Platforms: PC | PS3 | PS4 (tested) | Xbox 360 | Xbox One
Developer: The Creative Assembly
I have no sympathy for Ellen Ripley. Sure, she went through 117 minutes of hell during the original Alien, but last week SEGA threw me into a darkened room with the latest build of Alien Isolation for four terrifying hours of desperate panic, evasion, improvisation and over a dozen grisly deaths.
Keen to maintain full transparency following the Colonial Marines debacle, The Creative Assembly gave me free reign with their very latest Steam build -- achievements, graphics settings and all, with no timeskips or gameplay breaks -- then sat back and left me to it. I emerged browbeaten and emotionally drained, yet deeply impressed with what I'd played.
Alien Isolation is set to be a very different kind of horror game. Not a haunted house, but a horror playground that pits you against an implacable adversary that hunts without mercy and constantly hits you where you think you're safe. Where no two levels, or even handful of minutes, plays out the same way.
I picked up the narrative "a few hours" into the game, as Amanda Ripley and her crew find themselves trapped within the claustrophobic confines of the Sevastopol Station. She's desperate to find out what happened to her mother, but her mission has to wait, seeing as an injured crewman requires immediate attention. Discovering that widespread looting in the face of the Xenomorph attack has left medical supplies at a premium, she sets off to find a trauma kit in what remains of the medical wing.
Though I'll keep spoilers to a minimum, suffice to say that our journey took us through Seegson Synthetics' laboratories, industrial facilities, surgeries and all manner of uncomfortably dark piping.
Sevastopol looks the business, seeing as it was designed using several gigabytes of official reference material while the art team only creating scenery that would have been possible to physically construct in 1979; all physical buttons, tape recorders and chunky CRTs. It feels like a real physical space, and better yet, a believable working station. The Creative Assembly kept realism in mind when designing the environments -- there are Synthetics on board... so there must also be a maintenance bay somewhere... and component storage... and a facility to manufacture all that syrupy white fluid they copiously bleed -- meaning that you'll have to suspend relatively little disbelief.
We already knew all that from previous hands-on sessions, though, so naturally I was focused on the level design. Each area is compact yet incredibly dense, bristling with optional interlocking rooms to explore for potential crafting components (more on those later), vent systems and underfloor ducting. Canny players will use all of these elements to their advantage, alongside discovering hidden 'rewire' terminals that can reroute limited power between different systems. Should you deactivate air purification or lighting to unlock vent access? It's your call. As such, Sevastopol is very much a playgound as opposed to a tour.
Except that it's not a playground for you. It's a hunting ground for the Alien.
Forget patrol routes and scripted scenes. True to the nature of the film, the indestructible Xenomorph is a hunter who'll track you down via sight and sound, and systemically search areas in an effort to sup upon your tasty grey matter. When 'idle,' it will often lurk within the ceiling ductwork (many times I spotted the telltale drool dropping from an open ceiling vent far too late!) or crawl through otherwise inaccessible areas, else stomp around areas it finds suspicious. However, when it hears a footstep, falling box or attack, it will make a beeline for the area and start a systematic hunt, leaving you to desperately run and hide as quickly as you can.
Being seen usually results in swift and horrible death, meaning that you'll desperately attempt to hide under tables or in lockers, peeking and leaning, holding your breath, as it attempts to ascertain the source of the disturbance. And eat it. Hiding is only a temporary solution, and I was often surprised at how tenacious the Alien was, at least after holding my breath in real life as well as in the game while its eyeless muzzle snarled mere centimetres away from the locker grille. It looked under the tables then finally left the room, and I relaxed my grip on the trigger... only for it to charge back in, rip the door off its hinges and puncture Amanda's skull. I yelped. It was embarrassing.
Critically your nemesis can strike anywhere, at any time, even when you assume that you're safe. At one point I found myself in a room with a quartermaster android, who was a key part of the story progression, then proceeded to activate it and move on without incident. After dying several minutes later, I returned to the familiar room, activated the synthetic, then turned around straight into the alien's leering maw. No vent is safe. No room is untouchable. And even though some areas must be designated 'safe' zones, you'll never know which. Like the best horror games, you're always on guard and always vulnerable, knowing that each new attempt could play out in a totally different way.
Amanda Ripley is her mother's daughter, though, and a real survivor at that. Collecting components allows her to construct a range of 'distraction' devices such as 'Noisemakers' that can lure the Alien to a particular location, EMP mines to deal with pesky androids and molotov cocktails to temporarily scare off the animalistic Xenomorph. Coupled with the dense and intricate level design, you'll use this toolkit on-the-fly to stay alive, but constantly have to switch up your tactics to come to terms with the most terrifying aspect of Alien Isolation.
See, the Xenomorph adapts to your playstyle. When it witnesses you do something, whether hiding in a locker or deploying a flare, the AI unlocks new ways to deal with the situation. Throw a flare or two and it'll lure the Alien away. Throw too many and it'll start searching for the source of the next one. I.e. you. During my session it saw me sneak under a table, so it then proceeded to search tables in each new room it entered.
Systematic and dynamic hunting AI, coupled with intricate level design, gadgets and an adversary who'll learn new tricks, ensures that each playthough and each attempt feels different. And deeply, horribly terrifying. The sound design certainly doesn't help matters, seeing as scraping strings rub shoulders with sound effects designed to shock, such as opening a locker resembling an orchestra hit mixed with a metallic scream.
And then there's the save system. Oh baby. Having previously tested an ancient pre-alpha build, I was concerned that the checkpoint system quickly destroyed any feeling of real threat and turned Alien Isolation into a stealth game after a few retries. Now, however, things are very different. You can only save by locating sparse emergency terminals dotted around Sevastopol, usually off the beaten track and requiring optional exploration to find. Then inserting your personal keycard and waiting one... two... three agonising seconds for the save to finally register.
It's harrowing and uniquely brilliant, as dying carries the genuine risk of losing several minutes of progress. Which, of course, isn't as problematic as most games, seeing as your next run can and will pan out in a totally different way.
The term 'Isolation' isn't entirely accurate, seeing as Amanda will also encounter other survivors, security personnel and Synthetics on Sevastopol. Most aren't immediately hostile, willing to warn you away from sensitive areas before they start shooting, but this can present all manner of serious dilemmas. After all, objectives are usually placed in those self same 'sensitive areas' under guard by robots and gun-toting Marshals. Combat is brutal and dirty, with a pipe wrench, baton or revolver dealing nasty and decisive damage, but of course the Alien will hear these skirmishes as a veritable dinner bell. Evasion and stealth is the order of the day, then, or even using them as a distraction to lure the alien away from your position.
They an even pose player-driven moral choices. On the run from the prowling Xeno, I ran straight into a hysterical female doctor who started shouting and screaming for me to stay away. She had a gun. Was she willing to use it? I had no time to find out, because as the motion tracker pulsed to alert me to the oncoming Alien, I panicked and clobbered her with my wrench to silence her shouting. It worked, and I managed to cower under a gurney as the Alien investigated the scene, but I felt genuinely awful as the adrenalin wore off. I subsequently died, and the next time, she was nowhere to be found. Again, each playthrough brings a new story.
Impressed as I was, we call it how we see it here at Dealspwn.com, and The Creative Assembly still has some work to do. The physics engine needs work (as most objects seem to weigh the same amount, leading to some seriously odd interactions from time to time), texture quality could use a slight boost on certain terminals (yes, I deactivated the film grain at one point to poke about), and frankly I was disappointed that a small number of pointless environmental QTEs had snuck their way in. They're unnecessary, do nothing to heighten immersion and should be eradicated post-haste. Get away from here you bitches!
But if Alien Isolation can maintain this level of tension, smart design and terror throughout its runtime, The Creative Assembly may be on course to deliver that rarest of horror games; one that's as scary the second time around. Not to mention an Alien game that we and the license truly deserve.
We'll find out next month.