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Alien: Isolation could be the Arkham-like rebirth the franchise needs

Read our full Alien: Isolation review.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Batman dripped like soured milk from the lips of disgusted gamers. Then Rocksteady Studios came along with Arkham Asylum, and past disgraces were quickly brushed aside. Ridley Scott’s Alien series now finds itself in a similar position; between Aliens: Colonial Marines and a whole slew of action-focused games that preceded it, the time is ripe for a reinvention.

Enter Alien: Isolation, the upcoming survival-horror adventure from The Creative Assembly, the folks behind the Total War series. Their high-level proposition is to deliver an experience that skews closer to the original Ridley Scott film from 1979, which blends deep-space sci-fi with the sort of tense horror that Steven Spielberg perfected in Jaws. You barely see the creature in both movies, even though each one is its respective story’s defining menace. Isolation seems to capture that very well, as we discovered in a recent hands-on at the 2014 Game Developer’s Conference.

Story/Concept

Ripley’s search for Ripley. The game picks up 15 years after the events of the original film, in the year 2137. There’s still very little clarity about what happened to the Nostromo, and Amanda Ripley – the daughter of Alien lead Ellen Ripley – is off to investigate her mother’s disappearance. The search takes her to the space station Sevastapol, where she’s expected to find information that could lead her to answers about her mother’s fate.

Unfortunately for Amanda, there’s already a Xenomorph aboard the station when she arrives. We’re not clear on exactly how peaceful things are when she first gets there, but it’s clear enough that the situation falls apart rapidly. Our demo time, a 10 or 15 minute slice of the game, picks up roughly halfway through. By this point, the Xeno’s presence is known and the mutilated corpses of Sevastopol crewmembers litter the station’s corridors. Amanda is off tracking down some information for a man in her headset named Ricardo, but – to no one’s surprise – she’s also got to contend with the very real possibility that her face could be eaten at any moment.

Gameplay

Creepers be creepin’. Stealth is the focus in Isolation. Running, even walking, are both very bad ideas when the Xeno is around; the safest course is to stay crouched and rely heavily on the guidance of your Motion Tracker. The chunky piece of equipment from the original film is an ever-present tool in your arsenal, accessed easily by pressing and holding RB (on an Xbox One controller in this and all subsequent references). There’s a catch though; focusing your attention on the Motion Tracker means you’re paying less attention to your surroundings. The gameplay nods to this with a blurring effect applied to the world whenever you hold up the device to look at it. You can still see where you’re going, but fine details are lost until you put the device away.

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Knowing the creature’s location is only part of the challenge. The Xeno actively searches for you, meaning you’ve generally got to keep moving. Since it sees and hears far better than you can in the dark, it’s important to remain out of sight and keep your flashlight (Y button, with the D-pad broadening/narrowing the cone of light it casts) turned off. You’ll stay crouched, creeping around behind and underneath objects; Amanda dynamically ducks even lower when crouched to, say, hide under a table or control console. You can also press and hold B and then use the left analog stick to peek around corners and over desktops.

Deadly intelligence. The Xenomorph operates independently, never following a purely scripted path. It appears that the creature shows up at specific moments, but its behaviors are completely the product of its own AI impulses. We learned this firsthand after multiple attempts to sneak through a small section that involves sneaking out of a lab, over to an airlock’s manual release, and then staying out of sight while the airlock door cycles open.

There are shades of the original BioShock in the feel of your surroundings aboard the Sevastopol.

In the five or six attempts it took to get this section right, the Xeno never repeated its patterns. It always started in the lab that we’d just snuck out of, but there was nothing to predict from there. Sometimes it would patrol the windows staring into the adjacent corridor where Amanda was sneaking along. Another time it took a different route through the lab, emerging through a doorway just beyond the airlock door. The dynamic nature of its behavior forces you to remain constantly alert and ready to respond.

Panic equals death. The Xeno is faster than you by a wide margin, and smart as well. Sprinting makes a lot of noise, and an alerted Xeno will always catch up if you’re in its line of sight. It’s also smart enough to not be fooled if you suddenly disappear, say by stepping into a convenient locker. At one point, a hurried dash from the creature ended in a sigh of relief as Amanda tore open the door of a hiding spot … only to be rudely interrupted when the Xeno’s sharpened appendage poked through her chest. Another attempt ended with Amanda safely inside the locker … until the pursuing Xeno that saw her slip inside it ripped the door from its hinges and plunged its face-tongue into her brain.

Presentation

No one can hear you scream. There are shades of the original BioShock in the feel of your surroundings aboard the Sevastopol. The art design screams the same H.R. Giger influence that so strongly colored the other films, the sort of tech-made-organic look of the environments and lo-fi gadgetry. The pools of darkness spilling across open spaces and atmosphere-induced ratcheting of tension, however, are all BioShock. Anything could be lurking around any corner. You, the player, know on a rational level that there’s just one Xenomorph in the entire game, but you’ve got the constant sense that it could pop out from anywhere.

The BioShock feel is further enforced by the abundance of searchable objects, all filled with random junk like scrap, gel, and explosives. These are presumably the parts you use for assembling traps, which can be used in other parts of the game to slow the Xeno down (we didn’t see any traps in action). We’re also told that there are human occupants to be contended with aboard the Sevastopol. We didn’t catch sight of any living people during our demo time, but we’re told that they’re desperate, alone, scared … and not to be trusted.

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We did note during the demo that pressing RT swings a hammer; it’s of no use against the Xeno, which insta-kills you if it gets too close. Against another human though? Well, it’s hard to say for sure, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Amanda’s got to bash in a brain or two – human or android - in order to survive.

Takeway

It’s too early to say if The Creative Assembly has wrought the Arkham Asylum-style reinvention that the Alien series so desperately needs in the video game space. We left that hands-on demo very encouraged, however. Survival horror is the way to go with a franchise that has its roots in one of sci-fi’s most famous and influential horror stories. In space, no one can hear you scream. But on your couch, with a controller in your hand, it seems that Alien: Isolation could make you scream very, very loudly.

Alien: Isolation is due to arrive later in 2014 for PlayStation and Xbox consoles, as well as Windows PCs.