Hands On: Alien – Isolation

By RPS on March 23rd, 2014 at 9:51 pm.

When he isn’t hanging around in hotel beds with Nathan, John and assorted other folks, Hayden Dingman plays games and then writes about them. As GDC creaks to a halt for another year, he filed this report, detailing the fears and frustrations that arose during a hands-on experience with Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation. Is it the Alien game we want? Is it the Alien game we deserve? Is it gonna be a terrifying survival horror game, a standup fight or just another bughunt?

Poor Alien fans. There you sit, watchful, waiting for the day when the chosen one comes—the development studio who will deliver unto you a truly great Alien game. Like Job, you suffer one injustice after another — Aliens: Colonial Marines chief among them — and yet you do not turn away from Lord Alien the III. And now look at you — you have your hopes up again. Admirable. Foolhardy. Dangerous. During GDC, I got my hands on a preview of Alien: Isolation, the latest (and prettiest) of Alien games, this time from Creative Assembly.

First, the good: Creative Assembly nailed the aesthetic of Alien: Isolation. Unless we’re once again hit with a crazy bait-and-switch like Ridley-Scott-turning-over-in-his-grave-while-still-alive simulator Colonial Marines (doubtful), then I feel safe in saying that this game looks gorgeous. In an hour-long, exhaustive slideshow, Creative Assembly detailed to us how they’re working directly with Fox to ensure the look of the space station Sevastopol is as close to Ridley Scott’s original vision as possible.

Sevastopol, isn’t brand-new, gleaming-white perfection. It’s the beaten-to-shit car with a pile of trash in the backseat. And unlike most sci-fi, which is consistently moving technology forward, Alien: Isolation returns to the CRT monitors and blinking lights look of the original 1979 Alien film. “The whole universe of Aliens is set far in the future to today, but it’s very much built in the past. We decided to set ourselves this constraint that we wouldn’t use any references that came after 1979. It drove us to this very tactile space, this very mechanical space,” we were told during Creative Assembly’s presentation of the game.

Alien: Isolation even went to the trouble of re-recording some of the game’s video assets over old, beaten-up VHS copies of Alien—then transferring the video, tape glitches and all, back into the game. This attention to detail is fantastic.

Let’s not forget the past, though. We were given the same bill of goods when it came to Aliens: Colonial Marines — “We care so much about the franchise! Look, we even used the gun sounds from the original films!” None of it matters. You can have the prettiest game in the world, with the best damn audio, and unless you design a compelling game around it you’re still left with a pile of art assets nobody wants to play.

On the surface, Alien: Isolation sounds like the perfect game for the franchise: one xenomorph, which is impossible to kill and hunts weak, defenseless you around the ship. Undoubtedly this concept is what has resurrected people’s excitement for a series that’s repeatedly punched them in the face.

Instead of focusing on the concept and the look, I shall now describe what actually playing Alien: Isolation is like. Isolation is a first-person survival game that will inevitably draw comparisons to Frictional’s games (Penumbra, Amnesia). You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the Ripley you actually know, in an effort to find out what happened to your mother. This brings you to the space station Sevastopol.

Surprise! A xenomorph is inside, as if someone hid it in a giant, tasty cake and said, “When I start singing Happy Birthday, you’d better burst out and eat the nearest guest!”

For the purposes of the demo I took control of Amanda Ripley in her quest to get the MacGuffin out of the computer. Shit goes wrong, we get locked in, we have to use the airlock—standard stuff.

So, the playing of things. The xenomorph is clearly the centrepiece of the game. The hour-long PowerPoint slideshow that we watched before Creative Assembly turned us loose on the demo became positively masturbatory as the team regaled us at length with details of navigation meshes, rendering techniques, and blending. What did it all boil down to? “The alien is big. The alien is scary. The alien uses its senses to find you. The alien can kill you.”

Tension is a delicate thing. If you played Amnesia or Penumbra or Outlast or literally any other of the games in this vein, I’m sure you’ve encountered the following phenomena. You stumble into an unknown area and, whether through audio or visual cues, you know something terrible is about to happen. You sneak around until you finally get a glimpse of the enemy you’re supposed to avoid. You try to get away craftily, but through your own failures the enemy senses you and kills you. All tension from the hour-long build-up to this scene is now deflated, as you’re reminded that you’re playing a game. Now the enemy is just an obstacle — the equivalent of a platform for you to jump on to get to the next part of the level. It’s not frightening the second, third, fourth, or fifth, or however many times it takes you to get past.

Alien: Isolation absolutely has this issue. Creative Assembly’s xenomorph is, in their words, “lethal, terrifying, and believable.” Mostly that first one. In the demo, each time I was spotted resulted in immediate death. No chance to escape, or to hide after being seen. Death. You lose. Good day, sir.

Tension gone, replaced only with frustration. I wasn’t the only one — I spoke to another journalist who flat-out quit the demo, he was so tired of dying in the last bit.

“Just play the game better,” says the imaginary Internet commenter in my head. The problem is that the xenomorph’s AI is frustratingly inconsistent. The hallway I was in had mini-walls to hide behind, every five feet or so. At one point I heard the xenomorph coming and squeezed up tight behind one — no problem. It walked right by me, a mere two feet from my hiding spot. Then as it began to circle to the side I’d been hiding on, I slipped over to the other side of the wall (where it had just walked). This time as it passed by, it saw me. Blood. Murder. Death.

The same exact hiding spot, the same circumstances. It’s like the xenomorph is alternatively clairvoyant and the absolute dumbest creature in the universe.

Towards the end of the demo you have to escape through an airlock. Doing so requires activation of a manual override switch, which when triggered sets off an alarm and a ton of lights. Oh shit, run! I crouch-walked as fast as I could to the nearest conveniently-empty locker and stuffed myself inside, as the game clearly wanted me to do. The xenomorph stood right outside, Ripley breathing hard enough to power a wind turbine. My motion tracker went beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.

And the xenomorph walked away. Now, I’m told that there was supposed to be a button prompt for Ripley to hold her breath, but that didn’t happen in my demo and that’s unfortunate. The xenomorph, with all its supposedly heightened powers of smell and hearing, couldn’t figure out I was hidden on the other side of a flimsy piece of metal.

