Everything else is mean too
At the reveal event for Alien: Isolation, we were shown a lengthy demo that got right to the heart of the conflict at-hand: Amanda Ripley trying to navigate a space station as a very aggressive Xenomorph hunted her. In our first look at the game, those were the only two entities present. We were told at the time that there’d be some human survivors, but the developers were fairly tight-lipped as to what their roles would be.
Now that we’ve had a second chance at Alien: Isolation with a new build developed specifically for a pre-E3 event, the picture’s significantly clearer as to how these interactions will go. This demo, which was about as long as the first one we saw, did more to highlight what some of the game’s shortcomings might be. That said, it also reinforced our initial impression that Isolation is poised to be a tense, heart-pounding affair.
Being dumped into this slice of Isolation with prior experience gave me a sense of comfort as if I already knew what to expect. Motion tracker out: check. Crouch-walk everywhere: check. In the opening minute, there was nothing on my radar, so I figured I wasn’t in any real danger. Not yet, anyway. I broke my strategy and ran to where I thought the next objective was. Big mistake. The Alien came running out of nowhere to violently emphasize that it was in charge of this demo, not me.
With my confidence sufficiently shattered, I took to it again, knowing I would no longer stray from my tried-and-true technique. Methodically moving from room to room and corridor to corridor, I was focused partially on moving toward my goal, and maybe moreso on creating distance between myself and the Xenomorph.
When I got to the area of my objective, I accidentally triggered a giant explosion. Oops. “Well, if this doesn’t kill me, that pesky Alien surely will,” I thought as I sighed in defeat. Oddly enough, it never showed up.
As the demo progressed, I soon encountered my first human. As I hid behind some crates with a flamethrower I picked up, she yelled at me to show myself. She wasn’t some space marine barking orders. There was panic in her voice. She was as scared as I was. A trickle of empathy spilled into my mind. We were kindred spirits in that moment, only I was much more well-versed in knowing to keep my mouth shut.
Sure enough, as if on cue, the Xenomorph appeared and did away with the aggressor. Learning and adapting just as any good survivalist would, I took a mental note. Let it do the dirty work. Playing cat and mouse is hard enough when you’re the rodent; there’s no need to wander into mousetraps.
Moving forward, I made my way to a medical ward, and found a gun. This wasn’t a smooth-shooting assault rifle, though. It was a pistol that felt incredibly unnatural in Ripley’s hands. Bulky and unwieldy. Like something she’d never held before. Like something she didn’t want to hold. Like something I didn’t want to hold.
As I crept along, I came across more humans. They were idly chatting with trepidation in their voices. I had no idea if they were friendly or hostile. With no way of knowing and not particularly inclined to find out, I slithered around them and toward the next waypoint. After all, why tempt fate?
The next section locked me in a giant room that was aflame. “Great,” I thought. “This is practically inviting the Alien to feast on me.” After pushing buttons on opposite sides of the room, there was a center console to hack. Unbeknownst to me, the buttons also freed a synthetic from his holding pod, and he was on a mission to choke the life out of me.
I was at a loss for ideas as I took laps around the room to stall. Any weapon would attract the Alien, that much I was sure of. I tried the flamethrower, but with my limited fuel, it wasn’t enough to put the android down. Shit. At least the Xeno hadn’t appeared. Time to try the pistol. A few rounds with that didn’t seem to faze him. I found a Molatov cocktail hidden by a box that eventually did the trick.
Thoroughly relieved that that little snafu was over, I couldn’t come to terms with why the Alien hadn’t shown up. It had dropped out of the ceiling mere minutes before to surprise me (which literally made me jump in my seat, by the way). It showed up after I jogged for ten seconds earlier. Yet, as a giant explosion goes off or I’m pinging bullets off an android, it can’t be bothered? How is Isolation going to frame the experience so we know what are acceptable ways to deal with these situations? Or, is that dissonance going to run rampant, making everything a frustrating game of trial and error?
After handling the synthetic, a checkpoint popped. Checkpoints are a big deal in Alien: Isolation; every single one is a miniature victory unto itself. However, I could also sense it would signify the last section of the demo. In the first build of the game, the final bit was by far the toughest. I expected no less this time ’round. That expectation proved to be correct.
It began with two humans that detected my presence. Just like before, I let them shout at me, effectively devoting their life’s purpose to becoming Alien fodder. This is my design. From here, one of two things would happen: either the Alien would branch off to patrol some rooms on my left, or it’d come down the hallway toward me. The times it’d approach my location, I just had to give up. There was nothing I could do. Those attempts were essentially “unwinnable.”
Yes, that’s as disheartening as it sounds.
However, when it broke off to the direction I needed it to go, that frustration melted away and was immediately replaced with perseverance. I gritted my teeth and vowed to get past that bastard. The atmosphere of Alien: Isolation is just too immersive to rip you out of the game for long.
Cautiously advancing, I took to sticking to every object I could. Sure, the motion tracker was out, but the Xenomorph has a habit of changing position quicker than I can process what’s happening. As I took refuge under a medical cart, the perfect scene played out. The Alien approached from behind as I silently wondered if this is where this run would conclude. Turning my field-of-view with it, I watched as it slinked past me mere inches from my hiding spot, its tail slithering perilously close as it grew ever more distant.
That moment felt like a personal victory against the Alien. Like I was the champion of our persistent game of Hide and Seek. It was simply chill inducing. I held my breath just knowing that within fractions of a second, it’d whip around and rush toward me. When it didn’t, I couldn’t help but break out in a grin.
At least a half hour after beginning, I finally completed the demo. My many failures left me feeling like I took a long time — maybe too long. Looking around the room, I was actually one of the first to finish. It seemed that everyone else was having the same issues I was — maybe I was just luckier.
Ultimately, the crux for Alien: Isolation is going to be how the player learns as the game progresses. If the player can adapt to the Alien adapting, Isolation could turn into a cerebral chess match, a true thing of beauty. If the adaptive Alien just means that the game’s going to reward the lucky and occasionally be unfair, well, that’ll be tougher to stomach.
Whatever the outcome may be, this demo did a lot to further my confidence in Alien: Isolation. Seeing first-hand that interactions with other humans don’t devolve into shoot-em-up segments was entirely helpful. Experiencing the same terrified sensation that the first build evoked was essential. The atmosphere that the game cultivates is so on-point that it may detract from some of its issues. That is, as long as those issues aren’t hulking monstrosities like Isolation‘s Xenomorph.