Alien Isolation Hands-On Preview
Format Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC: Developer Creative Assembly: Publisher Sega: Released this quarter
"Alien Isolation is the game we would like to play," says Alistair Hope, the game's creative lead, "a game that takes you back to the roots of the series, takes you back to Ridley Scott's original haunted house in space."
Given that the past 15 years of Alien-based games have largely failed to stand up to even the most mild and generous of critical dissection, both Creative Assembly and publisher Sega are understandably cautious about showing off a new entry in the franchise for the first time. Consistent failure tends to breed timidity. It's clear, though, that Isolation is not your typical Alien offering.
Thankfully, this isn't a first-person shooter a la Colonial Marines. More surprisingly, perhaps, given the history of the development team, this isn't an all-out tactical feast either. This is a survival horror game, pitting you as Amanda Ripley (daughter of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley), against a single alien set against the backdrop of a spaceship oozing claustrophobia, mystery and desolation.
As Hope states, this is very much a game based on the first Alien movie, the only one of the series' entries that could accurately be described as favouring horror over action. The idea is not to replicate the 1979 original so much as to harness the essence of what made it intriguing, an essence that has refused to be defeated by the test of time.
Hope describes the game as an extended experience: "there's a different sense of tone and place between Alien and the other Aliens movies. The experience is very different and the goal for me was translating that idea [of the first film] into a videogame. We're not making the videogame of the movie, but something that is very close and can take advantage of that aesthetic, that creature and that particular view of the future."
Having already been in a secretive development cycle for three years, and not due out until the close of 2014, Creative Assembly has had plenty of time to get the balance right. That balance pivots around the idea of pitting a vulnerable character against seemingly impossible odds. The section we're let loose on, located some halfway through the game's narrative (the details of which remain a closely-guarded secret), see Ripley trying to move through a small section of the ship in a bid to reach the safety of an airlock. Hiding in lockers, under tables and behind anything opaque is very much the order of the day, with plenty of peeking around corners before committing to any kind of movement.
The reason for caution stems from the alien's demonic presence; whether you can see him/her/it or not, the tension and incessant fear in the knowledge that it's there somewhere and is actively hunting you hangs in the air like the smell of blood in an abattoir. To make things worse there are no weapons in sight, the only tool available to you coming in the form of a motion tracker that only adds to the anxiety as you try in vain to tear your eyes away from it.
"We don't focus on the gore aspect of horror," Hope tells us, "we didn't want lots of your body being torn in half and thrown across the room. That side of horror is not at the forefront for us. We wanted a sense of underlying dread; you go into a space, you hear noises that you've heard before and you know it's dangerous. We wanted you to go into a room and, even if there's nothing in there, feel as scared as you would in other games where the danger is much more obvious."
Ripley may be the protagonist, but it's obvious that the alien is the star of the show. Its three metre height is exaggerated by the tight confines of the ship's dimly lit corridors and an enormous amount of effort has gone into making it move in the manner of a predator hunting its prey, it's scared of nothing and that makes it intimidating. The animation team explains that the alien has three basic states, and will act differently depending on which it's in (or which you have triggered).
At all times it is stalking you, looking for visual and/or audio clues as to your whereabouts. It can hear you more clearly if you run (so walking is advisable), your flashlight is handy in the dark but is literally a dead giveaway and even hiding in lockers doesn't work if you've just been sprinting as it can hone in on your heavy breathing. If it is alerted to you, but doesn't see you, it enters an investigation phase in which its senses are heightened and takes more care over checking out every nook and cranny. Finally, attack phase... well, you're dead.
The alien feels genuinely unstoppable and that in itself is enough for you to do all you can to avoid coming into direct contact with it. At one point during development Creative Assembly gave players a gun just to see how they would approach things differently when armed. The result was most players ignoring their weapon in fear that, rather than killing it, the bullets would simply annoy the alien and give away their position. You're at the bottom of the food chain here and, in the best traditions of natural selection, there's nothing you can do about it.
Impressively, the alien doesn't simply repeat the same patrol patterns ad nauseam. This is evidenced by dying and loading up the same sequence and seeing (or not seeing) the alien in different places at different times and looking for you in different ways. This takes away the option of simply learning a route through trial and error and then simply running through a zone freely once you've perished enough times to work out where is safe and when. Of course, that not knowing where the alien is can be just as daunting as being face to face with it.
