Hands-On: Alien Isolation

By Craig Pearson on June 10th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Alien: Isolation is a hybrid of stealth and survival horror. A game where you are a very weak person against a very strong thing, but where you know where that strong thing is at all times. You can’t kill it, but you can avoid it, antagonise it, and occasionally attack it to give you time to flee. I’ve been wandering the Sevastopol, encountering humans, crafting, and the beast. Here’s what went down.

I can remember the last scary thing scared me properly. It was over Christmas 2009, when I watched Paranormal Activity with John. If anyone mentions that film to us now, we share a glance and a nod. Other people just don’t understand. The last time a game scared me? Well it’s been a while. Not since the first Stalker, really. Whatever survival horror has become since then doesn’t faze me at all.

It’s not that I’m brave, but running away and scrabbling for safety has never clicked with me, so Amnesia and Outlast haven’t given me Youtube worthy moments. I find them a messy collection of frustrating mechanics. Conversely, I find stealth games incredibly tense. Knowing is a lot more effective than guessing and hiding; sneaking with purpose on the edge of a thing’s senses gets to me way more than blindly shuffling or sprinting in the dark.

Alien: Isolation does both. You absolutely are surviving horror. A big, toothy, slimy horror that chases and insta-kills you should you be seen. But you can also know where it and other threats are at any time simply by raising the motion tracker. The world fades away and is replaced by a bright screen of information, and though there’s a trade-off of losing the view of your immediate surroundings, it was a comfort that I used liberally. There’s no cheating going on with the creature, and that’s important. It moves through vents, keeping to a path that you can’t see, following its senses. That ever-present dot on the tracker kept me on edge for my hands-on, and I managed to manipulate the Alien’s senses into working for me.

My notes were scrawled in the dark, so I haven’t the foggiest where I am in the station. But it’s a place you know already: angled corridors bathed in lighting that’s been designed to throw shadows and not illuminate things. But even with the dramatic lighting, it’s a beautifully realised space. It feels solid and real and used, and I’m almost annoyed that I couldn’t just wander around without a care in the world. It’s a looped area, and I was hunting the way out. For the first of a hundredy billion times, I bring up the motion detector.

Beep.

It’s close. I’ll admit to unease zapping at my muscles whenever I raised the motion detector and the large green dot is hovering near. It is above me, in the goddamn room. Basically it’s following the vents, and at this stage it was up to me if I was going to have a Giger encounter, so I held crouch for the whole section and started slowly sneaking and peeking. Every ten or so feet I’d check the motion detector and head away from the creature’s position, using cover to dip beneath tables, and hide in lockers. I was always absolutely sure it was about to unfold from the ceiling like a drop of tar, and that was enough to make my hands slick and clammy. Spoilers: it never did in this section.

But I wasn’t to know that. I crouch-walked around, occasionally daring to flick the torch on and check corners in case the thing had cheated its way around me, but it never did. I followed the motion tracker’s sensor reading that also laid a path to the exit, and I managed to get there with a minimum of fuss. I managed to sneak there without causing a fuss, but another player I talked to managed to taunt the Xenomorph down and then drag it through a corridor where an exploding gas vent split the corridor, leaving the monster incapable of following him. There’s some action as well, and you’re not wholly helpless. I found a computer, hacked it with the game’s easy to manage image matching mini-game, and got the keycode to a safe that held a keycard to the next area.

Beep.

That’s not an alien. The dot is smaller, and I spot a human. There are looters here, governed by the same sort of wandering logic that drives the alien. They’ll walk and hunt, and though I can fight back, I’ll end up dying to them more than the Xeno.

The station is all angles and shadow, mixed with higgledy-piggledy furniture arrangements. I found a table yanked across a corridor and hid beneath it, discovering standard stealth rules do not apply here: if you think you can be seen, you can be seen. If you’re peeking and hiding, you need to work the angles to make sure you’re properly hidden or peeking when the target isn’t looking, and you need to control your breath if they get too close. It feels very self-aware, ensuring I’m well-hidden and not gasping for breath. At least the looters scream a warning before opening fire, though if they can’t tell what you are they’ll shoot first and ask questions never.

It was the looters that gave me the lowest low and highest high of the demo: trapped in the end of a corridor, I had to make my way from there to a power switch. The game had plonked thee looters in a tight corridor, and in the flickering lights I couldn’t work out a way around. But no amount of stealth would let me pass: they’d spot me, open fire and I’d die. It happened again and again, and though each restart put the looters in a slightly different grouping, they were always near the spawn section, trapping me in part of the corridor. I felt helpless, but then I remembered my inventory: throughout the level I’d been picking up scrap, and radial menu popped-up with a selection of devices to craft. I grabbed a noise-maker and popped out the tracker. The corridor looped around towards the looters, and at the other end the Xenomorph loomed. I tossed the noisemaker and dropped under a table. Noise, panic, and firing. The goons zipped past an open door, and I spotted a flash of carapace following them, and a long, liquid tale snapped past. I heard screaming and gunfire, and crawled out into the corridor, walking in the direction the alien came from. I would die and have to repeat that bit once more, but this time the door swished shut. I pulled up the motion detector and watched as a small group of dots fled a larger one. One by one the smaller dots winked out.

Every victory just felt like putting off an inevitable encounter with the beast. That escape led me to a end room where I needed to reboot a pair of power stations. By now the thing was wandering on the floor, and I stopped every other step to check the green glow of the tracker. It kept a distance, hunting where my noisemaker had led it to the looters. I flicked the power on both power pods, and doing so unleashed a droid. A loud, fussy, deadly bastard that wandered around looking to help me to death. In addition, hacking the station to affect my escape created a cascade of alarms that filled the corridor I needed to flee through with noise and flashing light. Now I had a flickering hallway, a pursuing droid, and a rampaging alien to contend with. Another look at my inventory: I had a flame-thrower, but didn’t fancy fighting, and a flare. If Jurassic Park has taught me anything, it’s that flares will distract pursing beasts. I cracked it and tossed it.

Big mistake.

Here’s the thing about flares in Isolation: they are bright. So very bright. Enormously bright. Their brightness is all encompassing. If you were walking past my monitor, you’d have said: “That is the dictionary definition of bright,” and then you’d have put on sunglasses and tutted at me. So there I was trying to hide in a corridor that was bathed in a small sun and the beast spotted me.

I ran, and I didn’t stop to look behind me. I hoped it would tangle with the robot that chased me, but I’ve no idea if it did. I didn’t see it until the final cut scene (and actually didn’t see much of it at all during the demo), where I ran into a room and it caught me. We were in some sort of trap, as fire and explosions ended the demo.

Then I had a chat with another player. It was interesting how his game went. The encounter with the people? He had it in a different area, it was driven by the Alien tracking everyone down. He stepped into a corridor and was shot at immediately, no warning. He heard them shouting, turned, and discovered he’d stepped between the Alien and the AI. He ran. The looters ran alongside him. The alien chased. He found a locker and climbed in, watching the Alien running after the looters down the corridor and out of sight. It was, essentially, a remix of my encounter.

It’s a strange collision of stealth and survival: the times I was picking through the corridors, ducking and hiding, were genuinely tense. That expectation that the Alien will slide out and start to hunt me was always at the back of my mind. The station has an authentic dread permeating it. But at the same time, the motion tracker gives you a sense of agency that puts a lot of the encounters in your own hands. There were moments when you’re forced to confront the beast, but knowing that 90% of the time (at least in what I played), it’s in the player’s hands has given me a lot of hope.

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32 Comments »

  1. SAeN says:

    Still don’t have any faith in Creative Assembly, but it will be interesting to see how this turns out.

  2. RedViv says:

    Survival horror. It really sounds like survival horror. Well, I never!

  3. Moraven says:

    Hope you get to try it on the Oculus Rift.

  4. caff says:

    I find this hard to gauge from a preview perspective. It sounds like a solid, well made effort that is trying to recreate the spirit and atmosphere of the first film, but equally I’m highly skeptical about the nature of the gameplay – it sounds a bit scripted – and the “hide in cupboards” approach, which sounds like the godawful approach to “cover” that loads of games adopt these days.

  5. hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

    I find myself hoping very strongly that the final game is as good as the demo sounds. The gameplay described seems like a relatively fresh mix of stealth and survhorr, and it would just be unfair if a game that gorgeous turns out to be completely unfun. :[

  6. Geebs says:

    Alien: Getting Crowded in Here

  7. Muzman says:

    The stealth sounds intriguingly like stealth, not crap modern video game stealth.
    I will be interested to see how well it works.
    The problem is these days if you ask that level of situation awareness of a player mostly they just complain bitterly about where’s their map with everything indicated, clear and obvious enemy states possibly with some glowing arrows or some such, meters to tell you whether you are hidden/visible/audible etc, ability to see through walls, third person perspective for “peripheral vision” and detached holiday from tension etc etc.
    Even if done well the pressure to nerf the hell out of it would be enormous.