Less predictable AI in a horror/stealth game is an admirable pursuit. I’m tired of stealth games that are secretly puzzle games, where the guards all walk in preset routes. Give me a real challenge from the AI.

Real challenge requires consistency. Real challenge requires that the AI plays by the rules, else players feel like they are getting fucked over all the time. I’ve stood in shadows and been seen. I’ve stood out in the open and had the xenomorph scoot on by. Creative Assembly says the alien doesn’t cheat, but I couldn’t help feeling cheated with every new death.

And this besides the fact that (here are my own biases speaking) I just can’t find the alien scary anymore. Really, can you ever find anything scary once you’ve seen it waddle by like it’s wearing shit-filled pants? Creative Assembly’s xenomorph is bigger, badder, meaner-looking than any we’ve seen in a video game, so props to them for that. It slinks through the shadows like one lethal motherfucker.

But at the end of the day…it’s the xenomorph. It’s so entrenched in popular culture, there’s nothing unknown about it. I’ve murdered dozens of them over the years. It’s like making a horror game starring Levar Burton.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there is, despite initial expectations, combat in the game. You can’t kill the alien, but you will have to fight an assortment of robots and other dumb bullshit because of course this is a video game and video games have to have combat. We didn’t see any of that in the demo, but I swung my wrench around a bunch. Felt wrenchy.

Maybe Alien: Isolation will release to incredible acclaim. Maybe we’ll all look back on this preview and laugh and say, “Oh thank goodness. My expectations were so low, I’m now primed to fully appreciate the first phenomenal Alien game in the history of all games ever.” There’s an art to horror games and a ten-minute demo in a crowded room full of hot, tired journalists is hardly the correct place to know whether a game is truly scary.

Still, I’m buying some aloe and pills to alleviate the pain of getting punched in the face again.

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103 Comments »

  1. Stupoider says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

    Uh oh, Creative Assembly in charge of AI. “This is a game where you’ll never feel safe” they’ve got that right.

  2. Demon Beaver says:

    That is kind of sad.
    Then again it makes no sense to expect anything else. Video games try over and over to create pure terror like movies, but since you can always repeat from an earlier point, you simply don’t get as invested. The way games solve it is by scripted sequences. I can’t think of any game that caused sheer terror through mechanics.

    • bill says:

      It might be an unsolvable problem. But I guess at least they are trying to solve it.
      Having one alien sounds like a great idea on paper, but it does open the game up even more to the “seen it once, no longer scary” effect. Having multiple aliens and types is often very gamey, but it does kind of overcome that problem.

      I found the marine campaign on the original Pc AvP to be rather scary in parts. I was never sure, but they seemed to randomise the location of the aliens when you reloaded save games. Or maybe the aliens moved through the level randomly.
      I remember getting killed by an alien in a stairwell, and then reloading and inching my way through the stairwell, waiting for it to jump out, only it never did. So it got tenser the longer I waited.
      It (or another alien) then killed me a bit later, so I ran back through the stairwell to get to that room, only to get pounced on my two aliens in the stairwell (which definitely made me jump).

      But of course, even then, the scaryiness dropped off with time as I got better at playing, got better weapons, and after i’d killed a few hundred enemies.

      Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood angels also did a great job neing scary through audio mechanics (radio coms from your teammates calling out incoming genestealers, screaming, etc..)

      I’d definitely recommend that they randomise the alien after the player dies though.

      • toxic avenger says:

        I think this is a problem that persists past horror games, take Fallout 3 + NV for example. Your chacater’s first five or so levels, you really get a sense that you have to think things out, plan, make actual life or death decisions with your character. Do you use your medpack now or can you wait a couple more rooms of the ‘dungeon’ til you get back to town to sleep at an inn or make camp? Oh no! You’re poisoned! You need an anti-venom ASAP or you will die, next time you better allocate the pittance you have for some! What the hell is Rad-Away even used for? Aren’t there enough medkits that your character doesn’t have to drink irradiated water?

        Past that, even on the hardest difficulty, everything is a breeze. It almost ceases to be a RPG, and instead becomes a stupidly simple corridor shooter: “Can you put enough bullets through the opponent before he gets to you?” Isn’t this supposed to be the apocalypse?

        • bill says:

          The effects are probably stronger in RPG and action games, where it is expected that the player will level up in power. Horror games can avoid that specific implementation, but can’t really avoid the player becoming familiar with the mechanics and enemies, and improving in skill.

          Randomisation and disorientation and unpredictability are one way to try to avoid that, but they can lead to simple frustration. It’s a very fine line to walk.

          (kinda off topic, but i found baldur’s gate to be the same. First 2 levels were very hard and felt like you had to make big choices without knowing what was best. Then it became much easier and mainly about blasting through ranks of enemies. Yet I found the first few levels really annoying and quit at least once, but then it got much better. Different genre though)

          • vegeta1998 says:

            I kinda liked Slender, basically a rogue-like-like survival horror – meaning it avoided all of these pitfalls. I think rogue-likes are the future of single player gaming.

          • bill says:

            Interesting. Don’t know much about it.
            Did it have randomised levels and enemies?

            I was thinking that randomising levels on death might be one solution for this game, but I assume the level of graphical detail would get in the way of that.

            For many years I have thought that an AI gamesmaster was the future of single player, but frustratingly little progress has been made in that direction. It’d combine reasonably well with a rogue-like approach.

      • Skiddywinks says:

        I have to say I found AvP 1 terrifying (and 2 tbf). At least when playing as a meatbag. Especially in AvP 1, the aliens were so ridiculously fast. Hell, even the marine was rapid. FPS games nowadays are so slow. It wasn’t until I booted up AvPG recently that I realised just how massive the difference is.

        The motion detector was almost useless for the best reason; the aliens were so fast it was more of an early warning system than a tracking device. I’d hear that beep and instantly my whole body would tense up as I expected a handful of aliens to spew from a vent, the roof, that room I just went past, the floor or fucking anything. I have never felt so much dread in my life.

