A Nintendo DS title and lightgun arcade offering aside, there hasn’t been a decent game based on the Alien film franchise since 2001’s Aliens vs. Predator 2. In fact, last year’s Colonial Marines was so bad it triggered a series of lawsuits, and probably gave some people cancer as well.
With those things in mind, you’d be forgiven for writing off Total War studio The Creative Assembly’s upcoming Alien: Isolation as another sure-to-tank cash-in on the weary licence. I did. However, having played half a dozen hours of Isolation, I’m confident it is the game Alien fans have waited a long time to play.
A survival horror title that's heavy on stealth and story, Isolation is set 15 years after the events of Alien the film, and puts the players into the space boots of Amanda Ripley, who is investigating the disappearance of her mother Ellen (Ripley from the Alien films). The family tie is too much of a video game conceit – one that will no doubt be mined for unearned emotional impact throughout Isolation – but the game is otherwise compelling.
This is partly due to the aesthetic choices made by The Creative Assembly. In basing its designs off masses of materials borrowed from 20th Century Fox, the studio has nailed the "low-fi sci-fi" feel of the film’s settings.
The space station Sevastopol is a surprisingly well-lit but dilapidated vessel – all analogue technology, curved plastic surfaces, exposed pipes, dripping and leaking fluids, grimy windows, and outsized mainframes. The station’s machinery is it’s voice, transforming it into a whirring, humming, popping, hissing organism.
In the generous slice of the game I was given to play, Amanda is scouting the ransacked station’s medical wing and synthetics factory for medical supplies to aid a dying woman, and this brings her in contact with not only the eponymous alien, but also some who have survived its rampage thus far.
Isolation is mainly a stealth game, its single, indestructible alien an almost omnipresent threat. It stalks the corridors, ceilings, and air ducts of the ship, searching for any clues as to the whereabouts of the player. It doesn’t simply patrol, but instead moves in a terrifyingly random fashion, leaving a room you're hidden in only to pause at the automatic door, pivot, and give the place another going-over.
It’s clear the creature has been programmed to follow the player reasonably closely even when it can’t possibly know where he or she is, but this keeps the tension pleasingly high throughout. Sometimes the creature sneaks slowly and silently as if listening and smelling the air, other times it stomps across the game's hollow steel floors, knocking chairs and crates over with its sharp prehensile tail.
However, the real star is the game’s motion tracker – the simple device from the movies which pings whenever there is movement within 100 metres. Should the player be facing towards whatever is moving, it shows a green dot, and the closer the dot gets, the faster and more urgent the pings.
In several strokes of genius, the tracker doesn’t work in vents, doesn’t detect the alien if it is standing still, and its pings draw the alien closer when it's in use.
This device is as effective in-game as it was on screen, which is to say: it is terrifying. The alien can close that 100 metres in a few scant seconds, so any report will see the player stop dead in his or her tracks. Amanda can sprint, but even walking at normal speed is loud enough to draw the xenomorph from a fair distance away.
As such, most players will elect to creep around as slowly and quietly as possible, give or take the occasional panicked fast-walk to a save station.
Should the alien or another hostile show up, the usual survival horror mechanics are available: hide in a locker or box, under a table, or in a vent and have Amanda hold her breath; shoot with limited ammo (which pretty much immediately draws the alien to your location); go for a stealth takedown; try to distract whatever it is with a flare or smoke bomb; or run like a lunatic and hide somewhere else.
Hiding is no guarantee you won’t be found though, as the alien can see the faint glow and hear the click of any electronics Amanda is currently using, and will pull doors from hinges to get at her. Needless to say, the moments you spend out in the open solving pattern recognition puzzles or entering passcodes in order to open doors are fraught with anxiety.
Amanda may be helpless against the alien, but she can craft items to at least throw it off her trail, along with weapons to employ against hostile survivors. Things like pipe bombs, molotovs, smoke bombs, EMP mines, noisemakers, and medikits can be whipped up with the right ingredients, which are randomly scattered around the station.
There is one other mechanic worth mentioning, and that’s Amanda’s ability to rewire the station's circuits to toggle certain things like air purifiers, alarms, electronic locks, cameras, and so forth. A limited pool of energy is available so not everything may be active at once, and you're is completely vulnerable while interfacing with the terminal, but tweaking these things can tip the scales ever-so-slightly your way during a hostile encounter.
Isolation is full of lovely touches. Looking at the tracker blurs the background, and the controller vibrates in time with its chirps. Saliva swings from the alien’s jaws and its breath is visible as it passes by. Survivors that shoot at the player are quickly dispatched by the alien. The game’s synthetic humans are just the right level of creepy. The list goes on.
The capper is that this game is hard, often brutally so. There are no autosaves, and save stations – which require the player to stand helplessly for three seconds before saving – are well-spaced. That means that 30 cautious minutes of sneaking and collecting supplies can be undone with one wrong move, but that makes every metre gained feel like a victory.
It really looks like The Creative Assembly has nailed this one. The preview build has some dodgy lip-syncing and very rare minor glitches, but it held my attention for hours, and exploring the lovingly detailed environments of the Sevastopol and logging into its monochromatic terminals is a nerve-wracking joy. This is a game that requires patience and steely reserve, but it's also one whose rewards appear to be plentiful.
Alien: Isolation is scheduled for an October 8 release on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.