Creature Feature: Alien – Isolation

Are you playing Alien tonight? Now that Isolation has been unleashed, I want to talk about something that I brushed over in my review. It’s an important thing but it’s something that I didn’t feel the need to dwell on because I wanted to leave a small window for everyone to have their own first encounter before I unpacked my own mental baggage. Previously, I’ve written a great deal about the Sevastopol, the setting, and the adaptation of stylistic and thematic delicacies from Ridley Scott’s film – it’s time to talk about the Xenomorph.

I made the decision to place the focus of the review on the station and its corporate calamity early. The Xenomorph has parasitic beginnings and even fully grown it functions like a poison in the system, scurrying through the arteries of the vessel and killing vital components as it goes. The context makes the creature, just as the house is an integral aspect of the spectre that haunts it.

That’s why the study of Seegson and the Sevastopol is important, and why – to my great shock and surprise – I find it easier to imagine Isolation without the Xenomorph far more readily than Isolation without Sevastopol. But rather than imagining either of those things, let’s look at something wonderful, something that I’d lost hope of ever seeing – an Alien game that makes the central monster terrifying and mysterious again.

The popularity part of pop culture is damaging to the scary critters and cads that make up such a huge part of it. It’s easy to see Freddy Krueger as a prankster, albeit with a particularly grotesque and violent set of tricks up his striped sleeves, rather than the unnerving and literally nightmarish force of the first Elm Street film. He’s likely to be seen scrapping and quipping with Jason Voorhees these days, another character who has never been as disturbing as in his first appearance. “The bastard son of a 100 maniacs”, with his hideously upsetting and (hopefully) unfilmable origin, is suitable attire for a trick or treating kid, and as overexposed as a cryptozoologist’s collection of photographic evidence.

We take our monsters from the ethereal flicker of the screen and the darkness of the screening room, and we defang them. Travis Falligant’s Scooby Doo mashups play with that process, while also demonstrating how characters can be neatly translated into the Hanna-Barbera art style. Here’s Freddy. Here’s Jason. Here’s something else entirely.

Creative Assembly’s alien is based on the creature in the original film. At times, particularly when it’s tearing open a locker, it’s easy to see how a man in costume managed to portray the thing. The one major concession, the developers told me when I visited Sega to play the game for the first time, is in the shape of the legs. From beneath the tables and desks where you’ll spend a fair amount of time cowering, the alien’s original legs looked too much like a man shuffling back and forth. Click the joints backwards like a frustrated teenager with an action toy. make the whole setup more segmented and spindly, and the effect is far weirder.

It’s not enough for the alien to be weird though. There’s an expectation that it will be nigh on unstoppable as well. A perfect hunter, invulnerable to the weapons at hand, and with behaviour that is impossible to decipher. How to go about creating such a thing?

Basing a game around Aliens isn’t as immediately challenging a prospect. The pluralisation acknowledges that the xenocorpses can pile high and that a few rounds from the right kind of gun will be enough to make an alien fall apart like a clumsily handled insect. There haven’t just been a sequence of licensed games that cover the Aliens (and Predator) part of the universe, there have been plenty of unlicensed games that could easily fit the world with a re-skin. If there are marines and there are aliens pouring out of the walls, a splash of paint could fool you into thinking you’re playing an Aliens game. There was a fairly convincing Doom mod back in 1994.

Isolation’s alien is not all of the others. It’s the unstoppable force and one of the game’s great balancing acts is to ensure it remains credible as the greatest threat you’ll ever face, while also allowing progression. The response to the creature’s behaviour was always going to be divisive – IGN’s review reckons its unpredictability “is both Isolation’s greatest strength as well as its most crippling weakness” (some spoilers in that link) – and it is an unusually punishing adversary. You won’t need to worry about its acid blood because, to butcher an appropriate phrase, it won’t bleed and you can’t kill it. What you’ll have to worry about are the teeth and the claws and the tail and the piston-powered mouth within the mouth. If it touches you, you’re as good or dead and that’s the way it should be. No QTE ‘wrestle the alien’ sequences here.