        In AvP2 there is a level (IIRC it is pretty early on) where you have to take an elevator down in to a hive/makeshift hive. The motion detector is going off all over the place, but you aren’t being attacked, which gave a feeling of everything being organic, like they were actually going about their day and I was about to bust the party. I got so scared and pent up during the elevator’s descent that I had to save and quit. It was only a few days later that I even managed to load it up again.

        Now, this was all when I was much younger (during my teens), but I still think such an approach would work wonders today. What made the aliens scary was their speed, agility and deadliness. All it took was a few swipes to kill you. You just couldn’t risk an alien getting in your face. And that was fair, because it only took literally a couple of bullets to destroy an alien (seeing as they have exoskeletons and no bones). This meant the game was always fast paced with survival but a fleeting dream on the horizon. And it was fucking glorious.

        I haven’t played the latest AvP, but it looks kind of slow, rote and boring. Aliens looked like bullet sponges and marines could kill aliens in melee. So yeh, I passed on that. And then I got really excited about Colonial Marines, until I saw some gameplay where the aliens tooks soo much damage and didn’t even seem to leave behind any acid blood. Right then I knew the game wasn’t the game version of Aliens that I wanted. Shock, it also turned out to be a turd.

        • bill says:

          The other cool thing about the motion detector in that game was the way things like opening doors set it off. That was a cool idea.

        • SomeDuder says:

          AvP 1 was terrifying, and it probably still is. What helps is the lack of guidance and the austerity of the environment. It’s all very recognizable, sure, but essentially, you’re just told to get to a certain point and don’t get any other guidance. Especially the marine campaign gives you this sense of loneliness and vulnerability, despite the arsenal you can carry.

          Even the predator campaign, where you are supposed to be the fearless hunter, had me shitscared. Great game and it definately shows you can make the player feel scared without resorting to cutscenes (or overhyping the fact that THIS GAME IS SCARY. YOU SHOULD BE SCARED. ARE YOU SCARED YET????)

          • Ubik2000 says:

            Man, I still remember playing the AVP 1 demo back in college. There was a moment when I casually turned around and an Alien was standing RIGHT THERE. I just about fell out of my goddamn chair. I think it’s still the most alarmed I’ve ever been playing a video game.

      • Gap Gen says:

        I suppose you could make it easier to hide so that you don’t die over and over. Another thing would be to make it less linear, so you have goals around the station to accomplish but have to avoid an alien as well.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      Permadeath is probably the closest I can think of.

      Playing any real time game that you have to invest hours into on permadeath can give a heart stopping moment when you realise you have stuffed up. Especially when wearing the Rift as I discovered on a Minecraft play-through that ended in a hiss-boom.

      • bill says:

        Personally, I don’t think permadeath is usually a viable option. Sure, it creates worry and stress about the consequences of dying, but it also usually gets in the way of actually playing the game. (not that it wouldn’t work for some games or genres).

        It tends to prevent progress. So it usually has to be made very rare. And I don’t think developers like the idea of spending lots of time on making a game that most people won’t actually see.
        It’s like an extreme “no quicksaves” game where it can cause you to have to replay the same early stages over and over. (I guess that’s why it only really works with randomly-regenerated games like rogue-likes).

        • mike2R says:

          The thing about permadeath is that the game has to be designed around it from the ground up. You can’t just take your standard 20 – 30 hours of game and make it so that you have to restart from the beginning when you die. That’s no fun at all – replaying the early portions would cause you to lose the will to live (I tried playing Torchlight on hardcore mode for a rogulike kick once; just plain doesn’t work).

          Permadeath games need to be wide rather than deep. The early levels have to be able to play out radically differently. Certainly randomised maps, but also crucially random (and powerful) abilities/equipment. You want to approach each piece of loot with the hope of picking up something powerful and game changing, so that on each playthrough you are building your character around different strengths and unique abilities.

          I love decent permadeath games, since they can do things that a standard game can’t. They can give you a tiny chance of picking up a bit of end-game equipment two minutes into the game. This would make no sense normally – a small percentage of players would have their game marred by a lack of challenge. On a permadeath game this will happen to everyone occasionally, and it gives you a rush. You don’t mind that the early levels are easy, because its balanced out by the knowledge that you have to make this one count. You aren’t grinding out the too-easy early levels, you’re trying every trick you know to capitalise on your advantage.

          So I think it can work, but it requires game designers spend their efforts in different places. Rather than making a long game with dazzling end-game content, they need to make a wide game with huge amounts of early game content. Go to town on character selection if its an RPG – you don’t need to worry that 90% of people will only play one character, and 80% of them will choose a standard warrior or wizard. People will have a go at the halfling merchants, or gnomish bards or whatever. They don’t need to be balanced or anything, just different.

          And a reason I think it would work well with survival horror is that I disagree that death needs to be very rare. Quite the reverse actually I think – permadeath games need to be regular death games, at least for new players. Playing a game for hours with little challenge, then dying once and being sent back to the beginning is crap (talk to people who played FTL on easy mode about the end-game boss, or indeed Torchlight on hardcore). The game needs to be built around dying and restarting, so that by the time the player can get hours in they have picked up the skill needed to make the later challenges not feel stupidly unfair. This almost seems made for survival horror.

    • bill says:

      I was wondering about making the first few encounters non-lethal, but traumatic. Eg, the first time you get caught by the alien it DOESN’T result in instant death (which removes the fear of death), but instead results in you getting smashed around and bloodied in a long, unskippable first person “cutscene” and then left for dead. Then having to crawl for the nearest medpack and adminster painful seeming first aid.

      Since dying in games means nothing, it might be better to avoid the dying, and instead make an impact. The movies that games so love to ape don’t usually kill their protagonist part way through, but they do put them through the wringer.

      (This actually connects with a broader thing I was thinking about in gaming. The way they handle death tends to be very pass/fail. Due to reloading, you end up with a game “timeline” where the player character was essentially invincible. And yet also one where they died many times in some kind of alternate timeline that doesn’t matter.
      I’ve often wondered if some games could handle failure differently, by building it into the narrative and the systems. MMOs/RPGs in general feel to me like they should never actually kill the player)

      • HadToLogin says:

        Or they should have made if MUCH shorter, but every death meaning you need to start from nothing.

