Hands On: Alien Isolation

Alien Isolation

Two years ago, at the Eurogamer Rezzed show in Brighton, Dean Hall delivered a talk from which my key take-away was the idea of pursuing authenticity of experience over realism. This was in relation to his then mod, DayZ, and was an illuminating discussion that dealt with the idea of evoking mood and feel without bogging the players down.

While playing the demo of Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation it was clear that there was a similar credos at work here.

Within seconds of stepping into the derelict Nostromo – the spaceship from Ridley Scott’s Alien film – I was hit with a huge wave of nostalgia. This occurred when walking down a set of steps and raising a set of blast shields, giving me a view of the neighbouring planet. It is lit in that slight grainy and saturated way that evokes the colour palette of the first film.


Soon after I was prompted to turn on my flashlight and the way it flooded the empty space with weird elliptical rings of light felt pitch perfect.

The locales are also immediately familiar. You wander through the social area and see a plastic bird that is built to tip its beak into a cup of water and pop back out. There is evidence of Ian Holm’s erratic AI character, as well as Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton’s prankster engineers.

The sound is also phenomenal. The creaking hulk still crackles with feedback that has you creeping around every corner in anticipation of what you will see next. The whole time the motion detector you’re holding pulses with the familiar noise that every Alien/Aliens fan will appreciate.

Despite the motion sensor being more commonly associated with the second film it doesn’t feel out of place. With the game set some time after the first film it makes sense that technology and availability would have changed enough to see the device in common use. Likewise, from a game design standpoint it makes sense to include it; the handheld device serves as both waypoint indicator and tension builder.

Every time the singular alien appears in the game world the sensor will start to blip. Bringing it up to your face to check the blue screen does not pause the game and you are painfully aware that half the screen is taken up by the tracker, meaning that you rely on it to tell where the alien is whilst also dreading the reduced visibility that could just as easily lead to your your death. The level design is constructed faithfully to the film leaving you spending half your time wondering whether the tubing and electronics around you are part of the ship’s architecture or if it is actually a predator lying in wait.

The opening that I played definitely has an element of the opening of Bioshock; for some time you are being wowed by what is on display and are in little danger even if your instincts tell you otherwise – for example, try climbing down into the vent system without thinking about what happened to Dallas when he went down there.

However, once the intro is over things look promising. You cannot kill the alien, only hide from it, but it will kill you if it gets in range.

After two deaths I chose not to finish the demo as I was sold on the game’s aesthetic and intent. Creative Assembly have been bold with their approach and the renaissance of survival horror puts them in good stead for being able to make the game that the first film deserves.

I have two reservations. The first is the co-opting of the motion sensor to also work as a waypoint indicator; it is a minor gripe as this is a concession to modern game design as well as a better alternative to a bread crumb trail ala Dead Space. The second is the crafting system that is hinted at in the demo; done well this could be thrilling but it lends itself to a certain level of gameification that I would prefer to be left out of this kind of experience. Even though I ask the inevitable ‘how long is this game’ question in our interview I think I would be happy with a tight and taut six to eight hour experience that did the the film justice.

As for any of the hardcore Alien fans who are wondering why I haven’t gone on about Amanda Ripley being the protagonist… well, listen to the following interview.

 

This is AJ with Arcadian Rhythms. We’re talking to a member of Creative Assembly. If you’d like to introduce yourself and tell us what you do…

My name is Nee and I’m the Community Manager for Alien: Isolation.

Okay, cool. So, we’ve actually managed to have a look at Alien: Isolation and thought it was really, really good. One of the things that actually struck us about it was the authenticity of it all. Like, the lighting, down to the filtering on a lot of stuff. Really, really phenomenal. Obviously, other than the movie itself, do you have any source material that you pulled influences from?

To be honest, the main, key inspiration was – is – Alien, Ridley Scott’s original film. We wanted to remain absolutely faithful to that sense of tension, that atmosphere, and that very 1979’s aesthetic. And the reason that we’ve stayed so faithful is because we wanted to recapture that horror and that really awful sense of survival, terror and trepidation from the original film. When we took the idea to SEGA and Fox and said, you know, “we want to do this”, they were fantastic, supported us and Fox gave us 3 terabytes worth of extra information about the film that previously we didn’t even know existed. We were able to use that and incorporate that into the game and make it as faithful as it could possibly be to the film.