It’s vital, then, that you have means of avoiding that deadly touch. Tools to distract, and level design that allows avoidance and cowering. Both of those things are in place, but they would be worthless if the alien didn’t behave in a convincing fashion. It isn’t, as might have been hoped, a persistent actor across the station, instead being attached to the player’s general position like a rubberbanding car in a racing game. If it’s hunting you, it’ll stay close. It also moves around invisibly, teleporting from place to place for all I know, to keep the tension high.

The behaviour is credible because there are prior examples of it – it’s part of the monster’s modus operandi. Its previous habit of moving through vents and other hidden passageways allows Creative Assembly to shift it from place to place behind the scenes, with a clattering and ominous rumble to mark its passage, and of course the dread squawk of the motion detector. That device is another fortunate aspect of the film, perfectly suited to the game’s design – it’s the most useful defensive tool Amanda Ripley ever lays her hands on, and it allows the creature to move impossibly fast and to break certain rules once it breaks line of sight. Sometimes it seems to be moving through walls, in a straight line toward me, as I watch the green blip – maybe it is, maybe it’s in the vents, maybe it’s under the floor, maybe I’ll never know how it does what it does.

see note (1) below for origin

It moves in mysterious ways. One day, I want to know exactly how it works and I’ll probably be surprised by how sophisticated certain aspects of the process are, and how others are muddled together. Scrutinise the behaviour and you’ll see the smoke and the mirrors – scrutinise the film and you’ll see a man in a rubber suit. That’s why the context matters and it’s why, among the dark and the derelict corners of a doomed place, Giger’s creature retreats from its popular image and becomes a thing to fear once again. Isolation isn’t just the first game to retrieve the Xenomorph from the wars and the overexposure, it’s the first piece of media to return it to its role as the solitary, sinister and unknowable thing that introduced itself to the world thirty five years ago.

Alien: Isolation is available now, as is our review.

1) Image of Giger with Alien model, taken from British Film Institute (http://www.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/styles/full/public/image/alien-1979-010-h-r-giger-and-model-00m-ymj.jpg?)itok=rbKEvfz8

58 Comments

  1. w0bbl3r says:

    First to comment?
    Does that mean I am an internet king or something? Or does it mean nothing?
    Or does it mean something only if I think it does? And if I am so sad as to think it does, do I get an award for being biggest loser on the internet this hour?

    On topic;
    Have played about an hour and a half. Haven’t even SEEN the alien yet. And I am TERRIFIED of every sound I hear.
    The setting, the immersion and the atmosphere in this game are unmatched anywhere except maybe (just maybe) in the original metro 2033 the first time I played on ranger hardcore. And even then the immersion would be slightly better here just because of the newer tech, graphics and lighting and such.
    This is already just about the best alien game I have ever played, without even showing me the alien.
    The alien had better live up to this, or it’s “game over man, game over”, quite literally for this one.
    But I have heard pretty much glowing write-ups all over the place for the game AND the alien, so I am staying optimistic
    Nice article.

    • Flavour Beans says:

      “Have played about an hour and a half. Haven’t even SEEN the alien yet. And I am TERRIFIED of every sound I hear.”

      I’d say the only shame of the game is that you know, in advance, that you should be terrified of these sounds. That’s the one thing that (even though it just means I’m dead scared the whole time) sort of spoils a horror game overall: You know what you’re getting into, you know you should be scared before the game gives you much to be scared about.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        This is a really, really interesting point.
        I wonder, have there been any “surprise” horror games? Games that only got scary after they’d lulled you into believing they were something else?
        I suppose the Thief games might just about qualify depending on when you played them? Not much else that I can think of… Hatoful Boyfriend perhaps?

        It’s very rare that a horror game manages to get more than the occasional jolt out of me, and I think you finally made me understand why – the unexpected isn’t scary anymore if you’re expecting it.

        (All three Thief games scared me senseless when I first played them, incidentally)

        • kevmscotland says:

          I’d probably say the first Condemned took me by surprise interms of its horror element, particular as the game went on.