        Like, you and your two androids/clones are stuck and need to do this-and-that. First you send ‘droids/clones and when they die you go and either succeed or die to see “Start New Game?” screen.

        You know, go back to what made NES era so hard :) .

    • Sacarathe says:

      Doom 3…. Though the truth there is not being afraid as such, but just disliking being made to “jump” as the sole instrument of fear. There were moments when I ran away in game, the only true way to create fear imo is a game with no more than 5 check points in a level and about 30 different sequences of events between each one. The alien swarm mod did this quite well, although who can ever be afraid of anything but their allies on a top down game.

  3. Geebs says:

    Awesome write-up, thank you. Assorted video-game bullshit and xenomorph saturation seemed likely, sad to see that they actually happened :-(

  4. caff says:

    I’d love a proper Aliens game, but this doesn’t look quite right at the moment. I think I’d prefer a properly creepy though slightly dull corridor shooter, to a non-violent jump-scare stealth game with scripted scenes like this appears to be.

    • bill says:

      Well, this is an Alien game. Creeping through corridors with scripted jump scares is basically the movie.

      As for an Aliens game, I think the internet has its usual case of a short memory. There have been several good/great aliens games. Off the top of my head:
      Aliens TC for Doom – this was frickin awesome
      AvP on the Jaguar – all three paths were good and also scary. Plus they got the predator part right.
      AvP (1999/Classic) on the PC – Marine part was just what you asked for. Aliens part was cool. Predator part a bit weaker but ok.
      AvP2 on the PC. Much better story than AvP1 (on PC), but slightly less atmosphere. Still good though.

      All 4 of those games got the “scared marine running through corridors and chased by scary fast aliens” bit right.
      It’s true that the aliens weren’t very tough, but they were still dangerous.

      • kevmscotland says:

        Completely agree with you on all of those.
        We’ve had good aliens games, just not lately.

        AvP2 was my personal favourite.

      • Lemming says:

        Yep. AvP (1999) had this great explosion system where in a confined space the blast ‘spread out’, that I’ve not seen in any other game since. (unless its just that common now nobody says anything and I haven’t notice it..or i imagined it).

      • Wowbagger says:

        Alien 3 on the gamegear, totally awesome fighting the dog aliens in tunnels.

    • geldonyetich says:

      To be fair, making a “proper Aliens game” would be a lot easier if the Alien franchise, itself, was capable of maintaining anything resembling “proper.”

      Instead, we have a movie franchise that managed one or two nostalgia-inducing genuine Sci-Fi flicks before spinning off into looney town with detours to “Vs Predator” oddness and a few made-for-TV enterprises that sank like a rock. Being a die hard Aliens fan would be a more admirable trait if there were any other kind left at this point.

      When I wonder why we even bother making Alien games, the obvious answer is because Alien has a lot of brand-recognition and so people will throw money at them without thinking.

      If I follow that line of thinking, lets say I wanted to be a complete prick about it, then I’d drop the bomb and say, “Maybe Aliens Colonial Marines is what you deserve for supporting a brand that hasn’t known what to do with itself since 1986.”

      But then I’d have immediate regrets because, bottom line, the first two movies did have something special that even I, not particularly an Aliens fan, wouldn’t mind seeing done right, maybe in a computer game, maybe in a System Shock-like format?

      And so here we are, “Alien – Isolation,” the last best hope for the series since 1986. Don’t worry, if it flops, there will be plenty of shovelware to follow.

      • dethtoll says:

        Being a die hard Aliens fan would be a more admirable trait if there were any other kind left at this point.

        What’s sad is how spot on this is. And it’s true, the Aliens franchise has been less than stellar. 2 great movies, one decent movie, a whole slew of middling-to-awful shit, some decent comics, a couple very good novels (Aliens: Berserker is probably the best-written and most emotional of a largely mediocre bunch) and a long line of games that are either really good, really bad, or somewhere exactly in between (I have a soft spot for Alien Trilogy for the PS1.)

        What makes the Alien series special is the influence it has on pop culture. We don’t need to play another Aliens game. Everything from Doom to Dead Space to System Shock — all of it builds on the concepts and ideas that Alien and Aliens either invented or popularized.

        • bill says:

          Spot on. When you essentially start a genre, it’s hard not to become generic.

          Since Alien/Aliens doesn’t really need to be a franchise, maybe we should have left it alone as a kind of inspiration. Imagine if Bladerunner or ….* had become a franchise. It probably wouldn’t be held in such high regard now.

          *actually, I’m having trouble thinkiing of any movies that haven’t become franchises and mainly been damaged by the process… star wars, matrix, terminator… :-(

      • Sacarathe says:

        It would be better if there was no alien and it was more like an interactive movie.

        EDIT: That is to say you can hear it, but you never see it, and death is but a “you died” message.

  5. Seboss says:

    Well, at least this article has as much swearing as the Aliens movie.

  6. Jerykk says:

    Do you enjoy stealth games? I ask because it seems like you don’t. For me, the appeal of stealth games is that they very much are puzzle games in disguise. You learn the enemy patrol routes and behaviors (vision cone range and radius, hearing radius, etc), use that knowledge to create a plan and then execute that plan. It doesn’t matter if the enemies are Nazis, robots, aliens, monsters or terrorists. Anything that presents a threat and can foil your plan provides tension. So the fact that Xenomorphs as a character are stale doesn’t really mean anything. All that matters is that they represent a threat.

    That said, if the alien’s AI is as erratic and inconsistent as you describe, that could be a problem. Stealth games rely on consistent and predictable AI. You can’t create a plan if your knowledge is basically worthless. If CA is trying to keep the game scary by making the alien utterly unpredictable, that will break the stealth gameplay and reduce it to pure trial and error. There’s a chance that the AI is actually consistent and that you simply didn’t understand it. That’s an issue many people have with stealth games in general and I’m hoping that’s what happened here.

    In any case, I’m still intrigued by the game. I imagine it will have a very divided reception between those that like stealth games and those that don’t. If nothing else, at least Isolation is trying something new with the franchise and that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

    • bill says:

      I was thinking the same. True-AI behavior sounds scary and cool, but most stealth games rely on enemies being dumb and predictable. An unpredictable enemy might well be a recipe for frustration.

