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Sega and developer The Creative Assembly were at E3 to show off their newest endeavor, the survival horror game Alien: Isolation, a sequel to the classic 1979 film Alien and a prequel to 1986’s Aliens. I got to watch a media-only presentation, as well as try my hand at an alpha build of the game. Read on to find out if this will finally be a return to form for the franchise.
The presentation was conducted by Creative Assembly’s lead artist Jude Bond, who did a blow by blow of a gameplay presentation showing one of Isolation‘s production levels.
It was immediately apparent that CA had absolutely nailed the visual and aural aesthetics of Alien. The space station Sevastopol, where Isolation takes place, has the same architecture and design as the Nostromo from Alien, a design that Bond called “a 70s vision of the future,” and “a very clunky junky push-button world.” As a longtime fan of the franchise, I was genuinely impressed by how much CA had successfully replicated the look and feel of Alien‘s environments. Every detail was spot-on, including Amanda Ripley’s watch, which looked like a 70’s styled futuristic calculator watch.
As the presentation showed, Isolation will have a crafting system, where various spare parts can be collected from the environment and assembled into things like med-kits, explosives, and various makeshift tools. Hacking is also present in the game, which can best be described as being similar to videotape tracking.
As far as weapons go, Ripley has a wrench for beating people with and a revolver, although it only had three shots in it. Later on, she would find the iconic flamethrower from Alien.
One particularly important tool at Ripley’s disposal is the motion tracker, which should be familiar to anyone who has watched the first two Alien movies. What struck me about the motion tracker in this game compared to other Alien games, such as the first two Alien vs Predators, is that this is the first Alien game to use the motion tracker as a survival and evasion tool, rather than a tool to inform you on where to direct your pulse rifle fire. There were numerous moments in which the tracker would show movement only a few feet away from the player, despite the absence of any visible threats, which suggests that the alien was stalking Ripley in the ceiling above or under the floor.
A few minutes into the presentation, the creature made an appearance. Ripley quickly scrambled into a nearby room and locked herself in a cupboard. Hiding in spaces is not new in survival horror these days, but Isolation takes it a step further by allowing you to hold your breath, as the alien, otherwise known as the perfect organism, is no slouch when it comes to finding its prey. The disadvantage to holding your breath, of course, is that you start to take damage if you do it for too long and let out an audible gasp once Ripley can’t take it anymore.
As the presentation continued, the game’s non-alien foes made appearances. These include survivors who are desperate for food, having been stranded on the station for quite some time. Evading them was the best solution, and in some cases their lack of discreteness would attract the attention of the alien, which I could see as a potential way to open up several tactical choices for evading the creature.
Throughout the demonstration, I was struck by Isolation‘s sound design, which was perhaps one of the best I’ve ever heard in a videogame. The voice acting was wonderfully done, especially Ripley’s. From her terrified breaths and screams to the sense of dread in her voice whenever she communicated with her colleague through her earpiece, so much about her character was communicated with just the expressiveness of her voice actress. An ambient hum permeated the station’s atmosphere, and the game’s music, consisting largely of orchestral flares and sinister sounding strings and horns, would blend in seamlessly whenever something exciting happened. Gunfire was loud and crackled realistically, echoing and reverberating down the station’s enclosed hallways. Additionally, the game’s many different sirens and klaxons were straight out of the movie. All of the game’s aural details combined into a wonderful science-fiction symphony of terror.
One section of the presentation showed a powerful enemy, an android. It was capable of strangling and punching Ripley, and was highly resistant to both her revolver and flamethrower. Only by employing her EMP grenade did the android die and crumble to the floor.
The alien made a second appearance later on, and the developer playing the game was spotted and promptly killed. Ripley let out a choked scream, and the camera panned down, showing the alien’s spearheaded tail protruding through her chest. A second try saw Ripley successfully evade the creature by carefully using cover, and the it was soon after that the presentation concluded.
Overall, I was pleased that the demonstration contained no real jump scares and “Gotcha” moments. Given their effectiveness at eliciting reactions, I was half expecting CA to throw in a few during the demo. Instead, they gave us a slow, brooding experience that rose and climaxed artfully, just as the 1979 film did. It was clear that the studio was aiming to build a game that was terrifying, and not one that was startling.
My own hands-on demo with the game showed Alien Isolation to not just be incredibly scary, but ridiculously hard.
The demo level simply gave me one objective, to escape. Right off the bat, I noticed that there were a few challenges that I could beat, such as to get through the level without using the motion tracker. As I would find out in a short while, doing this would be incredibly hard.
Controlling Ripley was straightforward and effortless. Clicking the right analog stick would crouch, the face buttons would activate various tools like the flashlight, motion tracker and map, right trigger would attack, and the left bumper would make Ripley peek out of cover.
Within seconds I was killed, as the alien entered the room I was in, and I failed to find proper cover. Upon spotting me, it let out a shriek and sprinted straight for me, resulting in a skull-crushing encounter with its inner-jaw. Clearly, being spotted by the alien in this game was almost not an option.
My second attempt fared better. I found myself using cover a lot, and having to track the alien either by using the motion tracker or using my own eyes to see it in the distance.
I was struck by how challenging evading the creature was; unlike recent survival horror games like Amnesia and Outlast, where you could find a good hiding a spot and just wait for the threat to leave the room, the alien in Isolation was actively searching for you in a manner that wasn’t scripted. It wouldn’t just walk into a room, look around, and then leave; it would search the room thoroughly. There was no clear pattern to its behavior, and despite having seen every Alien movie and played all the games since I was a child, I was, for the first time ever, genuinely terrified of the Xenomorph. This wasn’t a “bug” scurrying about that you could blow away with a shotgun blast, this was an enormous, seven foot tall avatar of death that you absolutely did not want to be anywhere near.
The thing about many survival horror games like Amnesia and Outlast is that once you get over the scare factor and steel yourself, those games actually aren’t very difficult at all. You simply had to figure out the pattern behind the AI and just stick with a certain rhythm throughout the whole game. This wasn’t so much the case in Isolation, as the alien presented a genuine challenge that only served to ramp up the scare factor beyond anything I’d ever played. If you ever saw Jurassic Park, picture the scene in which the two Velociraptors stalk Tim and Lex, and you will have a very good idea of my experience with the Alien Isolation demo.
Standing in a crowded E3 showfloor with lights and fanfare happening all around me, I did not think that I would be adequately immersed in the demo, but I absolutely was. As the alien creeped closer and the game’s music and ambient sounds ratcheted up like a carefully formulated cocktail of horror, I felt my palms getting sweatier and my knees growing weak. I was convinced that the alien would find me, so I tried to make a beeline for the nearest door. The last thing I remember was the sounds of the alien screaming behind me, a crescendo of its hurried footsteps, and the screen going black, accompanied by the sounds of bones cracking and blood spilling. I tore off my headphones and declared, “That’s all I can handle today.”
It has been a long, long time since anything decent came out of the Alien franchise. Time and time again my hopes were lifted and then crushed by each disastrous new entry to the franchise, which hasn’t seen anything respectable since Monolith’s 2001 Alien vs Predator 2. When the slap in the face to Aliens fans that was Colonial Marines came out, I was just about ready to declare the franchise as dead as a hapless victim to a newly born chestburster.
Thankfully, it seems that Sega hasn’t given up just yet, and everything I’ve seen, heard, and played of Alien Isolation is the best I’ve seen from the franchise in nearly 15 years. I hope that The Creative Assembly can sustain what I experienced at E3 over the course of the entire game, and be the ones who finally set things right with this troubled but beloved franchise.