The first unveiling of Alien: Isolation was met with overwhelming positivity, contrasting the abject disappointment and despair at Aliens: Colonial Marines. In a single and quite constrained section of gameplay, it set out the foundations for a true survival horror game, in which Amanda Ripley found herself hunted by the same implacable foe as her mother had encountered many times before.
As she endeavours to find the black box flight recorder from the Nostromo, which had been taken to the space station Sevastopol, she is hounded by an Alien that she has no hope of defeating in a head on fight. Instead, stealth is the order of the day, hiding and shrinking away from the Alien to stay out of its sight being your only option.
However, the game is much more than that, as Jude Bond, Lead Artist at Creative Assembly, explained.
“Today, you’ve just had an encounter with some humans who were in this case hostile,” he said, “but to be clear, they’re not going to be hostile in every encounter in the game. You’ll meet people who will help you, who will be fairly ambivalent to you, but the people you met today weren’t particularly friendly.
“On top of that, you will have encountered the Seegson synthetic, which is not a friendly piece of kit.”
Indeed, Sevastopol seems to be full of things trying to kill Amanda, and it leads to a particularly tense experience. I’m constantly checking my motion tracker for signs of movement, and deliberately avoid entering a room in which I see motion and from which I can hear some human voices – looters who would try and kill me on sight.
In fact, the first time they saw me, I was hiding in a room exploring my inventory and the items that I can craft. As I tried to escape their wild gunfire through a door, I was immediately greeted by the Alien on the other side. This was my first death.
I was smarter and moved faster on my second attempt, heading to my next objective to trigger an alarm, but now encountering the aforementioned Seegson synthetic. As I hid from its ominously glowing eyes, and snuck up behind it for a melee attack, Amanda’s weakness was reinforced by the way it simply shrugged off the blow to the back of its head, turning around to grab and throw me.
Again, my tactics return to outright stealth, avoiding the Seegson as best I could. Yet my actions necessarily cause an alarm, bringing not just the Alien but also the human looters towards my location. I make use of the things that I’d been regularly picking up to craft noise makers and EMPs – which would be good for stunning the Seegson – and try to distract and divert attentions. But I start to die, time and again, and usually at the Alien’s claws.
“I think [your vulnerability] is learnt very quickly,” said Jude, “and as you play the game, it become apparent that you are physically vulnerable to this creature. You’re not going to stand there and fight it.
“I think there’s many ways that we show or support the idea that the player is vulnerable. For example, with the human players on this level, they can be used to show how vulnerable other humans are to this creature as well.”
Indeed, as I try to make good my escape – though I never quite succeed – I start to manipulate the Alien to do my bidding. It often clambers up into the vents above, making the motion tracker go haywire as it struggles to keep up with its rapid movements, but I can attract it to a particular location with a noise maker and bring the Alien and human characters into contact while I cower in the corner of a locker.
While I wasn’t quite able to finish the level, I had ample opportunity to admire the art style once more, which feels so utterly authentic to the sets and designs of the original film’s now retro-futuristic look.
“We would like you to believe that everything you see was from the first film, when I think in truth 95% of it is our own creation and has just followed the aesthetics and the same kind of tone as the original movie.
“I think how we got there has been a really dogged and I suppose an obsessive deconstruction of the original film. The set of the original movie was really quite small while we knew from the start that we needed to produce something much, much bigger while retaining the aesthetics from that.
“So we took the original set, the original costumes, weapons etc. etc. and took it apart until we understood how these atomic parts were put together. It was just getting a real familiarity with the source material and then building on it.”
A key part of the style of Alien was that the Nostromo felt like a place in which humans lived. Practically every nook and cranny of the Sevastopol is similarly filled with little stories and touches of personality. Of the many lockers that I hid in, a handful stood out for having little notes stuck inside as reminders to fix a service hatch. Something to read while I pray for the Alien to go away.
“The attention to detail is something that we really care about,” explained Jude. “I think it really is important, but I think a lot of it goes unnoticed, though even if it is taken in subconsciously, then I think it is worthwhile.
“Talking about the lockers, we built our locker and let you hide in the locker and look through the grills. We’ve seen that in many, many games, but it’s what we can bring to that, what details and interest we can bring to that, so we’ve put tons of little stories in there and tidbits from home. Those personal elements and the human dressing within the game is really important.
“It obviously appears in the first movie, with this sense of humanity. Yes, it’s a very mechanical space, but people don’t live in mechanical spaces like machines. They want to make them into homes and decorate them with their personal effects, so we’re trying to do that.”
Aside from a handful of bugs, which I could churlishly blame my failures upon, Alien: Isolation is shaping up rather nicely. There’s an outstanding attention to detail in the small areas of the Sevastopol that I’ve seen so far, but it’s also good to see how the game has broadened its horizons since the initial showing. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how the various factions come into play and interact with one another in the various scenarios that CA can concoct.