Alien Isolation Hands-on: At last the bitch might finally be back
If last year’s diabolical Aliens: Colonial Marines had a key weakness then it wasn’t the misleading press demonstrations, superfluous human enemies or even the fact that it was essentially just a re-skinned Borderlands mod with some flashy sound effects. Colonial Marines biggest crime was that it failed to respect the original franchise. This flaw wasn’t unique to Colonial Marines as indeed every single Alien game ever released has made the same mistake since the original Pac-Man clone on the Atari 2600.
For as long as Alien games have existed they have relied upon accepted key components of video game design. In order to keep the player interested, intense action need to be a near constant. And since almost every Alien game since the PSOne era has been a shooter, that has meant ramping up the enemy count and empowering players to a point where they can easily mow down Xenomorphs with minimal effort. Colonial Marines took this to an extreme by creating Xeno’s that could climb walls and travel through vents but then had such frankly shit AI that combat sequences became just another day at the office. In short, gaming took a beloved yet vile and evil mastermind and reduced her to the level of Space Invaders-style cannon fodder.
Anybody would be forgiven for ignoring yet another Alien title from a Sega studio given past controversies and their track record but Alien Isolation was easily the key attraction and talking point during this year’s EGX: Rezzed indie games show at Birmingham NEC. As the creators of the Total War franchise, the Creative Assembly seem to be on a mission to prove that they can create an Alien game that is not only faithful to the movies but also equally terrifying.
Isolation takes place on the USCSS Sevastopol, 15 years after the events of the original Alien movie claimed the lives of all but one member of the Nostromo starfreighter crew. Amanda Ripley is a volunteer dispatched to the Sevastopol to recover the Nostromo flight recorder and find out exactly what happened to her mother Ellen Ripley, who left Earth for her mission when Amanda was only a child. Soon after arrival and guided by a British marine via a radio intercom, Amanda discovers that the Sevastopol has one particularly familiar, unpleasant and blood-thirsty occupant and as such finds herself in a game of hide and seek where losing means a quick and certain death.
As in the style of recent indie survival horror adventures such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, Amanda cannot take the Xenomorph head on and instead needs to try to outsmart the creature by all means necessary. Any weapons on-board will only be effective against the game’s other enemies and likewise running away from the Alien once spotted will be equally futile. Isolation’s key selling point seems to be the Xenomorph AI which is entirely dynamic and will develop as Amanda proceeds through the campaign and the Alien begins to pick up on aspects and learn the behavioural traits of the individual player.
Whilst the demo I played did have some scripted set-piece moments, the Xeno managed to outwit me on several occasions meaning that the sequence probably did take me longer to complete than it should have done. Even by utilising all of the stealth techniques acquired from playing Outlast and some wasted teenage years on Metal Gear Solid, I found myself blasted by a piercing scream from behind followed by small mouth emerging from an all-to-familiar larger one.
The environment is typically dark with scenery in the trademark off-white and grey colour palette and Amanda is armed only with a flashlight, which like loud noise will attract the Xenomorph’s attention, and a handheld tracker device which acts as a compass towards the current objective and is capable of detecting the proximity of the Alien. As well as the usual cupboards and desks to hide under, players can stay out of the enemy line of sight using obstacles and blind spots although so much as even failing to hold Amanda’s breath at the right time will mean an untimely death.
Half-eaten meals and Android body parts litter parts of the ship and the claustrophobic level design and sounds of dripping water, blood and acid are only likely to increase the tension. This may not be a game to play in the dark and on your own with headphones however that is also probably going to be the best way to play it. Based upon the dedicated over-18’s only Rezzed kiosk, that also seems to be the experience that the developers have in mind.
This concept is definitely nothing new and indeed it seemed as though almost everyone was trying to jump on the Amnesia-style survival horror bandwagon in Birmingham this weekend, with several other indie games on show also based on the same formula. This is, however, a new move for a studio as large and well-funded as the Creative Assembly and without name dropping everyone I spoke with at Rezzed seemed to be extremely impressed by the Alien AI. Sega and the Creative Assembly have taken one of the most feared, reviled and iconic monsters in modern cinema and have finally given her the power to terrify that she so desperately deserves. I look forward to playing more of Alien Isolation when it’s released later this year, that is if I can pluck up the courage to do so by then.
Preview is based on hands-on time with a PlayStation 4 demo of the game. Alien Isolation will be released for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 via downloadable platforms on 7th October 2014.