Hands On: Alien Isolation

By Adam Smith on August 13th, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

Expectations? Enormous. Alien: Isolation is a first-person stealth/horror adaptation of my favourite film. Not a direct adaptation but a digital recreation, in terms of both its setting and its style. I’ve been starved of horror games in recent years and this one has a lot to live up to. Several hours in the company of the creature have just about convinced me that it might be time to believe.

Last week I visited Sega to play around four hours of Alien: Isolation then, a couple of days later, I received code to play at home. It’s important to make the distinction between the experience of playing in a room with the lead designer and five other writers and that of playing through the same sections of the game alone, in the dark, with the volume turned up high enough that I can not only HEAR a pin drop, but almost evacuate the room and my bladder whenever I do.

In the first environment, playing the game for the first time and occasionally interrupting myself to share anecdotes with a neighbour, Alien: Isolation was a game of tension and nervous laughter. There’s nothing funny about young Ripley’s situation – we pick up a little way into the game, just as everything on the Sevastopol is going to hell. The first task is to enter the medical area to find supplies for a wounded ally. Somebody asks Ripley what he should do if the ‘creature’ shows up. Her response could be the large print bolded instruction that forms the majority of the game’s manual: ‘Hide’.

Just like you're hiding from adding alt-text captions, Adam.

Hiding is the natural response when the xenomorph enters a room. The first time it appears, in one of only two fully-scripted sequences I can recall in the hours I played, a vent bursts from the ceiling and smoke spills from within, screening the creature as it unfolds to the floor, almost like liquid. And then it stands and starts to hunt.

It’s taller than I expected. Coming face to face with a creature that is at once alien and yet such a familiar image is strange. It’s the first time that I’ve encountered Giger’s horror in a game and found it quite so startling and unnerving, and that’s probably partly because of the game’s aesthetic. Quite simply, the Sevastopol is one with the Nostromo. It’s of the same world, from the clunking key-operated machinery of save point terminals that take precious, anxious seconds to activate, to the whirrs and beeps of computers slowly coughing up their data. Every terminal and device, like Mother’s interface, feels like it must be punched with weary authority rather than stroked and caressed like the slinky screens of Minority Report or the gadgets that today’s youths use to take their selfies.

The seventies tech of Alien is awesome and terrible in its fragility, and more so than ever in this recreation. Reading this, wherever you might be and whatever kind of screen the words are on, you have more science at your fingertips than Ripley has in her entire inventory. Every broken down bleep is a reminder of the futility of craft and creation against the perfect organism. Which brings us back to that instruction: hide.

Escaping from the alien and traversing each area takes on a rhythm, as most activities in games tend to do.

The rhythms of Alien involve running, hiding, avoiding and distracting. Ripley’s tools range from an actual revolver (useful against humanoid enemies, equivalent to a ‘bite me’ sign stuck to her back when it comes to the xenomorph) to noisemakers and flares. The latter can be used to draw attention away from an escape route or objective, but the couple of seconds that pass as the burning object is in hand, illuminating and hissing angrily, are torture. The game teaches you, through the medium of jaws within jaws and spikey appendages, to move slowly and remain unseen. Anything that compromises that approach, even for a moment, feels like a possible death.

There’s a danger that Alien will be played mostly with eyes on the motion detector rather than the environment. Like an RTS that offers luscious, complex 3D terrain that is superseded by the efficiency of a minimap, Isolation’s actual physical spaces (in which there is much screaming to be heard) can be a distraction. The detector is life. When the alien is prowling, which is always, no move should be made before first checking what direction death waits in, how quickly it is moving and in which direction. There’s a sickening blend of relief and unease whenever the blip suddenly vanishes. It’s in the vents, moving at terrifying pace at the periphery of even the scanner’s vision, or it’s waiting, silent and still.

And the key difference between playing in company and playing alone lies in the reaction to those moments – when the alien behaves in an unexpected manner and sends me scurrying to the nearest locker, how do I react? With people around, suffering the same fate, the tendency was to swear and to laugh, nervously and in sympathy. Like Ash, we were impressed by the nature of the beast and admired its tenacity. Its movements, sounds and animations add up to a convincingly animalistic set of behaviours. There is a personality to the creature and it’s easy to ascribe motivations to its appearances and assaults, but they are fairly simple murderous motivations. That suits the fiction as well as the style of play. The xenomorph doesn’t need to do more than shock and slaughter because that is its role, and it seems to fulfil it efficiently.

