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.