      I really like the sound of this game, and it looks lovely. If it is very tactile and atmospheric then that might be enough. I’m not even fundamentally opposed to the idea of having to bash robots with wrenches, as that might be a good way to generate more fear (if used well and sparingly). And playing any stealth game in a noisy group never shows it in its best light.

      But I can’t help feeling that maybe the Alien isn’t the best enemy for a stealth game. An ideal stealth game enemy needs to be dangerous, but slow, predictable, escapable and slightly blind/deaf. Aliens are faster than the player and have better senses, so once seen it will be sudden death and no way to escape.

      Oh well, fingers crossed.

      • Phier says:

        One of the more fun stealth games was playing AS the alien in AVP. Jumping on marines from behind and eating them. All good stuff.

        • Jorum says:

          Yes the Alien part seems often forgotten as pretty awesome stealth game. Despite your deadliness up close being spotted in open or at range or engaging multiple targets was often lethal. And anyone with a flamethrower scary news.

    • Hayden Dingman says:

      I count Frictional’s brand of stealth/horror games (particularly Penumbra: Black Plague) as amongst my favorite games ever, and I love the old Thief games (not so much the new one as you might be aware).

      As I said in the text, it was a ten minute demo. There’s a chance the game comes out and you’re absolutely right: the xenomorph AI is actually very predictable while still being smart enough to pose a challenge. However CA itself even called the AI unpredictable on purpose during our demo.

      And as for your argument that the xenomorph not being scary doesn’t matter, I would agree if CA billed this as a pure stealth game. They aren’t, though. They’re saying this game is scary in the same vein as a survival horror game, and I just didn’t find that to be true at all from what I played.

      It’s just a preview. They still have a lot to show off and win people over before release, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They clearly WANT this to be a great game. I just don’t think they’re there yet.

      • bill says:

        How did the Motion Sensor play into all of this?
        Seems to me that will be crucial. With an enemy as deadly as the Alien, the fear and strategy is mainly going to come before it is in the room. When you start picking up pings on the detector and have to frantically look for a place to hide, or weld a door shut or something.
        Once it’s in the room with you, there probably isn’t much you can do.

      • KenTWOu says:

        They said that xenomorph could smell you. Probably that’s what happened with you.

    • toxic avenger says:

      Serious question: Don’t you want a game that is more realistic than a set of puzzles? Maybe I’m too idealistic, maybe its impossible to code just yet, but games that turn out to be puzzle stealth games like you describe are very, very easy. Figure out the strategy, do those steps required, viola! You’re done with the level. I guess what I want is a game where I can actually outsmart the enemy, not simply walk where he isn’t looking in a crouched position.

      • Jerykk says:

        Predictable AI doesn’t mean that the AI has to be stupid or simplistic. It just needs to be consistent. Human behavior is predictable if the human is sober and sane. Same should apply to AI.

        As for challenge, predictable AI doesn’t necessarily make stealth games easy. Good level design and reactive AI forces you to have a deeper understanding of the game’s mechanics and to use all the tools at your disposable. This is even more true if you can’t simply neutralize threats and have to manipulate them instead. For example, play Thief on Master difficulty and try to steal every piece of loot (including loot being worn by NPCs) without being detected and without neutralizing anyone. It’s not easy and requires a lot of planning and precise timing.

  7. bill says:

    So this is the infamous 1 hour powerpoint presentation game??

  8. NotToBeLiked says:

    Thanks for removing any hope I had of this game being good. If it’s just a stealth game in which you figure out the “right” way to move across rooms, this is not the Alien game I’m looking for. I know it’s not very game-friendly, but why don’t any of the developers of Alien games realize the movies where the scariest when you did NOT see the Alien but just knew it was somewhere around… or not. If they can’t figure out how to make that into a game (I can’t, so I’m not going to blame them) they should just give up on making a game like this.

    I think reversing the roles would make for a much better game. Let us be the Alien, like we were in AvP games. Start by stealthing around as a Chestburster, and evolving to a proper Alien. Make the humans dangerous when they are in groups and well armed, but also scared if we pick them off one by one. With games like Deus Ex, Dishonored & Thief coming out, a stealth action game with nice vertical levels and fun ways to get around would do great, no? It would probably be harder to make up a storyline for an Alien player, but with the whole Alien Queen stuff I can imagine a lone Alien following telepathic orders from her to get rid of the human presence on an Alien-infested planet or something.

  9. Jorum says:

    I can confidently say that unlike Mr Dingman, even after all this time the xenomorph(s) still pretty much scare the shit outta me.

    • Caiman says:

      Absolutely, this is the part of these impressions that don’t gel with me. Even watching some earlier footage I jumped out of my seat when the alien appeared. I still played AvP (the first, old Rebellion game) and it scares me senseless at times, and setting this in the environment of the first movie is enough to put me on edge straight away. I also found Dead Space to be so scary at times that it was unplayable, unlike some who claimed it wasn’t remotely frightening, so I don’t put much faith in this “not scary” criticism. AI inconsistencies would be a bigger issue, but because I am ever hopeful of a decent Alien game I will live in hope that they’ll improve it before release.

      • Hayden Dingman says:

        That’s fair. Not every preview will work for every person, nor every review. All I can do is relate my own feelings on the matter.

        Seriously, this is something I don’t think many people understand about games writing: I want EVERY game to succeed. In a perfect world, every game would be fantastic and we could stop writing reviews altogether. I don’t really enjoy or get off on writing negative previews.

        But if I play a game and it doesn’t feel right to me, I have to put that out there. Others may disagree, and others may love this game. Hell, I might love it once it’s released. I just don’t at the moment.

  10. Ergates_Antius says:

    Alien – Isolation not very good? Colour me: not very surprised.

  11. Serenegoose says:

    So, the first CA game to be slated for having AI that’s too lethal?

  12. Zenicetus says:

    “The problem is that the xenomorph’s AI is frustratingly inconsistent.”

    From a developer like CA? Unpossible!! Did you get to the part yet where it throws torches because it can’t reach you?