          That school level!

          • nrvsNRG says:

            Department store level….those mannequins….I shit my pants.

        • Ignis says:

          I can see your point. The “surprise” is often – zombies, space zombies, space alien zombies, mutants, aliens, or Cthulhu. In fact gaming industry has a very short range of scary monsters in horrors.

        • BobbleHat says:

          STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl always had that sense of uneasiness from the start, but it completely sideswiped me with the first Bloodsucker encounter underground.

          The Ocean House Hotel in Vampire Bloodlines did it too.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          Not full on horror games in themselves but Half-Life 2 and the original Far Cry turned into scary jump fests at points. Half-Life 2 when you went to Ravenholme (sp?) and Far Cry when the jumpy Trigens showed up. I enjoyed that about those games as it felt like a change of pace, you went from man-shooting to something very different and scary, I just wanted to get the fuck out of Ravenholme every time I played HL2, it had a different effect to playing a horror game which you go into knowing it’s main goal as a game is to try and scare you.

          Unreal also gets an honorable mention too. The bit where you first get introduced to the Skaarj, where it locks you in a corridor, switches off the lights one by one then throws an 8 foot tall bipedal alien at you almost made me crap my pants.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            Man, I totally forgot about that part in Unreal. Now that you brought it up I have a pretty vivid image of it in my head, it’s a great example.
            The Skaarj on the elevator in Unreal 2 was pretty scary first time, too. But again, slightly less so, because we were aware they existed. The first Unreal was actually pretty good at the “mysterious undiscovered alien world” bit.

        • Coming Second says:

          It was never a horror game but I think most players who didn’t know about it were blindsided by HL2’s Ravenholm. The way that game shifted its tone and gameplay elements from chapter to chapter was for me its most impressive achievement.

          • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

            Eh, I wasn’t particularly scared in Ravenholm. I was feeling more like, ‘clearly the designers were expecting me to be happy that I get to use the gravity gun a lot to throw sawblades at zombies. Too bad I hate the gravity gun.’

        • minstrelofmoria says:

          Naming them would be ruining the surprise, but I know of two freeware horror games that are framed as non-horror–one a flower-filled platformer that suddenly turns Lovecraftian, the other a falling-blocks game whose characters turn out to be unhinged murderers.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            I am taking this as a personal challenge. I shall report back if I believe I have found them. (Spoiler free, of course)

      • ubik says:

        This will probably seems really silly, but Wolfenstein: Spear of Destiny scared the crap out of my younger self. At the very end of the game, after killing innumerable Nazis and other standard fare you finally get the titular Spear and I was expecting a short crappy end-game cutscene or something. Wrong – suddenly the whole level changes to red and you’re in Hell fighting demons and such! Even back then I knew it was a cheesy level that wouldn’t be frightening at all except for the unexpectedness of it.

      • The Sombrero Kid says:

        I’ve been role playing someone who thinks it’s all fine, so I just walked around everywhere taking in the amazing scenery at a nice leasurely pace until things started to go wrong.

    • puffinmcpuffs says:

      “Have played about an hour and a half. Haven’t even SEEN the alien yet. And I am TERRIFIED of every sound I hear.”

      Yeah, my impression at first too. At first. But after a few hours it was more like “Oh look, that asshole again!”
      The alien simply kept coming at the most illogical moments and situations (alien saliva dripping out of a vent as a clear indicator that the Alien is behind it, just for the alien to pop up around the next corner), being able to spot me in places when I was save before in far worse hiding places and very often simply ignoring game mechanics like gunfire or even ignoring enemies shooting at it just to turn around to kill that lady sneaking out of the room in the shadows….

      The thing that put me most off about the game was the alien itself. And that’s odd for a game called Alien: Isolation.

  2. kevmscotland says:

    I’m struggling at the moment.

    Alien and Aliens are my all time favourite movies ( I even like Alien 3 – shocker I know! ).
    That said I don’t like horror/scary games or other movies in that genre and as such I’m really split on Alien Isolation.

    Having played maybe 6 hours or so now I’m loving the world, I’m loving the station, Seegson, the whole back story, Amanda Ripley… the lot.
    I’m absolutely hating being scared shitless throughout, its just not my thing. My desire to experience the world and its story keeps me plugging onwards.

    All that said, the fact it so accurately accomplishes the task of being scary and the best rendition of an Alien game to date is to be commended.
    Bravo Creative Assembly… Bravo.

  3. Ignis says:

    Space Locker Simulator 2014

    On a more serious note – Alien Isolation is one of the best (if not the best) sci-fi horror game released this decade. The execution of the alien and it’s behaviour is most excellent. Can’t wait to see what DLCs CA is preparing for us.

    • Hex says:

      Xenomorph armor.

      • DestructibleEnvironments says:

        Parker and Brett commentary track (in-character), voicing all the events in the game… DLC pack.

        (The 2 mechanics)

        I wish.

        PS: I hope the season pass isn’t just full of survival mode maps. I wouldn’t mind story DLC.

  4. Bull0 says:

    I’d be playing tonight if Amazon had delivered my pre-order on time. More than a little miffed.

    • Cleave says:

      Amazon failed to deliver my pre-order of Mario Kart which was released on a Friday. I found the solution was to go to Sainsbury’s to buy a copy of the game and then “return” the copy that I received from Amazon there when it arrived to still get the lower price.

  5. Stonejackit says:

    ALIEN is my favorite Movie, too. While i can understand that they had to go with more human-like legs for practical reasons in the movie, I don’t like the popular “animal”-leg verison which can be found in various games and comics. I find the Alien in more humanoid form much scarier because of the abnormal and ‘alien’ shape that resembles a human being, if that makes any sense. Having said that, I like A:I quite a lot so far (4 hours in the game). The sound effects and music parts oft he original movie are stellar. Graphics also top notch. What I really don’t like about these games are all the stuff, the producers think is cool to shoehorn in. Like characters complaining about things they have to do, that are not part of their contracts, a company staffer have to persuade the main character to go to the main location (Amanda should be as keen as mustard to check out the flight recorder), the shape of a space station resembles most accurately the shape of an oil refinery towing vessle etc. Why not come up with something original.

  6. suibhne says:

    Just sayin’:
    link to arstechnica.com

    • Stellar Duck says:

      It needs to be said though!

      For some reason people calling the aliens from Alien Xenomorphs annoys me more than it rational and more than I’d otherwise ever get annoyed at stuff like that.

      • P.Funk says:

        The real question to me is, can someone get away with using a lower case x and not annoy you?

        Calling it ‘the’ or ‘a xenomorph’, according to the article if I interpret it correctly, is technically acceptable so long as you’re using the term as generally as we use the term Alien.

        • Stellar Duck says:

          Yea, drop the capital X and I’m good.

          Edit: though I do much prefer to have it called the alien from Alien.

      • nootrac4571 says:

        I feel your pedantic pain, but as far as I know they’re never given any canonical species name in the movies and we’ve got to call them something, right? “Aliens” is just too generic a word to be useful.

        In the same way, I don’t think anyone actually uses the word “Predator” to describe the aliens in the Predator films, but what else are we going to call them?

        • nmrahde says:

          How about “the alien”, “the predator”, or “the monster” (instead of Frankenstein)? When talking about these creatures within context that should suffice, though when talking about them out of context I can see it getting tiresome to have to say “the [x] from [y] all the time”.

          As for the predators I know in EU they’re called “Yautja”. I do not know how to pronounce it. There’s probably been a species name or something for the aliens in EU as well. But then again the Engineer/Space Jockey was depicted in the comics as bipedal elephantmen so…

    • PikaBot says:

      I was under the impression that everyone knew it was lower-case xenomorphs, and we just refer to the Alien as it for lack of a better term.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Oh thank goodness you posted this before I did, I’d have not been able to control my rage so well…..ggaaarrrhhghhgh!

      Seriously, when I saw Aliens I thought this was just such an awesome word for an alien that I worked it into my own private sci-fi RPG fiction I was making for a game I was trying to make on my AMIGA (I was a teenager and yes, it was shit)

      By the time I could show it to anyone I realised I couldn’t use the term as intended without causing massive confusion because it had already been misappropriated as the unofficial name of the mature phenotype of the alien from Alien :|

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        It isn’t that which annoys me though. It’s more the need that we have to give proper names and discrete definitions to every creature and concept from science fiction and fantasy, it’s anathema to imagination. Monsters need to be unknown and unexplained, so they can best represent whatever our own personal worst fears are!

        • Premium User Badge

          Harlander says:

          Yeah, but naming things is right up there with being scared of unknown things in the dark as a thing humans do

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            Before it was planes it was ships, before it was ships it was swords, before it was swords it was…
            Well, literally everything. Look around, everything you see has a word for it, a name, and we gave them all those names.
            Humans are pretty weird honestly.

          • JamesTheNumberless says:

            Names are one thing but categorizing and reducing something to the extent that you can make it into a top trumps card familiarizes it and trivializes it to where it is no longer something to fear. That’s the main reason why Aliens vs Predator (the movies) was such a bad idea. People think they want to know more, and have all the secrets explained, but when we do they’re always disappointed with the outcome.

  7. Flavour Beans says:

    “it’s the first piece of media to return it to its role as the solitary, sinister and unknowable thing that introduced itself to the world thirty five years ago.”

    This. This is why I want to play this game so so so so badly. The xenomorph was always more unnerving as this singular creature.

    • Initialised says:

      Oh you really should play it, stop reading stuff about it, too many spoilers. I haven’t been this scared by a game since Amnesia.

    • Oozo says:

      Oh, absolutely.

      I watched the first two movies in the franchise only a few years ago, and I was confused. I really loved Alien, it looked like New Hollywood’s last effort to me, dark, atmospheric, and absolutely focussed.

      But I was disappointed with Aliens, which seemed to profoundly misunderstand what made Ridley Scott’s movie great. It’s not so much the “movie qualities” (even though I thought that some of the characters, which were introduced in inplausible situations just to make a heavy-handed point, were not exactly great storytelling). What was irritating to me was how that magnificient creature from the first movie, an unstoppable force of nature, was rendered harmless, even trivial and vulnerable to gun fire.

      I mean, I can see that the movie is an exciting and maybe even excellent action movie, but I thought that as a sequel, it failed. And I was even more surprised to see that this opinion seems to be very unpopular (I even was insulted once for mentioning it).

      Anyway, I am aware of the fact that historical distance plays into this, to a point: the reason why the structure in Aliens felt less exciting to me was because it had been so very influential, being used as a template time and again, especially in games. So I’m glad beyond belief that Isolation takes the other route, and is successful doing so. I like to be afraid of that creature, even when it is not legion.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        Fans of the Alien films tend to have a special place for Aliens. It’s the one that many of us saw first (or remember first), when we were far too young to really appreciate Alien. It’s one of the absolute best pure action movies that there is. Alien is unquestionably a better movie, better horror and better sci-fi but a lot of people will argue that Aliens is their favorite in the same way that a lot of people will argue that Star Wars is their favourite film. Alien is clearly the best film, and my actual favorite but 12-year-old me definitely preferred Aliens for a while, especially after visiting the Alien War exhibition in Glasgow :)

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          I think it’s fair to say that a lot of fans really appreciate Aliens differently to how they appreciate Alien. But most people will compare Alien and Aliens with Alien 3 and Alien 4 and say that the first two stand head and shoulders above the others… Of course not everyone feels that way about Alien 3 – I personally think it gets close to Alien in places and had the potential to be great but could never really decide where it was going and what it was saying. I think people wanted a continuation with Alien 3 and what they actually got was a tangent.

  8. Gog Magog says:

    Well, my capability to dread a creature has been thoroughly devalued by exposure to the STALKER series’ two big bad hunters and those guys were actually unscripted, so… what the fuck am I talking about.
    I love the fact that after the lukewarm latest AvP and the shitshow of Colonial Marines they finally made an actually excellent game involving the Alien that gives the thing its due.
    Props, Creative Assembly.
    I’m sure all those years making Total War paid off here.

    • natendi says:

      Agroprom underground in SHoC for me, the bloodsucker and controller :)

    • Raoul Duke says:

      I still have PTSD from STALKER. Nights and underground were just so bloody dark.

  9. nootrac4571 says:

    Hmm, I really want to play this, but I suspect my wheezing old PC isn’t up to the task. Can anyone recommend whether it’s worth getting it for my Xbox360? Not too fussed about graphical fidelity as long as it doesn’t look like complete shit, and while I much prefer mouse+keyboard for first person games, I don’t mind a joypad if the game doesn’t require quick reactions or pinpoint aiming. For example: the Portal games are perfectly playable on consoles, but I’d never consider playing something like Serious Sam or Quake on one. Would playing it with a joypad, in last-gen-console-o-vision ruin the experience?

    • TheBigBookOfTerror says:

      Depends, how wheezy? I’ve only got a Intel Core 2 2.13GHz, 4GB Ram, and a Geforce GT 640 2GB card which I’ve seen regularly mocked as “not a gaming card” and I’ve been running it at the maximum resolution possible with my monitor (1400×900) on the default settings it gave me, it’s nice and smooth with no lag or frame rate issues and as far as I can tell it looks just as nice as the trailers have showed. Systems labs says I shouldn’t even be able to run it. In fact it plays better than some older games that aren’t half as pretty.

      • nootrac4571 says:

        I have no idea what most of this means, but according to Windows I have an AMD Phenom II X3 720 Processor 2.80 Ghz, 6GB of RAM, and a Radeon HD 4770. Whenever I’ve shown my specs to techy people they generally say “Tri-core?” then recoil in confused horror.

        • KenTWOu says:

          Radeon HD 4770 doesn’t support DirectX 11, so you won’t be able to play the game.

        • TheBigBookOfTerror says:

          Get yourself a DX11 card then and with my very limited knowledge, I can’t see why you wouldn’t be able to play it. Mine was just over £100 and that was over a year ago.

    • Casimir's Blake says:

      My system is as follows: Phenom II X6 1055T, 8GB RAM, Win 7 64-bit, Radeon 7750. Has some poke but nothing special these days.

      Video settings on “high” and with antialiasing on (SS2X? I can’t remember the option), and it’s been smooth sailing at 1080p.

      I’m playing it with an old PSX dual shock gamepad (AI needs X360ce for this to work), and it’s fine!

  10. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I don’t sweat as much as the rest of you.

  11. Casimir's Blake says:

    Though the checkpoint saves are causing me some frustration (sudden Alien appearances near save points, ugh!), this is truly the best first-person sci-fi horror experience since System Shock 2. As a game, it differs in a few ways e.g. no RPG elements and there’s only a limited inventory as opposed to a proper one, but Alien Isolation is – a few hours in at least – the kind of thoroughly compelling first person gaming I’ve craved for so long since SS2. It isn’t perfect, but it’s absolutely successful at immersing the player into a malignant, non-linear environment and leaving them to “just get on with it”. It’s nice not to be led around by the nose, and to feel like I have to rely on my own skills to progress.

  12. P-Dizzle says:

    What is your relationship with Sega, Adam?

    • Stellar Duck says:

      He got an invitation to their birthday party. There was cake!

    • RARARA says:

      Adam’s inner calm is like a boundless expanse of Sega Blues.

  13. Fitzmogwai says:

    I haven’t read the article because I haven’t yet played the game and spoilers (potentially) but I just looked at this and Shadows of Mordor on Steam and want to say how angry I am at all this “Season Pass” bollocks that has infested gaming recently.

    Bastards!

    I’m now going to make a nice calming mug of Horlicks.