I mean, obviously, we’re in the games industry and we’re gamers ourselves, so we’re fully aware of other games that exist outside our own little world. We know of the latest games that are happening, that are capturing people’s imaginations and excitement, and obviously every single games studio will have its own inspiration. But, for us, the main one is the film.

Yeah. That makes absolute sense. You kind of nailed that with, like I said, walking into one of the sets [in the demo] and going, ‘I’ve actually seen this exact set and I know exactly what happened here’.

Looking at the story, they’ve decided to go with Amanda Ripley. You’ve probably been asked this question before at some point, but: why Amanda Ripley, of all people?

Well, basically, when we started the development of the game – which was three years ago – our Creative Lead and our other devs, the main leads, just sat down and said, “Look, we love Alien, but no one’s ever explored the story of Amanda Ripley”. She’s mentioned very briefly in the Director’s Edition as being Ellen Ripley’s daughter and she’s 11 when Ellen leaves for space, but no one’s actually explored what her story is. If I was Amanda, I’d want to know what happened to my mum, I’d want to understand why she went missing and what happened. For us, that was a very interesting, very attractive story to delve into and look at and explore. It’s another character who hasn’t been sort of splashed everywhere, who is an interesting character. That’s why we went to Amanda.

That’s a good answer. I’m sure there are a few nerd rages out there, but that allays some of the nerd rage…

To be honest, we’re not part of the official canon. As Creative Assembly, we just said we’re really interested in the story – we want to make a game that is our interpretation of another strand of narrative that could’ve happened. We want to explore it, and that’s what this game is about.

At least you’re not doing what Colonial Marines did. Before I say too much about that, big spoilers for the end of the game: they bring in a guy, Hicks, who’s played by Michael Biehn, and he’s actually dead in the third movie. Like, it’s clear, and so it’s impossible for him to actually show up at the end of that game. And when even it’s broached to the character, he’s just, like, “I don’t want to talk about it”. So, at least you’re going with a strand that is actually viable.

We wanted to go with the narrative that we were really passionate about, and which we wanted to explore more. We wanted to give it that extra dimension for other people to explore and enjoy, and Amanda really is the natural ‘go to’ character.

Makes sense. So, obviously, having played [the demo], it’s heavily focused on stealth. I really liked the little ad-lib video you had at the beginning where it’s, like, ‘You cannot kill this thing. It’s impossible to kill’. What are the challenges of trying to extend that kind of gameplay over essentially a triple-A title? I mean, if it’s going to be all stealth, there’s no shooting at all – as far as I’m aware – what are your plans to extend this over, I’m guessing, a bit more than a 10 hour campaign?

Well, the game is entirely dependant on how you react to the alien, how the alien reacts to you – because he’s so unpredictable – and the environment that you’re in. So, the area that you played today, I’ve seen some people complete it in 20 minutes, I’ve seen some people take an hour to an hour and fifteen to complete it. So, it’s entirely dependant on how much time you want to invest in it, and certainly what the alien does in response to you. In regards to your question, um, could you just sort of run that over again…?

The thing is, you’ve kind of answered the question, really, because what you’re saying is: because things can take from 20 minutes to an hour, there is an element of replayability because of the random element of the game.

Absolutely!

So, rather than us looking at a standard campaign of, let’s say, 10 hours, what we’re looking at is – when you replay it – because the alien will react differently and there’s an emergent style of ga– sorry, I’m sort of doing the interview. You answered my question, basically!

… but to add on to that, we do have an idea for a crafting system in place. I mean, I know that the alien is nigh on impossible to take on in a bare-knuckle brawl. I’ve never seen that happen, but I kind of, sort of do, because I’d be interested to see how anyone wants to take it on. But he’s nigh on impossible to take on. You will come across objects and items which you can use to craft and which you can use to at least give yourself a bit of time to run away or protect yourself, or prolong your battle for survival, as such – so there’s that element as well.

That’s good. So, what platforms are planned for release? Is it going to be only current gen and…?

No, it’s on current gen and next gen, so it’ll be available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. And, as we announced yesterday, it’s going to be available from the 7th October, 2014, so… not that long, really! I’m really excited!

Well, anyway, thanks a lot for your time and I’m really looking forward to the game.

Thank you! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.