You are my lucky star.
Today at Eurogamer’s Rezzed in Birmingham we got the chance to spend some time hands-on with a reasonably brief demo of Alien: Isolation. As long-time Alien franchise fans we were burned by the recent deplorable Colonial Marines and although we had fun with the Alien vs Predator games, they were never in keeping with the films. Here, finally, is a developer who is trying to do the original film justice, a difficult and unenviable task but one that they’ve taken very seriously. What we’ve seen of the game looked a lot like recent survival horrors Amnesia and Outlast, but after a few minutes with the game you quickly see how it’s setting itself apart.
The first thing that hits you is the incredible sense of immersion. You’re not on the Nostromo in the game but you might as well be, in the developer session Creative Assembly explained the painstaking lengths they went to in order to create the feel of the original film. From using similar techniques to create concept art all the way to playing created cut-scenes through an old broken VCR to get that distinctive low-fi look, everything seems perfect. The demo took place in a small lab area but every single desk, switch and monitor looked perfect and just how you’d imagine something from that universe to look. For an abandoned spaceship it also felt surprisngly animate with moving ornaments, flashing lights and satisfyingly clunky doors spread liberally throughout. Not only did the entire setting appear perfectly faithful to the source material, but it also felt lived in and real, something that so many games fail to achieve. If you took the Alien out of this game it’d still be worth the asking price just to explore the spaceship the game takes place on.
We were playing on Xbox One and graphically it was astounding, but mostly through art-direction rather than technical trickery. It was hard to judge the framerate (although it never felt sluggish or like it was slowing down too much) and I imagine the resolution was 720p – but the lighting effects were dynamic and impressive, there was an incredible sense of scale outside the window and smoke effects worked with the environment well. For what was apparently an early build, this is an incredibly polished product and although we didn’t queue up again to see it on PC, we were impressed enough with what we saw on what is undoubtedly the least powerful of next-gen machines.
The gameplay revolved around completing a set of reasonably simple objectives while avoiding the alien. All you had to do was find a plasma torch, open up a door, hack into a console and then eventually wait for an airlock to depressurise which might not be the most exciting tasks but at least gave you enough of a sense of urgency to keep you moving. The reason you might not want to keep moving is the alien itself. After my first death I hid for a good minute or so in a corner of the room, too terrified to move towards the exit – it’s that intimidating. Taking cues from not the original film, but our memories of what we thought the alien was like in the original film, it is both huge and nimble, powerful yet intelligent, imposing but stealthy. The game UI is mostly limited to a motion tracker you could summon with RB that not only performs its major function but also shows you the direction fo your next objective. The lack of an on-screen marker was another plus for immersion. After your initial encounter where you see the alien in nearly all its glory, the beat is set loose in the area of the game you’re in. It doesn’t follow a set patrol path or area, there’s no script to tell it where to go, it simply hunts you. It hunts you.
Instead of a psychic ability to hone in, the alien uses sight and sound to track you down, but when you’re moving through enclosed (but non-linear) spaces in a dilapidated metal ship, it’s surprisingly hard to be stealthy. There’s no completely safe place to hide, there’s no tricks or cover system, there’s simple peek buttons, a flash light (that you’ll probably not one to have on) and your motion tracker. In a scene more reminiscent of the Raptor kitchen from Jurassic Park, you skulk around pipes and ledges, desperately trying to keep out of the alien’s way as you make your way to the objective. If it sees you, it’s pretty much game over man. It’s faster than you and will instantly kill you if it catches you, performing a number of grisly animations (some with clear references to the films such as a tail through your stomach from behind and not one was repeated in my plathrough) and then sending you back to a checkpoint. You can’t kill it and even if you could, it’s got a wonderful defence mechanism.
Over time you learn to adapt, you keep out of the way, keep moving and make it. Unfortunately Creative Assembly are evil and nearly every time you achieve anything, you’re rewarded with a flashing light or alarm going off, exactly what you don’t want when a seven foot tall killing machine is on the prowl, forcing you to retreat yet again in order to survive another minute.
In this brief demo we experienced a masterpiece of tension and dread. It was everything the trailers promised and more, it was exactly what we would want from a game set in the original film’s style. There are still questions about how the game will stay interesting over an entire campaign (although the developers spoke a little bit about crafting distractions and the alien learning to adapt to your strategies) but for now we are satisfied that the franchise is finally in safe hands. Although the experience was harrowing, terrifying and nerve-racking we can’t wait for October to come. You have my sympathies.