There's a certain feeling of power one receives when picking up a flamethrower. In Alien: Isolation, the Xenomorph robbed me of this machismo immediately. "It's not your big Hollywood special effects flamethrower that can blow up a tank." said Gary Napper, lead designer. A tank. That’s what I need.
The hands-on time I had with Isolation was with its challenge mode – a snippet of the game where you are simply trying to get to some stairs as fast you possibly can. What will assist you most in this scenario is the game’s crafting system, where you scavenge objects to fashion crude weapons or distractions for the alien, and thus make your getaway.
Hiding in this game isn't like that of other first-person survival horror titles. You can't peek out of a box to see if anyone is coming, and instead must pull back and hold your breath to avoid the alien's gaze.
And while the genre that isn't as compelling as it once was, Isolation is pushing it the way the original Alien did with horror. Relying less on gore and jump-scares, the game arms the player with a flawed motion detector, and its slow, crackling beep alone creates suspense, terror, and dread.
The game doesn't feel the need to paint the walls in blood, send me to a mental asylum, or some other spooky place. It isn't even raining all the time.
"My favourite thing is the art team got the materials used to build the set so they could see how heavy things were, what they were made of, what the texture was like, and how they reacted, so we could recreate that feeling from the original set," explains Napper.
The term "low-fi sci-fi" has been bandied about when talking about the game, but the art direction and feel of the game translate on a deeper level to the game mechanics. In almost all previous Alien games we've seen machine guns, flame-throwers, and various devices utilised to assist our chosen hero. In contrast, the technology presented in Ridley Scott's original film was often an obstruction for the protagonist. The latter is the angle presented in Isolation, with the player having to overcome broken power supplies, jammed doors that need key-cards, and more.
“Films of that era didn't have CG, they didn't have top-end graphic effects, they just had to use what they could build. So when you see things like the lever on the self-destruct system, those are machine-engineered pieces of equipment they had to build to create that set,” says Napper.
“Everything felt real and chunky and looked oily, because it was, because it had to function [laughs]...We've really tried to capture the feel and look of that.”
This extends to the alien itself, which moves slowly and deliberately. Instead of being faced with a multitude of enemies which you'll dispense in a flurry of bullets and fire, you face one that is seemingly indestructible and unpredictable. Even the signature flamethrower only causes the monster to retreat, which I found out first-hand. Fortunately you can draw its focus, and can even kite it across the map to prey upon unsuspecting fellow survivors if you so desire.
The other humans on the spacecraft are naturally unpredictable and trying to survive, just as your character is. "Even the ones that are aggressive are not all-out enemy bad guys you see in games. They shout warnings, they tell you to back-off, they draw their guns to give you one last chance," explains Napper. "It feels a lot more grounded and real because there are too many games where every single person in the game is trying to kill you because it’s a video-game."
One of the greatest assets to the development of the game was a particularly hardy archivist at Fox. "We had massive amounts of data, something like three terabytes we got through,” he adds. “Everything from dialogue lines that had been recorded that hadn't been used, to odd bits of music that hadn't been put together or used in any of the scenes, to plans and detailed blueprints on all the sets that have been built."
This attention to detail – though impressive – may seem almost unnecessary, but it all adds to an overall vibe that pulls the player into this world. Playing through challenge mode, I began to forget my simple goal, and instead wanted to explore the various cabinets I could hide in, or gaze at scraps of family photos, snapshots of those who likely didn't survive this particular trip through space.
"That’s the kind of thing that's a bit too detailed and a bit too nerdy to go on the Blu-ray special edition,” says Napper. “Only two per cent of the audience would go ‘yeah that stuff is cool’.
“Luckily, we're that two percent.”