...But it's the sound design that'll really fill you with dread
This is how you do survival horror. Just you, a motion tracker, a space station running on dodgy backup power so there are light out all over the place, jumpy human NPCs with itchy trigger fingers, and one of the most terrifying, monstrous creations we've ever had the privilege of being utterly scared by.
Being powerless is something that Amnesia deployed to great effect, but that was combined with some semblance of the unknown. As much as ignorance can be bliss, the fear of the unknown can be a powerful thing. Not knowing what horrors await you can be chilling indeed, and I have to say I wondered how Creative Assembly would go about breathing new life into a creature that lost some of its impact to scare us as its films became more and more action-oriented. I needn't have worried. The clue is the lack of a plural in the title.
The story takes it's lead from Ridley Scott's Alien, set fifteen years after the original film. The flight recorder from the Nostromo has been retrieved and taken back to a space station called Sevastopol. However, communication with the station has been lost, and so a team is sent in to investigate, one of whom happens to be a Weyland Yutani employee by the name of Amanda Ripley, Ellen's daughter. Our demo began in the San Cristobal medical wing of the station, with Amanda tasked with reaching a sort of makeshift base of operations, probably set up by her colleagues. The first-person controls feel a little sluggish at first, but this is not a twitch shooter, and although focusing on items feels a little floaty to begin with, it doesn't present a huge problem. You have your motion tracker, bound to a shoulder button, you have your map available from the menu. Both will prove invaluable.
In a way, so much of Alien: Isolation is about the unknown in context. As creative lead Al Hope explained it to me, the procedurally-generated Alien dips in and out of the area you're in. It's always lurking about somewhere, but it won't actively come after you unless you give it a reason to -- like making any noise, or shining a light around. So it is that you find yourself crouching and sneaking an awful lot of the time, desperately trying to stay still whilst cowering under a hospital gurney, forever checking your motion tracker to see if the creature is still in the vicinity.
The motion tracker is your best friend and also the harbinger of doom. Quicker bleeps set the heart racing as you wheel about trying to determine the direction that the Alien is coming from. There are no telegraphing vents like in Dead Space, no obvious entrances and exits into a level (doors aside). You can hear the beeps but you can't see the monster. There are shrieks from down a corridor, but you can't tell which one, the dynamic lighting is constantly shifting, shadows always changing so your distance perception goes completely off-kilter. You scramble for any sort of cover, absolutely anything at all -- a table, a bed, a locker, anything -- you forget to crouch as you move and you swear. One heavy step is all it might take. There's a hydraulic hiss, the stomping of feet. You try and use the game's lean mechanism to take a closer look. And then you see it.
And then you hear it... breathing.
The first time I encountered the Alien was my own fault. I'd made my position all too clear by bumbling into some science equipment and the last thing I saw was it's tiny mouth-within-a-mouth punching my screen red. The second time I ran straight into some humans, who started shooting at me because they were rather jumpy. The Alien descended upon them, and I cowered under a bed in the next room, listening to them all dying loudly. One of the humans ran into the room I was in, but the Alien soon followed, tore him apart and then patrolled the area, screeching intermittently. At times I thought I could hear it sniffing, as if it could smell me. I peeked out for a bit to see if the coast was clear after a minute of two. It wasn't. I did, however, happen to have a flamethrower on me. The Alien didn't like that, and it backed off, staying out of range of the fiery plume. Unfortunately, it was right in my way and getting angrier by the second. Eventually it disappeared and I thought maybe, just maybe it had gotten bored and wandered off. Then it dropped back into the level just behind me, and killed me before I could spark up the weapon in my hands.
As I was packing up my camera following my interview with Hope, I was still gushing about the horrific potential of the dynamic Alien.
"It was our way of creating something unpredictable," Hope told me. "We couldn't invent something new, and the films are so well-known, the Alien is so well-known that anything scripted would have been redundant. The whole thing revolved around the issue of making this creature scary again, genuinely scary. That was the biggest challenge for us from the start. It has to feel like the Alien is intelligent, like it's hunting you. So we couldn't simply give it predetermined paths to follow and actions to take. Instead it feeds off of the information in the level and sort of letting its senses drive the whole experience., which then makes every action the player takes, even inaction, that much more meaningful."
The point about inaction is well made. In order to access one of the areas Amanda is supposed to reach, she has to pass through a locked door. The keycode is only a stone's throw away in an adjacent chamber, but getting there feels like it takes a lifetime. Worse still, when you're stood there punching in the numbers, all you can do is pray that the Alien doesn't find you. At one point, there's an explosion and Amanda starts coughing and all I can do is hiss "Shut up! Shut the fuck up!!" at the screen. It happens automatically, so engrossed am I in the world that Creative Assembly have managed to create.
She does have a few tricks up her sleeve does our Ripley, though. The latest demo introduced the crafting mechanics wherein simple items such distracting noise-makers and molotov coktails and medikits might be manufactured from spare rags and bandages and ethanol. It's a system not unlike that found in The Last Of Us. Most useful for the purposes of the demo is the ability to craft an EMP. Upon reaching a generator room, Ripley is tasked with turning the power back on so she can actually reach her destination. Unfortunately, doing so releases a nearby android with some seriously faulty programming. Imagine if you walked into a clothes shop and one of the mannequins sparked into life and started to slowly but resolutely chase you, all the while muttering health and safety protocols. "Please don't run," says the insane android as I sprint out of harm's way. "I am fire resistant to up to 2000 degrees," it intones as I douse it in flames, stepping through the fire to strangle the life out of me. It's desperately creepy.
There are still questions to be answered, of course, about Alien: Isolation. Though I found the demo to be phenomenally tense, and frankly excellent at recreating the look and feel of the future-according-to-1979, one wonders how Creative Assembly will go about varying the pace. Having the tension always switched to 11 isn't really a viable long term option for a game said to be around 15 hours in length. Exactly how the action will be varied remains to be seen, and there's so much to this conceptual universe that remains to be explored. In creating a brand new storyline within the ALien universe, Creative Assembly have given themselves (and us) an incredible opportunity. At certain points, as I'm hopeful we'll see, it might be nice to explore elements of that without feeling constantly like I'm in danger of soiling myself. Equally, it remains to be seen exactly to what extent we might be able to interact with other human NPCs. We encountered station staff and looting gangs, some bade us stay away, others simply opened fire. If there's a middle ground, we haven't seen it yet.
There's real promise here, though. What I played of Alien: Isolation was spine-tingling chilling in atmosphere, and nearly everyone who exited that darkened room had a strange mix of almost relief and excitement on their faces. It's shaping up to be something of a survival marvel, and something that might truly to justice to the original film. But as always, execution across the duration will be key.