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Alien: Isolation – The Horror Game We’ve Dreamed Of?
Before we start I have a bit of a confession to make: I’m an Alien fan. It’s one of my favourite franchises and I can still remember watching it with my parents for the first time. I loved the original games and I actually liked Aliens vs Predator, but that’s where my love ended. Aliens: Colonial Marines broke my heart with how bad it turned out, and while the fear is still there for Creative Assembly’s newest Alien game, Alien: Isolation, I’m willing to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Could Alien: Isolation be the horror game we’ve been having nightmares of with the Alien franchise? It’s certainly off to a good start.
For starters Alien: Isolation only has the one Alien. Now this may not sound too scary, but remember that the Xenomorph is a creature biologically bred to be the meanest, most successful killing machine in the galaxy, all through generations of mutation and evolving. It has a highly corrosive acid for blood, lightning fast reflexes and a set of inner jaws that can tear through bone and metal as if they were paper. Don’t worry, it gets worse: they don’t give off body heat so infrared doesn’t work, and they’re masters of stealth and camouflage to the point where you can walk past one and not notice. See why one alone can be scary? The original Alien movie featured only one creature that managed to wipe out an entire crew before being blasted into space by Ripley, and that’s what I think made it a little scarier: the fact that this one creature seemed invincible, especially with the technology available at the time. Which leads on to my second reason why Alien: Isolation is already looking good: it’s more correct with the films.
Alien: Isolation is set fifteen years after the events of the first Alien movie, and you play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, who is searching for her missing mother. She not only has to contend with a vicious creature hunting her but also a panicked population; to be honest I think I’d be a little panicked too if I found out one of these guys was on the loose. My favourite point Creative Assembly has made is that you are “underpowered and underprepared” – this is because the pulse rifle hasn’t even been invented yet, so your “weapons” are scavenged from the environment and, unlike Colonial Marines, you feel less like Arnold Shwarzenegger and more like a small child hiding from the monsters under your bed. The game encourages you to run and hide, conserve whatever resources you’ve found and survive. If you watch the Transmissions trailer (shown below), you can see that Amanda is armed with a flashlight, the ever-paranoia inducing Motion Detector, a welding torch and a flare–hardly weapons that will kill a Xenomorph. It’s great that they’ve disadvantaged the player horribly, meaning they have to use wits to survive rather than grabbing the first of many weapons and just blasting things until they’re dead. It gets better because everything you can find is clunky and feels broken, so all that technology players rely on goes straight out the window. This is what scary needs.
The third reason I think Alien: Isolation is going to be the horror game to be excited about is simple: intelligent AI. This was something that was promised in Aliens: Colonial Marines, which is why I excitedly borrowed a copy from a friend. But alas, I think they needed a definition for the word ‘intelligent’. Isolation, on the other hand, has only the one Alien that will hunt you down to the deepest, darkest cupboards or corners. Gary Napper, lead gameplay designer, explained a little bit about the intelligent design of the Alien:
Something we learned very early on is we couldn’t make an enemy that was scripted. We needed something that would be different every time you played it. You’re going to die a lot, which means restarting a lot, and if the Alien were scripted, you’d see the same behaviour. That makes the Alien become predictable, and a lot less scary.
Truer words have not been spoken, and their solution was to create a behavioural design where the Xenomorph adapts its tactics based on the situation. While players may learn from each encounter with the Alien, so too will the creature itself and its strategy will change accordingly – scary thoughts there. The Xenomorph can even learn to ambush the player. My favourite example is if you hide in a lot of lockers. Sure the Alien can’t see you and you survive for a little while, but eventually it will learn and may start waiting until you come out, thinking it’s safe. Maybe it can open the doors or use it’s second jaw to pierce straight through the metal? Who knows! But using the same boring tactic of ‘hiding in the closet’ won’t work on these beasties.
The Alien can also perceive secondary sound sources, and ‘understand’ that things don’t just happen on their own: they have a cause, which would be you. If an airlock door opens, it will wonder what opened it and why it’s open, since they don’t just open themselves. Another pretty cool point about the Alien itself is that you have to pay attention to it and the sounds it makes – these are your clues as to what it is doing, so you’ll be able to tell when it knows you’re there based on the sound it makes. It’s not just scripted events at key points which you can expect, it will wander around the level like a child who has lost his or her mummy.
From these facts alone I think Alien: Isolation is shaping up to be a pretty terrifying and beautiful game. They’re working on making it realistic (so when using the Motion Tracker the world around you fades a little to simulate depth of field) and you have intelligent checkpoints which measures where you are and where the Alien is before deciding how frequently to save, so while it may be scary, it’s also quite forgiving. You’ve got an intelligent enemy, no real weapons and both the insanity of people and a persistent Alien to deal with – what more could you want in a survival horror title? I know Colonial Marines promised a lot before the actual game turned out completely different, but based on what they’ve shown so far Alien: Isolation looks set to be a fantastic new survival horror title.
Creative Assembly have promised a lot more information to come. In fact the official Alien: Isolation website has promised ‘The Big Tease Week’ – a week of teasing thrills and exclusive trailers from Monday 24th February to Friday 28th February. Alien: Isolation will be making its way to Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and PC in late 2014 and I definitely can’t wait to get my hands on a playable version at this year’s EGX Rezzed!