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.
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.
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.
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.