    All snark aside, I hope for the sake of Aliens fans (who deserve better) that they can polish this up and avoid the trap of making it too obvious a puzzle/stealth game. The best stealth games make you feel smart because you chose one of several possible paths, and it worked. Not that you had to discover the one “correct” set of moves that the scripting requires.

    It’s also probably a very bad design decision to ever show the xenomorph walking past and then away from you. The whole point of the movie was that you only saw it in small glimpses, almost never the whole thing, and never in anything but full-on attack mode.

    • Hayden Dingman says:

      Yeah, in the demo I played there was no big “Oh shit, the xenomorph ambushed me” moment. It just walked around the level randomly, back and forth in perpetuum until I died or made it to the next checkpoint.

    • DiamondDog says:

      Yeah it’s going to be interesting to see how the xenomorph holds up over the course of a game. They’ve gone to such lengths to replicate the conditions and restrictions that Alien was made in, but then applied so much technology to creating the xenomorph that they can show it in ways that I imagine Ridley Scott never could, because too much focus would’ve shown it up as a dude in a rubber suit.

      If this game is really trying to capture the feeling of the film then seeing it wander around like it’s just a person with a different skin doesn’t seem right. More so in Aliens, you always had that queasy feeling that the xenomorphs almost had a plan. They weren’t just animals hunting the marines, all the time they were off screen they were out there doing something, almost like these people that showed up in their territory were a secondary concern. I wonder if the AI in this game is going to have it’s own objectives outside just hunting the player.

      Obviously we can only speculate what direction the game will take, but it seems getting the balance right between fear and frustration is going to be pretty difficult.

      • bill says:

        They have specifically said that the advances in technology allow them to show the whole Alien where Ridley Scott couldn’t.

        I’m unsure. They’re right from a technical standpoint, but later aliens movies also felt the same and showed the aliens via cgi, which didn’t really work out so well.

        I can imagine a very scary very aliens scene where the alien passes very close to you and you can see its skin glistening. Yet I can also imagine watching a video game NPC wandering around the level like a typical video game NPC and the whole illusion being shattered.

        • Zenicetus says:

          Okay, they can show the whole xenomorph now. But you know what? So can everyone else. And they’re competing with this kind of full Ailen body hilarity from the last game:

          That clip, of course, is referring to the singing dancing mini-Alien in the diner scene from Spaceballs, a movie that was made 27 years ago!

          Do they think they’re making the very first Alien game? I get the impression they’re coasting here, not really trying to do something that can overcome the baggage from everything else that’s been done with this franchise.

  13. Bull0 says:

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but despite a lot of evidence to the contrary I’m still pretty sure Hayden Dingman is a fictional invention

  14. ukpanik says:

    Removed from want list.

  15. Lemming says:

    “space station Sevastopol”

    Wow. Terrible timing with that one, eh?

    As for the game itself, I thought we were getting play that involved being hunted by an intelligent killer, and trying to avoid them. Perhaps with some smart L4D-like AI director. Not set-pieces and on/off AI. How sad.

    • Reefpirate says:

      Terrible timing? And here I was thinking it was timely… Now when the name of the station is mentioned people might actually know what the reference is.

    • Muzman says:

      I was thinking that too. It was worse when the slogan was going to be “Spacefarers, you won’t find a nicer place to put in”

      The shuttle they arrive on was also designated the MH370 until hasty changes.

  16. The Sero says:

    A great alien game? Please, I can’t be the only one who enjoyed this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r65jIrUfp58

    Although… that bloody cat. Why do I have to find the cat to escape!

    • bill says:

      Jonesy? You can’t leave Jonesy!

      PS/ That looks like FTL

    • Caiman says:

      I was actually hoping that Alien: Isolation would be close in concept to that old Mindscape game. It was a really excellent game, and quite atmospheric given its presentation. It communicated a real feeling of dread, and the appearance of the alien could be quite a shock. Nobody knew where the alien was, you had to track clues and signs over the ship, and it was quite satisfying to finally be able to influence its movement (to the airlock!).

      Without doubt the best interpretation of the Alien movie. I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried to remake it, even as a fan / indie project (without the license obviously).

    • LionsPhil says:

      My word, what is that Alien doing, thrusting its hips and waving its hand around like that?

  17. Moraven says:

    Instead of scripted levels, I was thinking more rogue lite elements. But with that much detail, just give us a nice open space station and the goal of going point A to Point B with various tools and routes. Distractions, fusing doors to buy time.

    I doubt they are coding the ability for the Alien to make acid paths. Or one that gets smarter over the course of the game, like they do in the movies.

  18. vahnn says:

    After no less than 2 PC Gamer staff get their hands-on time with the game and fawn over it, I was champing at the bit to get my own hands on the game.

    Now I read this. I’m confused. Although the PC Gamer guys seemed to believe that the alien’s model was animated realistically in line what the beast is actually doing. There is no “idle animation” for the alien–It’s field of view won’t be focused on one point while the animation shows the alien looking around, when in reality it’s only seeing straight forward, not left and right… If the alien turns its head left, it’s looking left.

    I’m inclined to think maybe this writer wasn’t paying as close attention as the PCG guys were. Hard to say until I get my hands on the game myself!

  19. Listlurker says:

    Thanks for the honest warning. Alien: Isolation is now gone from my buy-upon-release list. I’ll wait for the post-release reviews, and then decide.

    Inconsistent AI design has become a pet peeve of mine over years of gaming. If a game developer expects high precision from me as a player, in order for me to succeed, they’d better be providing the same precision in the AI that’s designed to kill me. If one mistake = death, and increasingly tedious “do-overs”, they’d better tune things right.

    My opinions, anyway.

  20. Josh W says:

    Tell you what, those videos are great, I now imagined this in a slightly weary version of your voice!

  21. pasports31 says:

    What I mainly got out of this is that I now want a Levar Burton horror game.

  22. Jackablade says:

    It sounds like they need to add permadeath, at least as an option, if they want to keep the alien frightening. I’m thinking that’d mean they could then reduce the likelihood of running into the Alien, making its appearance more of a surprise.

    In a perfect world, what they need is NPCs that have the same level of freedom as the Alien to procedurally wander about, do things on the ship, interact with the player and eachother and then get grabbed by the Alien.

