The idea of ‘horror’ is one quite familiar to video game fans, with the like of Resident Evil and Dead Space just two examples of games intended to shock their players until they no longer wish to see what’s around the next corner. But the concept of ‘terror’ has always been more difficult; steeping players in fear up to their eyeballs using something other than horrifying imagery. It’s still early days for Alien: Isolation, but make no mistake: after our time with the game at E3 2014, we were downright terrified.
In the world of Alien: Isolation, the developers at Creative Assembly have cast off expectations of space marines and machine guns, instead dropping players into the role of Amanda Ripley. It is Amanda’s goal to seek out evidence of her mother Ellen’s disappearance, but she soon finds herself following in her mother’s footsteps, running for her life from a lone Xenomorph in a crippled and isolated space station.
Besides promising the kind of slower-paced, more challenging action of Ridley Scott’s first film, that premise also implies that players have some sense of what to expect (having watched Sigourney Weaver survive the ordeal already). But it was only moments after we sat down to play Isolation for ourselves at E3 that the truth became clear: you’re never ready to meet a monster. Not like this, anyway.
As a general rule, it’s difficult to be truly frightened (in the traditional sense) on the floor of E3, surrounded by thousands of people and throbbing music. Being ushered into SEGA’s Isolation booth – an unlit, blacked-out bunker – and seated inches from a screen with a headset helping to dull the outside world seemed a necessity in getting even the slightest sense of ‘Isolation’ across. But the game itself did most of the work in helping erase the calm, bustling world from the mind.
The demo itself offered little introduction, simply placing Amanda into a section of the Sevastopol space station with only the supplies that sat in front of her, and a simple prompt instructing players to “escape the area” before a ticking clock warned that the “almost sentient” enemy Alien had been released into the environment. After ignoring those instruction to gather some supplies and master the controls, the swift death at the hands of the screaming Xenomorph proved that the developers weren’t kidding when they said this would be a game where players never felt safe.
It was on the second attempt that the advice of the recently-released E3 trailer for Isolation bubbled to the surface: Run, Hide, Survive. Escaping an alien killing machine without the aid of a machine gun, it seems, will be a situation in which cowardice, not courage, will lead to success. And even if Amanda Ripley is granted access to some weapons, using them is not an ideal strategy.
Stealth is the only viable option, and reacting as if a Xenomorph had walked through any door in the real world. Crouch behind cover, hide in lockers, scramble through ventilation shafts, and above all, do so quietly. The truly random decision-making powering the AI creature is beyond question, as our half-hour with the game showed virtually no repeated pathing or behavior. And while that’s good news for some diehard fans of terrifying games, it’s a fact anyone interested in playing Isolation must realize.
When caught in the midst of an escape – with the music’s bass throbbing in tune with the ‘beeps’ of Ripley’s iconic motion tracker, or the sudden swells when the creature closes in – it’s hard to appreciate all the small touches. The game’s lo-fi approach to future technology perfectly captures that of the 1979 film, and set designs sell the idea that Isolation is squarely grounded in the movie universe.
What we were shown was clearly a narrow vertical slice of the game’s campaign, and failed to include any interaction with the non-Xenomorph survivors of Sevastopol. Given just how emotionally and physically exhausting it was to be forced to ‘crawl for one’s life’ though, we hope that Isolation will include plenty of cut-scenes and story-focused gameplay sections. Especially with Oculus Rift supported… for those who need that extra dose of tension and mortal dread.
In many ways, Isolation seems like the first video game adaptation that should have been made from Ridley Scott’s original film; while inching along behind cover unable to take your eyes from the Xenomorph, or letting loose a flamethrower when you know all is lost, it dawns on you that it must be how Ripley would have felt aboard the Nostromo.
Only now, Creative Assembly claims, is the programming and tech capable of making that experience possible in a person’s own home. That alone is high praise for this horror title, but players may end up wondering why they volunteered to be terrorized by the franchise’s iconic monster – if they’re not too busy screaming.
Alien: IsolationÂ releases October 7, 2014 for the PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.