I was slightly concerned that the game was tense rather than terrifying. Holding your breath in a locker as the thing stands outside, dripping hate, is claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing. Black spots start to swim in Ripley’s vision as she almost chokes herself in a bid to remain hidden. The game is a sequence of nightmarish situations, all tumbling out of sequence rather than anticipated by a script, but it didn’t frighten me until I played it alone.

That makes sense, of course, but it’s a relief to discover that I’m not immune to the panicked flight response all the same. When I played at night, in the dark, headphones on, I lived for longer after every death because I became less capable of taking risks. Being caught and killed began to seem like the worst fate imaginable. There was a moment, as I crawled beneath the floor in a utility tunnel and heard the panicked voices of people above, that I realised what my situation was akin to – Isolation makes me feel like the thugs in an Arkham game would feel. Something is hunting, moving with terrifying pace and mostly invisible, and it hides in shadow, emerging like a knife in the dark to pick off anything with a pulse.

For better and worse, Isolation is shaping up to be the game that was promised. The alien doesn’t follow a simple set of directions during each encounter, it follows a programmed set of habits, instincts and behaviours. It’s unstoppable and lethal, punishing the slightest mistake or act of bravado. If you’ve played Amnesia, you’ll remember the moment that you realised nothing was hunting you in most areas and that the sounds were the creaks of a ghost train’s animatronics.

The xenomorph is predictable to an extent, but it certainly isn’t a mechanical skeleton bursting from the shadows and shaking at the end of a stick. It investigates sources of sound and light, follows movement, and kills anything that moves. Alarmingly, it even defies the conventions of the horror movie hunter. My most memorable moment with the preview build came when I encountered a group of terrified, hostile humans. The alien was at my back, prowling, and they were between me and the area’s one exit. I threw a noisemaker into their midst and rolled under a table.

A green blur on the motion tracker shot toward the group. They screamed, they fired their weapons, they begged for mercy. I decided to make my escape while the creature fed on their shredded remains, darting toward the next room, and it was only when I heard the clattering of chitin on metal and a horrible shriek behind me that I realised – the alien doesn’t feast on remains and it doesn’t celebrate its kills. It engages, executes and leaves a pile of steaming entrails in its wake. Then it moves on to the next target.

All that I saw of it was the tail as it punctured my stomach and a spider-like hand gripping my face from behind, preparing to snap the head from its stem.

The difficulty (I played on hard) means that areas become familiar due to repeated attempts to survive them in one piece and there’s certainly a risk that the novelty of the aesthetic will become insignificant as frustration builds. But that’s why the inclusion of humanoid obstacles, synthetic and organic, is necessary rather than an interruption or concession to gunplay. They’re still things to avoid rather than confront, if at all possible, and add new and unexpected interactions in the midst of the familiar rhythms. Complications of any sort add to the texture of unease and prevent each series of corridors and rooms from becoming a different shaped box to hide in.

More than any single anecdote or moment of anguish, I’m fixated on the simple fact of the alien’s uncanny existence. Its movements can be seen and tracked, but they are never known, as it sometimes scrambles into view and sometimes passes by, less than foot away, inside a wall. A relationship builds between predator and prey, but it’s one of awe and anxiety rather than a mechanical understanding. The alien, even as it stands fully in view, remains terrifying and unknown. And that’s exactly as it should be.

A smile that says 'if you won't add alt-text, I will.'

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40 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge DarkLiberator says:

    Did the Alien in the movies actually ever feast on humans?

    • BobbyDylan says:

      It the book and the directors cut it eats Brett, I think. a large pool of blood is found near the chains.

      I think the rest of the crew was taken and “nested” for implantation.

      • YogSo says:

        What an appropriate avatar picture to talk about poor Brett and the chains ;-D

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        No not exactly because in the book Ripley finds the crew all cocooned up in the same room near the end before she gets on the shuttle, while she is attempting to turn the cooling back on. She talks to a barely alive Dallas who mentions “That was Brett”, now an unrecognisable cocoon like shape. It’s never actually said whether the Alien is consuming them or not, however the purpose of the cocooning that is seen in Aliens is to allow for easy face-hugger impregnation so one can assume this is simply instinctive behaviour on the part of the Alien.

        The blood from Brett getting taken can be explained as injuries sustained from the inner mouth of the Alien which is it’s preferred method of incapacitating things.

    • bill says:

      It didn’t always kill quickly though.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      The one in Alien 3 certainly seemed to be either eating, or at least playing with, one of its kills. Then again it was a dog-Alien… Or was it a cow-Alien?

      What I’d really like to know is when people started using “xenomorph” as a name for the alien from Alien. As far as I recall it’s just used as a generic term for an alien life-form in Aliens, which I always thought was a cool word but which it now seems is impossible to use without people assuming you mean the alien from Alien.

