When Horsham-based developer Creative Assembly commenced work on a new entry in the video games series based on 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise, they probably didn't realise that they'd signed up for a rescue mission.
Silently muddling away for years on what they saw to be a love-letter to the first Ridley Scott-directed film of 1979, they went about their business with a clear, firm concept in mind. Now was the time to return the power to the antagonist, this acid-for-blood aggressor that, in the years since it first exploded from John Hurt’s chest and ruined everyone’s dinner, has become cannon fodder in so many other video games, seen its reputation as a “perfect organism” compromised by odious crossover movies, and has morphed into action figures and plush toys.
A noble aim, and with no significant reveals until relatively late on in development, the pressure on Creative Assembly was only ever self-directed – no Hudson-style public outbursts of being in “some real pretty shit right now”. But then, in February 2013, Aliens: Colonial Marines happened: a game so goddamn awful that a lawsuit over who’s to blame for its abhorrence is still rumbling on. The press, alerted to another Alien game early in 2014 when a reveal trailer (below) sent stomachs spinning with anticipation, adopted a plea-like posture. Initial questions were less about what Isolation offered on its own terms; more, how it’d repair the damage inflicted on this beloved sci-fi series.
Alien: Isolation – reveal trailer (January 2014)
The reveal trailer emphasised terror, not action. Obviously, the spirit of Isolation was different to the squad-shooter mechanics of Colonial Marines – and when I sit with its creative lead Al Hope, ahead of some hands-on time, he explains how the intention was always to get inside the player’s head. Just like the first Alien doesn’t have the Nostromo crew-crunching beast on screen a whole lot, so Isolation makes you aware of its presence mostly through the pings of a classic motion tracker and the thumps and echoes of its out-of-sight moving through the game’s space-station setting, the Sevastopol.
When you do come face to face with the Alien – and as its title suggests, there is just the one in Isolation – you’d better hope there’s somewhere to hide. And that something, anything else, distracts it from coming after you. Because if – well, when – the Alien does get close enough, that’s it: game over. (Until you restart from your previous checkpoint, obviously.)
Hope shows me some slides, used internally when Isolation was first coming together, that emphasise the psychological horror elements of their project. A photo of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter comes up – a character who, in Silence Of The Lambs, is on screen for 16 minutes of the 1991 movie’s total of 118. That’s all he needs for the viewer to know what he’s capable of. In Alien, H.R. Giger’s creature is seen for a total of three-and-a-half minutes, and not at all until almost an hour into its two-hour running time. But, again, it doesn’t need to be any more exposed, as the result is always the same: if it gets you, you’re done for. So it’s what you don’t see, what’s inside your head, that’s even more unsettling than any physical reality out there. In Isolation, the Alien is everywhere, at all times – through that door, under that floor, right behind you.
We’re looking at a very different game to Colonial Marines, then. Hope revealed to Edge in February 2014 that the reception to said other Alien game didn’t adversely affect the team’s commitment to Isolation – they knew what they were making, and some shitty shooter wasn’t about to derail any plans. What was frustrating was when they’d see public comments surrounding Colonial Marines, asking why nobody had successfully realised a first-person survival horror game set in the Alien universe. This was exactly the game they were making, but Creative Assembly couldn’t say anything about it, at the time.
Right now, with Isolation gone gold – which means the final code has gone into manufacture for retail – there’s no silence, no more secrets to keep. The cat is out of the bag, and Jonesy himself would be proud: this game is fucking terrifying. Albeit with a caveat: it’s fucking terrifying until you see the Alien more than once. Then, it becomes something else – a creepy experience, a haunted-house affair, but as you’re chomped by the double jaws of one of cinema’s greatest monsters for the sixth time, the reaction’s no longer one of recoil. More often, I found myself chuckling at how silly I’d been to get caught, or simply appreciating the effort Creative Assembly has put into their Alien, which looks gorgeously grotesque as it pops your skull like a melon.
‘You’, in this case, is Amanda Ripley, “Amy” – daughter of Ellen, the sole survivor of Alien and filer of the Nostromo’s final report. In that message, Ripley senior says she should reach the frontier in about six weeks, at which point, “with a little luck, the network will pick me up”. She never made it back to her daughter, as this scene from the director’s cut of 1986 sequel Aliens, makes clear. But Amanda came looking for her mum, which is where Isolation’s story begins – 15 years after the 2122-set Alien, when the Nostromo’s flight recorder is recovered and taken to the Sevastopol. Where, naturally, all kinds of fresh hell soon enough breaks loose.
The section of Isolation I get to creep around is an abandoned medical facility, just before the game’s halfway mark. In addition to the Alien itself, there are also a handful of left-behind patients to contend with – humans, but far from allies, understandably jumpy and bearing firearms. I come across an android later, too, a ‘Working Joe’ – I whack it a few times and it does, indeed, spray milk about the place. I find a flamethrower, but using it is only ever a desperate last measure: not only does its fuel run out immediately, it also attracts the you-know-what like a moth to a 60-watt bulb. Making any noise is dangerous. Slowly, quietly, cautiously – this is the only way to get through what I see of Isolation. Opening up a pulse rifle here would be suicide.
‘No Escape’ trailer – running, ill advised
I get caught, a lot. But I never feel that the game has cheated me – it never feels unfair. And while the Alien AI is scarily decent, there is one occasion where it charges past a perfectly exposed Amanda, blissfully ignorant of the lunch it missed by a few inches. This is a game, of course, and games do things like this –occasional quirks that give the player an unexpected break. I feel relived to have the chance to press on, only for the Alien to find me moments later, as I pass under an overhead vent without properly checking it was free of gleaming teeth.
Creative Assembly put care into the game's environments, drawing in curious eyes – these corridors, rooms and walkways aren’t those of the Nostromo, but the Sevastopol is evidently off of the same Weyland-Yutani production line, with assets not simply inspired by Scott’s movie. Isolation’s developers received three terabytes of archive data from 20th Century Fox, from the original Alien, and they’ve gone to town with all the prop pointers and behind-the-scenes insights, building digital sets every inch as impressive as the spectacular physical stages erected in 1979, full of CRT screens featuring MS-DOS-style commands. Every small piece adds up to a hugely impressive whole – game and movie converse in the same aesthetic tongue, the separation of 35 years sealed by a palpable affection for the source material. The level of fan service on show is superb.
There are some particularly ‘gamey’ aspects to Isolation, of course. It features a crafting system which, much like The Last Of Us, doesn’t stop the action as you piece together useful things – like Alien-distracting noise-makers – so be sure to check your motion tracker at all times. And there’s some rudimentary fetch-item-A-to-access-thingy-B puzzling, too. But if the complete story of Isolation – unclear at the time of writing, but “very moving” in the words of Alien actress Sigourney Weaver, who reprises her role as Ripley in the game’s Nostromo Edition DLC – matches its atmosphere and Creative Assembly’s attention to retro-futuristic detail, then what we’ve got here is not just the perfect response to the cluster fuck of Colonial Marines, but also an interactive experience that can serve as an essential new chapter in the overall Alien canon.
It’s a course correction, back towards the qualities that make Alien so watchable even today, and a sincere celebration of the series’ founding fiction. From what I play, it’s hard as hell, and offers no hand to hold as it dumps you into its nightmare. But then, the original star beast was always in charge – its survival forever priority one, with any crew wholly expendable. So I can’t lie to you about your chances, about Amanda’s, but… you have my sympathies.
Alien: Isolation is released for multiple platforms on October 7th.
More on games: