One Alien, one terrifying experience
Have you ever been hunted? I haven't (in a videogame or, thankfully, real life). Some games make veiled attempts to simulate the sense, but as long as you learn and know the correct order of operations, they usually don't take much to best. Alien: Isolation made me feel as if I was being hunted for the first time ever. It competently thrusts you into the role of the prey, and as a result, it is completely f*cking terrifying.
Before my 40 minute hands-on demo with Isolation, key developers from Creative Assembly gave a very short briefing on the studio's intentions with the game. First and foremost, it wanted to get back to the roots of survival horror by making a game based on the original survivor horror movie, Ridley Scott's Alien. In the developers' eyes, the best way to do this was to "re-Alien the Alien."
What they meant by this is that they wanted players to always have the Xenomorph on their minds, regardless of the situation. A "low frequency, high impact" approach to brushes with the Alien was their aim. They cited Hannibal and Jaws -- two fixtures of horror movie culture -- as examples of incredibly effective characters despite having very little screen time. However, perhaps their most effective strategy to re-Aliening the Alien is including only one Xenomorph in Isolation.
Based on my short time with Alien: Isolation, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Creative Assembly won't soundly succeed in its objective. The Xenomorph that the studio has created is simply the stuff of nightmares. It's a nine-foot tall, astonishingly-detailed monstrosity that I found myself afraid to look at for fear that it would be looking back at me -- because if it sees you, you're seconds away from death.
The demo, which I was told was from a middle portion of the game, began in an area of the space station with some basic objectives. Mainstay horror elements were present -- loss of power, scattered dead bodies, get to this console to open that door -- the usual. I quickly found that the motion tracking device would be an essential tool, as it not only led the way to the target, but also detected any threats. Constantly crouched, I cautiously, yet successfully, made it through the first area feeling pretty proud of my stealthy accomplishment.
Turns out I shouldn't have been so pleased with myself. The developers later told me that I was in no danger during that section. But the thing was, I felt as if death was always imminent. I guess that's quite the credit to them.
After a cheap (but effective) jump scare, and a scripted playable scene that was the introduction to the Alien, we got to the meat of the demo -- the actual encounter with the Xenomorph. I discovered that the playstyle I was most comfortable with was staying crouched and always having my motion tracker out. However, there's an unsettling trade-off for this approach. Holding the motion tracker blurs your field of view of the rest of the environment. So, you can either see the Alien, know when he's in close proximity to you, but not both.
I almost felt guilty about attempting the game in this manner. Creative Assembly later told me about all that it's done to try to create an authentic aura that permeates Isolation. After studying an ungodly amount of material that 20th Century Fox gave it access to, a lot of hard work was put into details. For instance, the developers wanted to ensure that any technology that appeared in the game could have been actually made on the Alien set in 1979. But, I wasn't looking at any of it. I was focused solely on where the Alien was, and how I could put as much distance between it and me as possible.
That's easier said than done. Creative Assembly made a Xenomorph that isn't pattern-based, but rather sense driven. This is what creates the constant feeling of panic and dread as if you're being constantly hunted. If it hears you, it's investigating your area. If it thinks it catches a glimmer of you, you better hide fast. And if it locks onto you, get ready for inevitable death. Compounding the atmosphere of terror is the undeniable impression that this Xeno is most certainly smarter than you, and that it always has the upper hand.
If you're thinking that maybe some weapons would even the playing field, no such luck. Creative Assembly's intent on making a survival horror game, not another forgettable shooter. I found a few supplies in the demo that hinted toward some sort of crafting system, but the developers were relatively mum on what they could be used for. The most I could get out of them was the suggestion that tools could be crafted to distract the Alien.
This smart Alien ensures that no two playthroughs will ever be the same. I failed the last section of the demo upwards of ten times. Most other people did too. The reason being that you can't possibly find a strategy that will work and then execute it until it finally does work. Any number of the tiniest variations will make the Alien take a different course and force you to react accordingly.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to react when you're paralyzed by fear. Several times, I found myself pressed up against a divider with the Alien right on the other side, praying that if I couldn't see it, it couldn't see me. Another time, I was hiding on the width side of a divider, not sure if the Xeno was approaching me from the left or right side, yet too scared to peek around the corners. When I eventually gathered myself and ventured a glance, I was met with an untimely fate.
This wasn't an anomaly; this was par for the course. Because of the nature of the adaptive Alien, deaths will come to even the most wary of players. The developers were hesitant to admit that dying was unavoidable because it could be construed in a negative manner, as if Isolation were "unwinnable" at times. Ultimately, they relented and more or less conceded that death probably couldn't be eluded.
What's remarkable is that Isolation makes failure itself exhilarating. The stressful seconds beforehand wondering if you erred, the aggressive sounds of the Alien as it goes into full-on attack mode, the grim death animation as it's face-to-face with you -- the entire experience is nothing short of pulse-pounding each time. It's the unrewarding (but still sort of totally rewarding) payoff for the preceding moments of tension.
Adding to the always underlying stress is the dynamic music arrangement. Creative Assembly recruited the National Philharmonic Orchestra to help record music for Isolation. (It brought a smile to my face when an audio engineer told me that some of the orchestra's old-timers recognized the score from when they recorded the original Alien.) Because the Alien will never do the same thing twice, it wouldn't make sense for the music to progress in a static fashion and eschew what's happening on-screen. Instead, the music adapts to the situation, sometimes cutting out altogether in favor of projecting the Alien's predatory noises.
By the time I finally made my way through the final airlock and the demo ended, I was nothing short of thrilled. Sure, it was a small sample size, but from what I saw, Alien: Isolation fired on all cylinders and truly captured the essence of Ridley Scott's Alien. I couldn't help but walk away thinking "Creative Assembly knows what an Alien game should be."
Is-elated: Alien Isolation surpassed my expectations, approached my wildest hopes
7:30 PM on 06.12.2014