"We've found that players are scared when they can see the alien, because they recognise the danger and the threat it poses," says Hope, "but we've also found that players are equally, if not more so, scared when they can't see the alien, because there's no info on what it is doing. There's a good conflict there in terms of not wanting to see the alien, but kind of wanting to see him at the same time."
While the 30-minute sequence we played was entirely based around avoiding the alien and getting to relative safety, the promise is that the full game will be made up of varying elements. "The game is about being in this world, being confronted by different things and being given choices about how you're going to tackle and overcome these obstacles," says Hope.
"There's a really nice combination of elements that provides a lot of contrast and allows the player to experience new things and give them small tastes of success that drive you on to attain overall success. We wanted the player to be both scared and thrilled to be with the alien, kind of like a rollercoaster. It can't just be oppressive and horrible all the time, you need that mix of tension and release."
Underlying the core Ripley versus alien gameplay is a drive to be as aesthetically true to the movie as possible. Creative Assembly has been given full access by franchise owner FOX to the original musical score and sound effects, some of which never actually made it into the final cut of the movie but work for a game which needs more audio to cover the longer running time. The music itself has been rerecorded by London Philharmonic and "can be broken down into separate elements and this allows us," says Hope, "to pull out individual horror elements of the sound and to change it and remix it on the fly so that it reacts to what the player and the alien is seeing and doing."
While the visual fidelity is mightily impressive (we were playing on Xbox One), a lot of time and effort has gone into making sure certain elements feel as though they're of the right era. This is a game set in the future, but a future conceived in the1970s.
"We spent a lot of time and money trying to make a lot of the presentation look bad and dated, and that wasn't easy," explains excitable UI designer Jon McKellan. "The approach we ended up using was to take footage and UI elements from the game, transfer it to VHS and play it back on a horrible old, curved portable TV covered in magnets and using terrible old cables. We recorded that onto old Alien VHS tapes so that any noise that did come through was real noise from the film. It created that really amazing aesthetic that you just couldn't recreate in post-production."
It's an effect that is plain to see on everything from the screen of your motion tracker to the overlay of the ship's blueprint-style map and in the design of a shape-matching hacking mini-game. This is very much a retro view of the future, about as far from the currently in vogue hyper sci-fi approach of videogames such as Mass Effect, XCOM and Killzone as you can get.
"It's certainly more of a challenge to do things this way," McKellan continues. "We could have just done hologram-style stuff, which is easier, but it just doesn't work for this. It feels out of place when you're trying to look and feel like a movie that was released in the 70s. We decided we wouldn't add anything unless you could have built it in 1979. There are no touch pads, no WiFi, no holograms... it really pushed us into using things like old radios and old televisions, Polaroid's rather than digital photo frames, and that gives everything a very functional, tactile feel that I think has been missing from sci-fi for a long time."
At this point, the game is playable from start to finish. All that's left to do between now and launch day is polishing up of some the visuals, balancing the difficulty and making sure the pacing works as intended. This being an Alien game, however, means that questions are going to be asked and suspicions raised over just how the final game is going to turn out. Putting it mildly, we've been burned in the past by getting our hopes up. On the flip side, this is Creative Assembly in charge and we're more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The biggest question, given the core values of the project, is whether or not it can accurately capture the essence of a movie recognised as seminal in the realms of both sci-fi and horror. It's a challenge not lost of the dev team.
"It's difficult. We had a problem right away, in that Alien lasts for two hours and is mostly on one ship - while we've got a much bigger game to fill and in a much bigger place," notes McKellan. "A lot of the strengths of the film are in not just what happens, but the way it's edited and the perspective you're given of watching it happen to someone else rather than having it happen to you.
"There's quite a lot of differences that we have to account for, we can't just show a six-frame shot of the alien and expect that to work for us because the player might not see it or might go a different way. However, the ending of the movie, when Ripley is trying to get to the self-destruct area of the ship and she's peeking around corners and constantly afraid of where the alien is... that's the core of what we're trying to achieve, that reluctance to want to be in the same space as the alien."
However, having now experienced such a thing, we just can't help but want to get back in there... if only to feel the thrill of avoiding it.