  23. manny says:

    Seems too amateurish. CA licensed the alien property then created their own fps engine to make a survival horror game with a team with no experience on that type of game. If they were serious about making a good game they would have licensed the engine and brought someone with experience on the genre.
    Instead they just appear to be relying on the alien brand and their graphics and the popularity of survival horror to make them money not actually producing a good game. Similar to CAs total war Rome

  24. sabasNL says:

    Sevastopol is the capital city of Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia last week. If that’s really the name of the Aliens space station, then I applaud the excellent (sarcasm) timing.

  25. Muzman says:

    A bad preview like this is almost as worrying as anything else. It seems like a common pattern with games. “We’re going to do it different/better!”, then discover it’s hard, give a bad demo to press or publisher, realise you have no real time to fix it properly, throw up your hands and say “Fuck it. Scripted games still sell” and lock it all down.
    Probably justifying the abandonment of ambition with artistic stuff like “a dose of reality” “The healthy killing on one’s babies” etc etc.
    Why are you previewing a game that doesn’t yet do what you want it to do, industry? Is it marketing or testing? Do they even know I wonder?

    • manny says:

      That’s what I mean it’s all very calculated. Them building their own engine means they have AAA level graphics and their licence of the Alien property means they have brand recognition. Buy some reviews, and they can’t lose money.

      Similiar to Rome II. Build a shiny engine + use established property + buy reviews = profit.

      They’ve got the whole formula down now. But notice no pimping of star personnel or even a singular vision. It’s cause they don’t have any.

      • Mark says:

        Christ on a bike I can’t stand people like you honestly. What really makes you think you have even the slightest clue how game development actually works? You really think it’s all so simple and you can boil down the whole development process of a game made up of thousands and thousands of decisions by hundreds of people in different companies and places with different roles and motivations to a couple of sentences of uninformed internet commenter bullshit? Do you realise devs read pretty much every article related to games they’re working on, and folks at CA are going to be reading all the retarded stuff people write here? Jesus if you only knew how stupid you sounded.

        I need to find a way to block myself from reading comments online. It’s like witnessing a car crash you can’t tear your eyes away from.

  26. Mungrul says:

    One thing people always seem to forget about Alien is that it had an element of classic old murder mystery about it (Agatha Christie stylee). A bunch of people getting killed off one by one, with no idea who was going to die next and how.
    I think that could really work for an Alien game, with an almost point & click adventure feel.
    Make it so while the cast remains the same on replays, the order and way they die changes every time.

    Edit: Actually, come to think about it, I can’t believe there hasn’t been an Alien version of Cluedo.

    • basilisk says:

      The xenomorph, with his chompers, in the dimly-lit room. I win!

      • Muzman says:

        Yes but imagine the Far Side-esque scene where all the suspects are gathered into the drawing room while the Poirot explains the whole thing.
        “And you Lord Xenomorph. You had the most reason to want to punch a gory hole in Amanda’s head of everyone. But your distinctive form was seen down by the lake at the fateful hour. However a giant modernist penis sculpture had gone missing from the local art collective and the manor had a visit from the be-robed African Elephant Man that afternoon!”

        “Alright it was me all along! Her dreadful mother shot my brother out into space! That and her delicious brains! And yours too! ”
        *lunges *

  27. Asurmen says:

    Am I the only one thinking this still has the rest of the year to sort out issues (not including inevitable delay). Seems a bit unfair that people are massively judging this based on beta level work?

    • Hayden Dingman says:

      I believe I addressed that in the article. There’s not much I can do though—I’m not going to be needlessly optimistic if my initial experience with the game was less than stellar. You all deserve my unadulterated opinions on the game, as it was presented to me.

      When the game comes out, there’ll of course be a second opportunity for CA to prove to the audience that they’ve made a good game. I welcome the full game’s release, as I’m just as curious as everyone else to see whether it ends up being great. This preview was just…mediocre.

      • Caiman says:

        Sometimes I wonder whether we should ever read previews of games that we greatly anticipate, because if it’s a bad preview then we feel somewhat robbed of the anticipation leading up to its release. Perhaps it’s better to enjoy that wonderful time when you think the game is going to be a life-changer for as long as possible. Of course you might say better to be warned early than to waste time and energy anticipating something that others know will be disappointing, but we don’t tell our kids about Santa Claus until they’ve experienced the thrill of believing he’s real for several years.

        But seriously, we want to read the good and the bad impressions of something we want. I’ve read other “hands on” impressions that were more positive, but we’ll have to wait until the final release. Perhaps CA are reading this and whipping their developers into a frenzy to improve the AI and address your concerns! We can only hope.

      • Asurmen says:

        I meant everyone’s reaction to your preview, as if it’s set in stone that it cannot be improved and it’s DOA. Your opinion is perfectly fine.

  28. Lenderz says:

    Not sure who wrote this other than “RPS” but thank you!!! It happens to be the most balanced preview of this game that I’ve seen, and is much better at managing my expectations than all the hype and gushing that I’ve seen so far.

    I’ve been suspicious because of the AI claims and well, CA and Rome…. But I’m hopeful there will be an enjoyable experience here even if flawed.

  29. Darko Drako says:

    It is hard to imagine that a survival horror, now matter how critically acclaimed will ever be a big commercial success.
    As a premise alien colonial marines had a much greater chance of being a big, it is a shame it was appalingly implemented.
    Still good luck to them, it would be nice to have a decent alien game for once.

    • manny says:

      Maybe. But Dead Space 1 on one platform sold 1.6 million units. And don’t forget the money invested in making their own AAA level game engine, which they will use for future titles. Also marketing wise an Aliens survival horror game is easier to sell than generic fps shooter. (a highly competitive area too)

      But you may be right. perhaps this isn’t a cash grab. But it does seem like a half assed production. If I was going to make a survival horror game I’d have everyone in my team play the best survival horror games of the genre. Then I’d hire someone who has actually made a good survival horror game. They should be experts at survival horror games considering they’ve been making the game for 3.5 years. But this is not apparent at all.

