Confronting the horrors lurking in the darkness of Alien: Isolation

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Read our full Alien: Isolation review.

There’s just one Xenomorph hunting you in the Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, but you can’t kill it, you can’t predict its movements, and you’re likely to die horribly if it ever happens to see you. One would think that’s more than enough danger to keep the survival horror vibe flowing, but we learned during a recent hands-on look that many other horrors lurk in the shadowy depths of the Sevastopol.

Story/Concept

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A quick recap. We’ve covered Alien: Isolation extensively, but here’s a quick rundown of what we know about the story. Fifteen years have passed since the events of Alien, and Amanda Ripley — daughter of series protagonist Ellen Ripley — has been dispatched to the space station Sevastopol. The flight recorder from the Nostromo (the ship destroyed in the original movie) has been recovered, and Amanda’s the one sent to retrieve it.

In what can only be seen as the worst possible “like mother, like daughter” situation, she arrives to find that a single Xenomorph is wreaking havoc aboard the space station.

No safety in numbers. For the latest chunk of Isolation to be showcased, Amanda is tasked with making her way through the corpse-filled station to the San Cristobal Medical Reception area, which should bring her one step closer to extraction. Unfortunately for her, that destination is behind several different locked doors.

The first puzzle is a relatively simple affair, with the necessary access card locked in a safe that you can get the code for by thumbing through someone’s personal email on a nearby monitor. The next door is a bit trickier, however. You’ve got to get to a generator room and flip that on, then work your way to the reception door while alarms are blaring like some giant “come on over and kill me, please” signal.

Gameplay

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Walk, don’t run. The first lesson you learn when playing Alien: Isolation is that there’s a button for sprinting that you should never, ever use. The Xenomorph hears your hurried footfalls 99-percent of the time, and you can’t ever outrun it once it’s on to you. Some of the extreme difficulty we experienced during the demo is a product of the Creative Assembly’s continued efforts to balance the game’s lone super-enemy — no doubt a very tricky thing to achieve — but there’s also just a general re-thinking of strategy that’s required.

The first-person perspective and presence of firearms (we’ll get to those shortly) might fool you initially, but the genre here is inescapably survival horror. Confronting virtually any problem head-on is probably going to end in disaster and a reloaded checkpoint save. There’s a premium placed on careful exploration and resource-gathering, but you’ve got to take a measured approach even here. In one section of the demo, a sizable network of corridors and rooms hides any number of goodies, but you’ve got to watch for wandering human residents of the station that have completely lost it and attack on sight.

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Aim, don’t shoot. Unlike the Xenomorph, the crazies can be dispatched with one of the handful of weapons you pick up (we found a revolver and a flamethrower). Ammo is limited, but there’s a bigger problem than that: weapons fire draws the attention of the Xeno. If you shoot at something, chances are high that you’re going to create more problems than you solve. Here again, some work is needed.

At one point during the demo, we fired off a quick shot to get the attention of three wandering nutjobs and then immediately ducked into a nearby locked, hoping the Xeno would take care of the humans. Instead, it made a beeline for the locker it had never seen Amanda duck into, ripped the door off its hinges, and brought a premature end to that particular attempt. All while humans stood just behind it, firing their guns into the newly opened locker. That’s a product of pre-release code, of course, but it speaks to the importance of getting this game’s free-thinking AI right.

The most useful tools in Alien: Isolation appear to be weapons of mass distraction: noisemakers, explosives, and EMP mines that disrupt or deceive pursuing hostiles. Exploration yields components that can be pieced together into useful gear. The game breaks its own logic somewhat around the idea that the report of a gun draws the Xeno close, but not a clanging noisemaker, but the intent is clear: it’s more important to evade your enemy in Alien: Isolation than it is to defeat it.

Just don’t do anything. After multiple failed attempts to reach the generator, and then more failed attempts to hack into it while avoiding an inexplicably lethal Working Joe android that whirs to life once you flip the power on, we walked away with one important lesson: stealth is king here. Moreso than any weapon or distraction, your best chance for survival lies in simply staying out of sight and making as little noise as possible. Any obstacle that isn’t directly lethal still threatens to attract those that are. The more you can avoid contact with anything capable of seeing you, the safer you’ll be.

Presentation

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A beautiful death. The visual execution in Alien: Isolation (we demoed the game on a PlayStation 4) continues to be the most impressive thing about it. The Creative Assembly really nailed the lo-fo high-tech vibe of the original film, and the various lighting and shadow effects go a long way toward heightening feelings of suspense as you creep along, desperately hoping that something doesn’t see you and prematurely end your latest attempt to survive.

From the racking focus effect that kicks in whenever you pull out the series’ signature Motion Tracker to the scattered remnants of human existence aboard the darkened, death-filled station, minor details really help to elevate the proceedings. Atmosphere is everything in an Alien movie (or in Alien, at any rate) and a similar amount of weight is placed on realizing a creepy, death-lurks-around-every-corner atmosphere here. For anything else that can or will be said about this game, the overall presentation (based on what we’ve seen in two separate demos now) is flawless.

Takeaway

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Let’s be clear: the Creative Assembly still has a fair amount of work to do on tuning the AI so that it presents a convincing-yet-survivable challenge. This game lives or dies on the success or failure of the self-sustaining ecosystem that inhabits the station. There’s still a good amount of time before Alien: Isolation kicks off a month of Halloween-friendly releases on October 7, but it’s going to take more than a pretty face to sell this welcome take on survival horror.

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