Unlike space, at Creative Assembly everyone can hear you scream…
… and then laugh at you, but that’s okay, because you’re certainly not the only one screaming.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited down to Creative Assembly for a first look at Alien Isolation with Sam Hughes from the Sound Architect. This is a title that I have been paying special attention to since I survived the demo at EGX Rezzed earlier this year. As a massive fan of the original Alien film I have been constantly disappointed by the games that have been released in the past: not particularly because they are bad (although I make no excuses for Colonial Marines), but because not one of them has managed to capture the tension and horror of the original film. Most of the games tend to focus on the action elements of Aliens, rather than its horror prequel, and I always thought they missed the point. Apparently I am not the only one, as the creators of Alien Isolation feel the same. Creative Assembly have set out to take the series back to its roots and promise a survival experience to terrify even the most hardcore gamer, as you get to go human to Xenomorph against a single Alien.
You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley from the Alien films, on a mission to discover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance. Like her mother, she finds herself in a desperate situation which will test her survival instincts to their very limits. Low on supplies with the situation rapidly deteriorating, it will take all of her skill and determination simply to survive. Armed with your motion detector and whatever bits of scrap you can find lying around the ship, it’s up to you to guide Amanda through panicked survivors, psychotic synthetics, an increasingly unstable ship and of course the Xenomorphs personal hunting ground.
The tension really gets to you as you wander further into the darkened halls of the ship and you get the sense that there is a consequence to using anything beneficial. For example, the torch: I like to have plenty of light, to avoid bad guys, see where I’m going and generally not fall down big holes. Within half an hour on this game I was scrambling around in the dark, too afraid to draw attention to myself. Even the save feature is well… unsafe, as it takes time and does not pause the gameplay. This makes you a convenient stationary target if the Alien just happens to be wandering around.
Once we had survived a look at the main game, it was time to test our skills in Survivor Mode. This game mode also focuses on you going head to head with the Alien, but this time the gloves were off. You have to find the exit as fast as possible, as the Alien hunts you mercilessly. He is more aggressive and still unpredictable; he killed me after a grand total of 2 seconds on one run. In return I learnt to utilise fire, which he did not like. There are also side objectives within Survivor mode and other hidden bonuses, which will earn you more points for the leaderboards. Although it’s essentially a high octane death run, I really like this mode. It does feel more personal when you hear the Alien tearing up behind you as you slam the button at the end. Every time he swoops down on you when you’re inches from the finish line just makes you more determined to beat him.
Following introductions, we were led into a dark room with a screen set up for each of us as members of the team wished us good luck… this was our first clue to what waited in store for us. The second was the safety briefing we had to attend before we were even allowed to play the game – the seven of us were exchanging some extremely worried looks by this point. With the tension level already high, we were told not to run, not to fight, but to do everything we could to avoid detection. This was the only way we even had a chance at survival. I would love to say this was not the case, or that the safety briefing was designed purely to hype up the experience, I really would. The truth is the team had a respect for the Alien in Isolation – and now, so do I
Alien Isolation is set several years after the original Alien film and attempts to create the same horror effect. We were given four hours to play an excerpt of the game and at first look they appear to not only have done this, but created something even more exceptional. You can tell that this game has been designed at every stage by a team who not only love the film, but understand what makes it so great. Isolation is the perfect word to describe the simplistic fear of being hunted, picked off one by one until only one survivor remains, cut off and alone. This sums up exactly how I felt playing this game, hopelessly alone fighting against tremendous odds for survival. There is always the feeling of being constantly hunted by a creature that not only could rip you apart without breaking a sweat, but is also constantly learning and adapting to your behaviour. I also learned that this Alien truly has a mind of its own and runs off his own senses, to the point that even the developers don’t know what it will do. It is not on a fixed pattern, like most enemies encountered in horror games, and there is no way to predict its behaviour as it is unscripted. I discovered this fact personally while hiding under a desk waiting for it to drop down in the corridor, as it had done before, so I could sneak around it. As I heard a vent drop behind me my blood turned to ice and I knew that it had me.
The sound in this game is central to the atmosphere and gameplay. The motion sensor is handy, but when you’re on the move you are constantly listening for a noise in the vents or running footsteps. You are also constantly aware of how much noise you are making, as loud noises attract unwanted attention. This is particularly problematic when you reach the switch you have been looking for, but don’t want to pull it in case it sets off the equivalent of a Xenomorph dinner bell. The graphics are stunning and you can see the influence from the Alien film throughout the ship (I especially like the circular vent openings). The Alien himself is perfect, down to the last drooly drop, as I saw several times while he was eating my face. The controls are smooth and you can even craft items to help you survive, but the best part for me is the unique feeling of… well isolation. You really feel like you are surviving on luck and adrenaline against overwhelming odds. Every task you accomplish seems impossible at first and a complete triumph upon completion. It’s the same feeling I had entering Rapture in Bioshock, but this time there are no weapons to hide behind.
After running for my life in Survivor Mode, Sam Hughes and I were invited to talk to Al Hope (Creative Lead) Jon McKellan (Lead UI Art/Design) and Gary Napper (Lead Designer), the creative minds behind Alien Isolation. What was immediately apparent was how excited the team were about the game. After years of development in secrecy, they could finally discuss a project that they were clearly passionate about. Each of them is a massive fan of Alien and they explained how every step had been taken to ensure they remained true to the film. The film is on a constant loop at Creative Assembly and concept artists and sound designers on the project even used original pieces and techniques from Alien. The team wanted to create a really immersive experience and take you back to the original film. Speaking of taking you back to the original film, the cast of Alien reunited to voice the Pre-Order DLC which features the original crew of the Nostromo