  30. Darth Gangrel says:

    “It’s like making a horror game starring Levar Burton” Given this preview I wonder if CA can (La) Forge a good game out of this. Even if it’s coming to (Star Trek: The) Next Generation console machines and the PC version is a port of that, they still need a good game behind the fancy effects.

  31. fenriz says:

    I don’t understand, you mentioned stealth, hiding places and a few buttons one pushes.

    Where is the real game? you didn’t describe puzzles, actions etc. Don’t i have to pick up a screwdriver to open a panel to connect wires to use a fridge?

  32. kael13 says:

    I feel like the game needs a twist to regain its scariness. A even more terrifying alien that comes after you after you flush the regular joe out the air lock. Maybe the proto-facehugger from Prometheus. If only tentacles could be animated realistically. *sigh*

  33. DXN says:

    Pretty brutal, RPS commenters. Seems to me like this game has a lot about it that’s promising and a lot of time to overcome Mr Dingman’s rather vaguely defined worries. Doesn’t seem to me like anything he described is unfixable, except him personally not finding the xenopmorph scary at all anymore, which dare I say means we may have to take his opinion with a grain of salt when it comes to judging a game that centers around a scary xenomorph. For me, that’s still a concept that has legs if it’s done right.

  34. bosseye says:

    I think if it can channel large elements of Outlast, that would be good enough for me. I spent my entire playthrough of Outlast rigid and wide eyed with terror, but one of the crucial elements to get me to that state was the general lack of death; obviously you could die, but generally once spotted you had to leg it, sphincter-a-tooting and hide, looking behind you now and again as you pegged it, a delicious thrill of horror as you realised the crazy maniac was still chasing you. And then you picked up your courage, ventured out from the locker/under the bed and tried again, and generally the bad guy had moved and was therefore somewhere nearby but still likely to surprise.

    If getting spotted by the alien equals death, as the preview states, this will erode the sense of the unknown and the fear through simple repetition. Which will be a shame.

    Perhaps make it a one legged alien with the wrong glasses on and a cold, so he can see you (only just), smell you (when you’re really close) and then give chase, but can only hobble after you at a speed likely to let you evade and hide somewhere.

  35. thedukeofnarm says:

    I suspect there’s this bend to Creative Assembly’s internal studio culture that makes them fall in love with AI development; they want to be brilliant — ‘look at how clever we are, look at how complex this AI is’ — more than they want to make games. This leads to Ant-Farming. Videogame design requires counter-intutive thinking — it requires ‘dumb’ ideas and the CA people are too sensible, too excellent for this silly trade of videogames. I think they’d be happier making incredible 3rd party AI tools rather than games. Videogames require a willingness to put up with at least a little sleight-of-hand, a little smoke-and-mirrors, and CA seems to hate compromise: they want to simulate everything, down to the molecules if they can.
    “Fixing” Alien: Isolation (if it even needs “fixing”) could involve:
    1. letting the alien blare out sound-effects at all times like a murderous biomechanical ice-cream truck — those bizarre warbling noises like you could hear its biomechanical joints actuate in the film and over-the-top ventilator breathing-noises — the key here is being hugely unsubtle;
    2. increase motion tracker ping and — as long as the user doesn’t have line-of-sight to the alien — making the alien snap between certain placement points in a room based on heuristics rather than move naturalistically for the player to see;
    3. force the alien to never enter a certain radius of the player unless it’s spotted the player and is moving in for the kill.
    All of these solutions are dumb and artificial and look manky and unimpressive and nearly waste all the top-of-the-line animation work *unless* you’re the subject in a playtest. Then it *might* create the right effect. It’s designing for effect versus engineering gameplay. It’s having the instinct to let yourself be a little cruddy rather than being über-excellent at everything all the time. CA are like gazelles sending out fitness signals with everything they do.

  36. P.Funk says:

    Maybe it would be better if it were actually like an Alien film that was never a solo survival scenario, but about a character surviving with oodles of other squishy humans who’ll die first.

    Think about it. In the first Alien film Ripley never actually sees the Alien personally until the very very end. She has maybe 2 encounters where she’s in spitting distance of the Alien, both involve the Alien never seeing her except at the very very end when she is already set up to kill it.

    In Aliens, Ripley has all these combat jock marines who go off and blow stuff up but get totally wasted. Her experience is to not see them either except through monitors. Everyone who actually is near the Aliens dies or gets cocooned for implantation. In middle of the film we get the survival bastion scenario where Hicks and Ripley team up to defend their little cadre of survivors, but in this case we see oodles of Aliens come in and kill everyone but those two and the little girl. In the final act Ripley wades into the Alien base largely avoiding them and then being chased by the Queen who she ends up having personal combat mech style in the finale.

    In Alien 3… oh wait does anybody care about that one? Well anyway, she has a Queen implanted in her so the Alien actually kills everyone BUT her and we see the Alien actually squish against her and breath its sticky sweaty KY breath on her.

    Resurrection… thats not an Alien movie, what are you talking about?

    The point? Alien was never a solo survival thing. It was always about one character surviving while lots of others get killed en masse. Fundamentally this game is trying to do something with the Alien that even the films never did. In the films the main character was never really at risk of death in a stealth/stalking scenario except at the very end. You never had Ripley bumping into the Alien dozens of times. If that had happened the film would have been as flat and unscary as this game apparently is. Aliens is the exception and also understands this limitation in its execution. The Aliens are only really terrifying until you find them, then you have to shift gears. If you find them and nothing dies then its not scary, but if you find them and you die it sucks, so the only solution is to kill Bill Paxton. Aliens got away with Ripley seeing them more often because she killed a bunch. With only one that doesn’t work.

    The problem is that the idea for the game is fundamentally flawed because its not at its core actually like an Alien movie. Maybe if there were companions who died randomly because of your failures it would be more terrifying. Going down a hallway alone, one character behind you, you creep forward, the monitor beeps and beeps but you dont know where it is, then suddenly a scream and you look behind you and your friend’s gun hits the ground and above you is a hole in the ceiling and you hear his screams fade. Thats how horror movies ACTUALLY do it. They kill people you don’t care about.

    If nobody died in Alien then it wouldn’t have been scary.

  37. DanMan says:

    A felt wrench? What’s that supposed to be good for? To fix your felt pipes?

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