      • Premium User Badge DrScuttles says:

        This is why Adam is a good sort and doesn’t capitalise the word xenomorph.

      • Optimaximal says:

        Xeno, as in alien. Morph, as in many forms. That’s how I always understood it – it relates to the creatures evolution and the fact it takes on features of its host.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          No, it just means alien form. It’s used in Aliens by Gorman as it is presumably the correct textbook term to use to refer to an alien life form in this sort of situation. His use of the word and the marines’ reaction to it is one way in which we see the distance between him and his command and is just part of the set-up to his eventual loss of authority.

      • Arnkell says:

        The dog (cow in the director’s cut) alien in the third movie wasn’t feeding on the corpse, I think it was just thoroughly emptying out the skull of its victim to ensure it was properly and unequivocally dead. One of the worst movie sights I ever saw, and I was 13. :.)

    • slubberman says:

      Since the original movie was all about violation (and just look at the highly sexualized designs made by Giger), the alien is not considered an animal-like killer that eats its victims.

      More like the worst sadist you could ever imagine..

  2. Mittens89 says:

    This article confirms what I initially thought when I played the game at Rezzed. Basically, don’t worry guys, this game is going to turn out just fine.

    Now the question is whether I’ll be able to actually play it or not, because even the demo level I played was extremely tense.

  3. Ham Solo says:

    I like that the game seems to be so in tune with the first movie.

  4. BobbyDylan says:

    If they bundle the Oculus demo in with the actual game, I might pre-order it. Maybe.

    But probably not.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Sounds as though playing this game on the Rift would be more than I could handle. I still shit myself every time I come out of hyperspace right next to a massive star in Elite.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        I believe they said the Rift version of this was just a prototype, and is not going to be released. A shame, because it sounded like an amazing experience. IF you have a computer that can handle it.

  5. ryan7579 says:

    Great story, and sounds like it will be awesome.

    Was the Amnesia spoiler really necessary? I don’t see how it added to the article at all. Just like the alien itself, it came out of nowhere and wrecked my day. Except it wasn’t fun.

    • Distec says:

      Is it really a spoiler to compare this game mechanically to another of its ilk?

      I don’t consider myself spoiled when somebody points out that COD uses infinitely respawning enemies.

    • JoeX111 says:

      Considering that Amnesia was released four years ago, I think the statute of limitations on “spoilers” has passed.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I don’t mind. Means I can stop feeling guilty about not having played Amnesia yet.

  6. jammin387 says:

    Hi RPS. I just wanted to say that I’m new to the site and only found out about it through the blink feed app on my HTC phone. For a long while now I’ve found it so frustrating to find a site that gives you a very well rounded in depth review on a game. And this review (all-be-it on a demo) really was fantastic. If the author and or editor of this post contiues to write articles such a this you will truley set yourself above the rest. Thank you once again .

  7. Jraptor59 says:

    It’s SEGA. They will FU the game.

    • Premium User Badge Continuity says:

      I’d be more concerned that the developer is Creative Assembly, who have created nothing but Total war games for the last 15 years and have botched at least a third of them.

  8. El Mariachi says:

    Is the canonical Alien attracted by light? It doesn’t seem to have any eyes, and I thought I remembered something about it sensing prey “telepathically” (for lack of a better word.)

    Preëmptive edit: The wiki is inconclusive.

    • Premium User Badge Continuity says:

      There is no conclusive answer, but I think its generally thought that their head carapace is outer armour that is maybe see-through like one way glass, with eyes underneath.
      What can be said is that the “no eyes” appearance is deliberate aesthetically, and that the aliens do appear to see in the books etc by the way they react to light.

  9. AyeBraine says:

    The naming of the station is smart for an Alien franchise! Because the city of Sevastopol…

    1. …survived at least two terrible sieges that reduced it to smoldering rubble, and technically was taken both times – but never lost its fighting spirit and is still perceived as an “untakable” fortress;
    2. …was a place where newly organized Soviet marines (basically just disciplined, motivated sailors with lots of guns and grenades) showed their worth – and covered themselves in glory, head to toe.

    The second point is remarkable because unlike USA, Marines don’t hold the “elite” status in Russian armed forces; the Airborne divisions do. But the WWII (GPW) marines are known as legendary badasses, assaulting non-stop like demons. Or space marines.

  10. Doganpc says:

    “Her response could be the large print bolded instruction that forms the majority of the game’s manual: ‘Hide’.”
    Made me realize I actually miss meaningful game manuals. Even if they were as simple as this. Got a box full of older game manuals still. Diablo’s got some great fluff, too bad it got retcon’d.

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