    • Rizlar says:

      One way to satisfy the marketing team and also keep the original vision of the game might be to have an easy mode where everything is indicated but basically just bodge it on as an optional extra at the end, so the core experience is still there, totally playable, without it. Dishonored did this well, I turned off all UI hints at the start and used the ability to see through walls minimally and it was a great experience.

      Anyway, wasn’t much interested in Isolation until I read this preview.

      • scatterbrainless says:

        The problem I have with the “make it optional” approach is that often it is not a superfluous addition that a player may elect to use, but still actively affects gameplay design. For example, yes, Dishonoured made it “optional” to turn on and off a lot of its UI features, however it failed to compensate for their lack under many circumstances. Some of the find or fetch quests, or even the “go to this location” notes are virtually impossible to complete on the basis of diagetic information, and much of the note-taking and goal direction in quest descriptions equally assumes that you are being directed by a giant, immersion-breaking signpost on your screen.

  8. Truck_Rockpec says:

    Why were there looters on the ship with you? For that matter, why are you there yourself?

    • drewski says:

      Isn’t that the kind of thing people would generally want to play the game to find out?

      • Jalan says:

        The idea of looters on an installation like that just seems strange, no doubt. It calls into memory more comical things like space pirates seen in cartoons or comic books. As if they roam space looking for stray ships and things to board and take crap out of for their own gains.

        • Chris D says:

          Don’t forget that Aliens begins by showing people breaking into Ripleys escape pod and one of them says words to the effect of “Crap, she’s alive. I guess that means we aren’t getting paid.”

  9. Smoky_the_Bear says:

    At the very least if this turns out to not be very good we can watch PewDiePie, Day9 and the rest of the youtube lets play crowd play through this ad-nauseum so we won’t be short on ways to at least watch the game whilst saving ourselves some money.

  10. zaript says:

    Once again CA hits the bull on preview, I hope this will not be another Teutoburg of a release though^^

  11. Volcanu says:

    I cant wait for this. I desperately hope it doesnt disappoint…..CA have to be commended for at least TRYING to make a survival horror game where the focus isn’t on blasting everything and jump scares. Well, unless the final product turns out to be 80% ‘manshoot’ of course.

    It’s hard to say without playing it, but I have some reservations as to whether the Xenomorph is actually scary? Having been born the same year ‘Aliens’ came out the Xenomorph is so iconic and familiar that it’s hard to imagine that it might actually have been frightening to people back when Alien was released. So, really I’m expecting tension and suspense from this game, rather than outright fear….

  12. HisDivineOrder says:

    This sounds like a great game to buy on sale. If the experience is less than awesome because of a vaguely (stay with me here) “uncanny valley”-esque problem (the closer to real you get, the more demanding you are about the experience), I’ll still get something from it for the Alien re-creation.

    That said, I don’t see this as a game that offers enough to warrant full game pricing.

  13. AyeBraine says:

    The naming of the ship\space station is very cool!

  14. Erithtotl says:

    Sounds very interesting. Also sounds shockingly un-commercial. Like the same people who pine after the original Thief and Deus Ex and System Shock. Brilliant games all that didn’t make a ton of money. Perhaps they hope to attract a much bigger audience due to the license.

  15. Penguin_Factory says:

    Those androids look more terrifying than the alien.

  16. Anthile says:

    What.

  17. Distec says:

    Why don’t we just make this the automatic first post for any piece covering any game.

  18. dontnormally says:

    Funny troll is funny.

  19. crizzyeyes says:

    For your own sake, I will assume this is a joke, meant to contrast sharply with Craig’s enjoyment of the game.

  20. phelix says:

    Erm, have you actually read the article?

  21. Maxheadroom says:

    He’s a prolific RPS troll. Go make yourself a cup of tea then google “johncage” & “rockpapershotgun” for a chuckle

  22. Randomgit says:

    Try harder. Try again.

  23. HothMonster says:

    I think he is talking about his breakfast.

  24. Heliocentric says:

    The review didn’t mention terrain, hex grids, or text parsers.

  25. mouton says:

    Also, why no linux release

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