From what we have seen so far, Alien: Isolation may prove to be the game that diehard fans of the Alien franchise have been waiting for — a survival horror Alien game.
It's about damn time.
The Alien franchise has had a difficult run in the world of gaming. Few, if any, of the Alien games were particularly noteworthy. We've seen some Alien vs Predator games sporting a fun, asymmetrical multiplayer experience, but none of those are really Alien experiences. Let's only mention Aliens: Colonial Marines in passing to avoid reopening fresh wounds.
It's no wonder Alien games have been around since video games' birth. The Alien universe and aesthetic is extraordinarily compelling. H. R. Giger's visceral, bio-mechanical designs make the xenomorphs, in all their various forms, stick in the back of our nightmare vaults like goathead burrs. There is also something, perhaps nostalgia, which draws us toward the grungy, industrial, analog vision of technology that came out of the seventies — an aesthetic I like to call “ugly-tech.”
Of course, there's more to Alien than visuals. Those films light up our primal ape-brains, and remind us what it's like to be hunted.
The xenomorph, a perfect predator, is functionally identical to a stalking jungle cat as far as our instincts are concerned, and we come to the pants-crapping realization that we're lower on the cosmic food chain than we'd hoped. At the same time, we must contend with the terror of a universe hostile to human life, whether that's aboard a creaky vessel in space or down on a poorly-terraformed world. These films depict humans continually staring into the face of imminent doom, at times spitting into that face, a la Ripley, and at other times cowering before it. “Game over, man! Game over!”
In Alien: Isolation, you do the latter. Terror and powerlessness pervade every mechanic. Each minute detail is designed to trigger your fear response.
Okay, so what about the gameplay already?
For the hands-on demo at E3, you find yourself on a space station with a simple objective: “Escape the area.” You're armed with a flashlight, and the obligatory Alien-style motion sensor. After picking up a few flares and a conveniently located flamethrower — because only a fool builds a space station without placing emergency flamethrowers all over the place — you're on your own.
It is a difficult game, and you will die a lot.
The motion sensor is a thing of beauty, both visually and mechanically. It is your objective-marker, and your primary defensive item. The cone-shaped area blips an approximation of the xenomorph's location if it's in front of you, and a simple directional blip if it's not. The sensor is fickle and inaccurate, forcing you to play it safe at all times. The alien can also disappear off the map and the sensor by climbing into the ventilation system. Oh, and sometimes the sensor will just hiccup and stop working for half a second. So...that's terrifying.
You move slowly while holding the sensor, and the rest of your screen blurs just enough to make scoping your immediate area difficult. With every blip, the controller vibrates almost imperceptibly. This seems to trick your brain into feeling the heavy beating of your own heart. To ratchet the tension even further, whenever the alien gets close, you hear your character's terrified, gasping breath in your ear.
This should not be understated; the sound design is literally breath-taking. When you hear a creak of metal just behind you, you will have a hard time breathing for a moment. The space station clangs and hisses, the alien's heavy, powerful steps reverberate through the floor, and its screeches will make your skin crawl.
Isolation is largely inspired by the original 1979 film, and as such, there is only one xenomorph. It is bipedal, and close to twice your height. The AI is smart and unpredictable. There's no patrol-tracking to be done. You have to constantly be on your toes to avoid the hulking monstrosity of death and teeth and acid spit. You can't fight it, but you can distract it momentarily using flares and noisemakers while you sprint away and crawl under a desk to hide and wet yourself.
The demo level was broad but highly claustrophobic — especially when you're sharing it with a seven-ton monster. It was littered with corpses and detritus, broken pipes and overturned equipment trolleys. Beautiful lighting and atmospheric effects make the scene all the more immersive. There were a number of paths throughout the level, including traversable ventilation systems. Using a hacking tool, you could also secure a doorway behind you, but the hack itself takes an agonizingly long time. Meanwhile, you're a sitting duck without access to your motion sensor.
The most authentic Alien experience to date?
This is not some cheap, off-canon usage of the Alien IP. In Isolation, you take on the role of Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda Ripley — whose loss is the essential, emotional underpinning of Sigourney Weaver's character arc in Aliens — 15 years after the Nostromo goes missing.
Amanda sets off to find out what happened to the Nostromo. This search leads her to the decommissioned space station Sevastapol — a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, not unlike the film Pandorum — populated by desperate scavengers willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
We've seen a slew of action games set in this universe, and while it can be fun to mow down rampaging hordes of xenomorphs with advanced weaponry and auto-turrets and the like, that sort of gameplay really runs counter to the central tone of the film canon.
Let's hope Isolation finally captures that tone.
Alien: Isolation is set for release October 7th, and will be available for X360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC.
Conor Thomas Cleary is a professional nerd by day, and a regular nerd at other times. He is an author, gaming columnist, game reviewer and a web developer/designer. His nerdy journalism has appeared on GameShark, Gamasutra and BigShinyRobot. You can follow Connor's nerdy, random thoughts @ConnorTCleary