosphere.

The xenomorph is scary again

The alien uncoils from a vent and drops into the room. This part of the demo was a first-person cutscene, but I'm told that it won't be in the final game. Ripley dashes behind a desk and whispers "it's here!" The creature's tail lashes over the desk and rests between her legs, running up her thighs as it withdraws. It's really creepy, and creates the sense that my personal space is being invaded. There has always been an aspect of sexual threat to Giger's monster - it's got a penis for a head, guys - but it's not something that I'd expected to get out of a videogame. I am impressed, and kind of horrified, by the lengths that Creative Assembly have gone to re-fang the creature.

I gained control back as the Alien moved to leave the room. It's enormous - around eight foot tall - and much more upright than its counterpart in Aliens. It doesn't move particularly quickly unless it has seen you. This is a lone hunter, not a pack animal, and you pose no threat to it - it doesn't need to dash about looking for you. It takes its time.

From this point until shortly before the end, the demo was entirely unscripted. The alien hunts you using complicated AI routines, looking and listening for you - and learning from your behaviour - as you attempt to evade it. I spent a lot of time hiding in lockers, but after a while it started to figure out what I was doing. On multiple occasions I had to hold down a button to hold my breath as it attempted to figure out which locker I was in; later, it appeared to feign disinterest in my hiding spot before dashing back just as I was thinking about slipping away.

In space, nobody can hear you scream "magazines probably won't exist in the future!"

Creative Assembly have built their own engine for the game - there are a substantial number of former Crytek staff on the project - which has been a necessity, they say, to animate the alien in the way they wish. Its movements are dynamically hooked into the AI system in a way that is intended to communicate information to the player. If the alien is unaware of you it twitches, flicks at the environment, casts its head about. If it sees you it freezes, hunches, and closes the distance before you can blink. I saw very few instances of canned animation - it's unnervingly organic. A magic trick, certainly, but a good one.

I'd stopped taking notes at this point and become totally absorbed in surviving my encounter with this terrifying, intelligent opponent. I am about as inured to the xenomorph as anybody, but I'd started to believe in it again. I really, really didn't want it to catch me.

It didn't, for what it's worth. I've got the dubious honour of being one of the only journalists to complete the demo without being caught, an achievement I attribute to a lifetime playing stealth games and an easy, natural cowardice. Others weren't so lucky. Being caught means being drawn into a first-person depiction of your death. That could mean a jaw closing around your face, a bony hand covering your eyes, or a short shock followed by the realisation that a bladed tail is protruding from your abdomen.

To be fair, it's remarkable that paper exists at all.

Creative Assembly's design sense and attention to detail is impressive

From audio to lighting and level design, CA have dug deep into the original film's materials to create Sevastopol. Its environments pay tribute the original sets through small details - hastily-abandoned clutter on a dining table, CRT monitors flickering with VHS-style advertisements, BBC micro keyboards. I admire the way that Creative Assembly have refused to stray from a 70s interpretation of the future: if you felt that Prometheus' holograms and magic science balls were an imposition on its low sci-fi purity, you'll be happy with the work on display here. The map that you access via the pause menu looks like it's running on a camcorder from the 90s. When you're relying on technology to keep you alive, it's all the more scary if that technology is a bit duff.

They have expanded on the original film's soundtrack with new compositions and built a dynamic audio system that emphasises different moods depending on the situation you find yourself in. Mid-chase you might hear only your own footsteps and breathing, but while exploring you'll be aware of the creaks and groans of the station itself. The alien has its own noises, from chitters to shrieks that, after many hours with the game, you should be able to use to interpret its level of awareness.

Dorky space suits are part of the 70s sci-fi look.

Isolation is more of a PC game than you'd expect

The game is bound for next-gen consoles, although the code I played was running on a PC. When I say that it's a PC game, though, I'm not just talking about technology - I'm talking about design. Scripted sequences will likely be part and parcel of the experience, but this is a systems-driven game at its heart. It's an alien simulator , and that's why it's so exciting. Like Amnesia, it's the kind of game that has the power to generate anecdotes. Creative Assembly say that after your first encounter with the alien, it won't simply spring into each level at a pre-scripted moment. It'll show up if you make too much noise or give yourself away in other ways, making this a game-long hunt in addition to a stage-by-stage one. If this works, it'll be tremendously impressive.

It's a hugely ambitious undertaking, and it's not surprising that it has taken seven years for Sega to lift the ( admittedly porous ) veil of secrecy surrounding the game. They're making something that has the potential to fall flat on its ass if the simulation doesn't quite hold together, but the playable code they demonstrated held together well. Truly ambitious triple-A games are rare, and usually exist in the form of promises made at hands-off press sessions many years prior to release. Truly ambitious triple-A games that are playable as soon as they're revealed are almost unheard of - the unicorns of big-budget game development. Based on what I've seen of it, I'm happy to say that Alien: Isolation is a unicorn. They can put that on the box, if they like.

I also discussed the game in CVG's video preview, which includes in-game footage. No, I don't know what's going on with my hair either.

The doubts I have are concerned with the game surrounding the slice I played. I wouldn't mind if the campaign was short if every section lived up the standard of the demo, but what will the rest be filled with? There's talk of craftable weapons and combat with non-alien opponents - not deal-breakers, necessarily, but they need to be handled carefully. The level design will need to be varied to prevent stealth from becoming repetitive or a chore. I've seen that the alien's AI is advanced enough to convince me on my first encounter, but it's a magic spell that could be shattered if it doesn't hold together over the course of a full-length game. Creative Assembly acknowledge and have answers to all of these concerns, but they amount to promises until we get our hands on a more substantial chunk of the game.

That's for the future, though. For the time being, it's nice to be excited by triple-A games development again. Hell, it's nice to be scared again.

About the Author
Chris Thursten

Chris is the editor of PC Gamer Pro. After many years spent turning beautiful trees into magazines, he now oversees our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. To date he has written more than sixty articles about Dota 2 and does not know how this became his life.

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