EGX Rezzed: Alien: Isolation hands-on
Say what you like about the Ripley family, there’s no denying that they have a gene marked “tough as steel”. We saw Ellen Ripley press through the odds in three Alien movies (and her clone show the same strength in a fourth); and now her daughter is ready to do the same in Alien: Isolation, which was playable at the recent EGX Rezzed expo.
Games based on the movies have always tended towards the feel of 1986′s Aliens - slap a pulse rifle in your hands, face you with apparently insurmountable odds, and see what happens. It’s clear why this is – it’s an easy concept to grasp, and the player is empowered in the role as a warrior and survivor. There have been many good and not-so good Aliens games.
What there have been a lack of is any Alien games at all. The original movie was far more about helplessness and resourcefulness, pilots and mechanics without weapons or training. To properly recreate that involves dis-empowering the player, something that seems to fly in the face of the escapism games can give. Yet this is the game that developer The Creative Assembly have given us.
The set up is fairly simple – set in-between the first two films, Amanda Ripley has never given up hope of finding out her mother’s fate; and when the flight recorder from the Nostromo is discovered she joins a crew heading to the space station Sevastopol to learn more. Except… That isn’t the only piece relating to the Nostromo’s destruction they’ve ended up with…
The demo running at the show started with a video intro, explaining the absolute basics – you hold a motion tracker, which is as near to a HUD as you’ll get; and that you are the prey, not the hunter. The video itself gives you an idea this will be an uphill struggle – there is a lot of visual noise, replicating the effect of an old VHS tape, and making you realise that this is not a universe filled with cutting edge technology… and when you see the large brick with vague readings that forms the motion tracker, it confirms that you will be having to succeed despite the equipment, not because of it.
The tension level is high – the earliest part of the demo just involves basic fetch-and-carry activities (getting a cutting torch to open an access panel), which also work to teach the basics of looking around, using your torch and so on. Of course, this is also spent wondering when the motion tracker might go off – occasional bursts are often harmless scenery shifting, resulting in brief moments of panic.
Naturally, this is waiting for the xenomorph’s big reveal – big being the key word given the scale of the creature compared to you. It dominates the space, and adds to the sense of being too large for you to take head-on.
The second half of the demo is all cat-and-mouse – the two of you share an uncomfortably small space as it tries to find you in a science lab. Your best defence is hiding behind workbenches, peeking around corners and waiting for the best moments to move on to the next cover.
At one point I tried hiding in a locker, and found that there is even a control for holding your breath – anything to make you harder to detect. The motion tracker was going wild (likely as a concession to game design the alien doesn’t seem to hear it, though this isn’t confirmed), Ripley’s heart was beating through the pad vibration, and I was left waiting as the creature sniffed the air outside the door, wondering if this was the good hiding place it had seemed…
For the majority of playing time, my palms were sweating, as the tension really is played well. The one thing that broke the immersion was having a bad spate of deaths several times in a row – the alien can kill you as soon as it catches you, and if it sees you… Well, you can try running, but are as good as caught. This results in reloading at a checkpoint, but also showed where I could just try a different approach.
This is a key part of the balance between terror and gaming – restarting entirely would be frustrating, but knowing you have unlimited tries makes each death less significant. The alien itself has been sold as having behavioural AI routines, meaning it will not be entirely predictable even when reloading the same situation like this, and if so should avoid certain patterns of play becoming sure techniques for survival.
Whether this tension could be sustained for several hours of playtime is uncertain, although the planned game is also due to have other survivors to interact with (not seen in the demo), who may be helpful or hostile. There are other traces of unseen features – most obviously in collecting items which are apparently due to form an improvised crafting system.
For the ten to fifteen minutes of the demo, Alien: Isolation showed great promise for a game living up to the original movie, and for how to use terror and helplessness in a medium usually associated with empowerment and escapism. How this works as an experience over several hours will be seen in a few months when the full game is release.
Alien: Isolation is due for release on October 7th for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4.