Platforms: PC | PS3 | PS4 (tested) | Xbox 360 | Xbox One
Developer: The Creative Assembly
I'm going to die in a locker.
It was all going so well. My exploration of an abandoned laboratory was proceeding swimmingly until the motion tracker blared into life, catching me out in the open with nowhere to run. The Alien is coming. It's close. I can't fight it. I can't outrun it. But a winking green light on the other side of the hallway promised a safe haven: a locker big enough to hide in, only a short sprint away.
And now I'm going to die. Following my footsteps, the Xenomorph stalks past the locker grille, and for a split-second I think I'm safe as I peer through the slats. No such luck. It wheels and thrusts its eyeless muzzle up against the door, all fangs and slime. I shrink back from the grille, willing myself to sink into the darkness and hold my breath -- both in the game and in real life. Please, please, please just walk away! After what felt like an eternity, the chitinous horror finally sloped back down the hall and I let out a sigh of desperate relief. I've survived... but the Alien is still out there. Waiting. Hunting me.
If The Creative Assembly can sustain this fear throughout the campaign, Alien Isolation could well become the best and most chilling survival horror game we've seen in some time, not to mention an outstanding tie-in. That's a seriously big "if," mind, and the uncomfortable question hanging over what is otherwise a very impressive debut.
SEGA are keen to demonstrate complete transparency throughout Alien: Isolation's development cycle (three guesses why?), meaning that they brought a completely playable pre-alpha build along to EGX Rezzed for both press and public. It's early days, but it's already clear that The Creative Assembly have nailed the look and feel of Ridley Scott's seminal horror film.
From the moment Amanda Ripley steps into the Sevastopol research station to find the Nostromo's black box recorder -- and hopefully her mother -- Isolation makes you feel like you're living an official sequel to Alien. It's pitch-perfect, from the chunky 80s feel of the technology to the architecture, lighting and environmental details. The score, sound effects and even alarm noise are all spot on, while newer gadgets such as the motion tracker and plasma torch (both from Aliens, not the original) feel suitably primitive compared to their more advanced successors, slotting into the timeline and setting perfectly. As a final cherry on the cake, a murky grain filter overlays the pre-alpha build, retaining the crisp clarity of the PS4's visuals but resembling an old-school VHS recording in parts. We hope it makes the final cut.
It's a thrill to stalk through Sevastopol's corridors in search of escape and closure, especially in first-person, but not a comfortable one. There's nothing more unnerving than being totally alone in a place that should be bustling with life, so The Creative Assembly have spared no effort in making the station feel lived-in. It's the little details that hit hardest: postcards and family photos inside locker doors or discarded chewing gum shoved underneath desks. Clear signs that the station was full of people going about their daily routine... who are now vanished, dead or far worse. The mind boggles in horrible, appalling ways.
You'll have plenty of time to admire these little details, however, because you'll spend a lot of time cowering inside lockers and underneath desks. Amanda is not alone, rather she's stalked by a single implacable Xenomorph throughout the entire campaign. In stark contrast to Colonial Marines' useless glitch puppets, this Xenomorph is a horrifying apex predator, capable of outrunning and killing Amanda instantly if it spies her. It can't be killed, though presumably can be hurt or distracted by crafted items in future builds. As such, the mechanics and controls are built around pure stealth and breaking line of sight, with Amanda able to automatically clamber under tables and benches, peek with a satisfyingly old-school lean mechanic (no sticky cover here) and keep tabs on the Alien's movement with her trusty motion tracker.
Effectively the Xenomorph acts as a guard, boss, dynamic jump scare and puzzle all rolled into one. You'll cower under tables as your nemesis stalks you, seeing its clawed feet stomp past inches from your face. Shriek as it unfurls from a vent and begins its pursuit. Desperately sneak around its peripheral vision, peeping out to make sure it can't see you... occasionally poking your head out to stare straight into its two awful mouths. It'll hunt you by sight and sound, punishing players foolish enough to sprint, overuse their flashlight or enter the creature's line of sight. Half horror and half pure stealth game, Isolation really makes a fantastic first impression.
It's terrifying, at least, for a while. Unfortunately even this brief debut build illustrates the biggest problem facing Alien: Isolation. Maintaining the terror beyond the first few minutes.
I almost screamed the first time I died, believing myself to be safe until six inches of tail spike punched straight through Amanda's chest. The next time was equally scary, leading to the locker anecdote I led with, before the beast saw me sprinting to the safety of an airlock, grabbed Amanda's ankles, lifted her aloft and cracked her skull with its nasty second mandible.
However, after resetting to a recent checkpoint for the third time, something suddenly changed as if a lightswitch flicked on in my brain. There was a checkpoint. I was safe and there was nothing to lose. The Alien's just a patrolling guard, like a chitinous Johnny Sasaki, following a logical route. Immediately the tension dissipated as Isolation became an exercise in pattern recognition and stealth, knowing that I had a safety net and nothing to fear. Worse still, the climactic section of the game saw the Xenomorph just marching around the corridors like a Metal Gear Solid soldier, not using the vents or ducts, and thus all too easy to track.
The Creative Assembly are going to have a devil of a time trying to balance the comfort of checkpoints with the aggravation of replaying enormous amount of content, all in an effort to ensure that Isolation remains scary after a few failed attempts.
Don't lose heart, dear reader, because now I have to remind you that this is based on a pre-alpha build: a primitive placeholder-strewn vertical slice designed to pitch the full game's mood and feel, yet succeeded in both gripping and terrifying me for 15 minutes in a room full of gossiping strangers. The Creative Assembly plan to massively boost the Alien's AI, allowing it to hunt with cunning and intelligence. They'll introduce new items to craft, new stages and new ways to apply our growing stealth skills on the fly. It's also likely that the full game will feature multiple difficulty settings, and checkpoints spaced much further apart than a demo designed to be consumed in 20 minutes at a trade show.
If they pull it off -- if -- then this outstanding debut is just first contact with a truly superior licensed game, and an experience that makes Xenomorphs scary again. Our fingers are well and truly crossed ahead of Alien: Isolation's October 7th release.