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Alien: Isolation’s Game-Changing AI: Hands On
Before we entered the dark, foreboding booth which sat at the centre of EGX Rezzed, a PR man from Creative Assembly briefed us on the demo of Alien: Isolation we were about to play. “You’re going to die. A lot,” he says
So far, so Dark Souls.
When he elaborated further, however, the situation changed: “the creature is hunting you. It’ll learn your habits; don’t just keep hiding in lockers. It’ll work out your game. And you won’t be able to fight it. You won’t be able to defend yourself.”
Right at that moment, Alien: Isolation carved itself a unique corner in survival horror and stealth gaming. In concept at least.
When I watched the video discussing the game’s AI (above) and watched the Creative Assembly developer session at EGX Rezzed, they had said similar things to the PR man. That the alien in Isolation is designed not to follow a preset pattern. It won’t patrol the same route forever, it won’t just wait for you to make a mistake and run you down. The creature’s AI is designed from the top down to know the area, to hunt it, to check likely hiding places, to deduce where you are from sight and from sound.
Playing the demo itself, it’s shocking how evident, and utterly thrilling, this is in gameplay.
To my complete surprise, in Alien Isolation, we play Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, 15 years after her mother went missing. Essentially the game has the same plot as Dead Space: the Nostromo’s emergency beacon has gone off and you are part of the team sent to recover the ship’s black box.
It’s not a particularly original idea to begin with and, in a sudden plunge into awful creative decisions, we’re told what to do via radio by the most irritating, vehemently lame voice-over narrator I’ve ever seen. Perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a modern young market, Creative Assembly have decided to use a young man who channels irritating hoodrat foolishness through his South-East London accent alone. It is so totally out of place in this cool, quiet space environment, my immersion was totally ruined.
Here’s hoping he’s just a production voice-over, and that the game will have a more atmospheric timbre for it’s vocal guidance by release.
Thankfully, Alien: Isolation‘s gameplay is completely unburdened by poor creative choices. From the first moment, it looks incredible and very close to the original 1979 movie’s look indeed. Creative Assembly revealed at their developer session that Twenty-First Centuy Fox gave them around three terrabytes of data from Ridley Scott’s classic film- and it really shows.
Walls are covered in rudimentary flashing-square based lights and buttons. Every room and space is based on roughly circular design, with lived-in kitchens and leftover foods and homey objects left swinging or flapping in disuse. The colour palette is all white, pastel blue and soft yellow. The lighting is beautiful, but still captures that classic ’70s 30mm film feel, with nice softening filters to produce that perfect level of graininess.
The real star of the show for me, though, was the alien.
Alien: Isolation‘s AI is a gamechanger. I think this is the most impressive moment I’ve experienced so far with the new generation of platforms.
Anyone who has played Outlast or Amnesia is used to the sensation of being hunted. Especially in Outlast, those moments when a psychopath spots you- you sprint away stealing glances over your shoulder, and he is right there behind you- capture the heart-pounding feeling of a life-or-death chase in a horror moment.
But what Outlast and all other horror games miss is the genuine sensation of being looked for. Once you’ve been seen, then yes, the pace becomes heart pounding and the AI has something to do other than just walk about- because that’s what AI typically does in horror and stealth games. Walk about. Waiting for you to make a mistake.
In Alien: Isolation, when you sit in a locker with the lovingly-adapted motion tracker in your hand, watching the white dot of the alien stalk about in a nearby kitchen looking for you, there’s a subtle difference. The difference lies in the quality of the creature’s movement, distinct from enemy pathfinding in games like Outlast, where a hunter will just walk into a room, say something, and search the hiding place right next to you every time like a bad haunted house actor.
No, watching that little white dot prowl back and forth, suddenly check a corner on the spur of the moment, move quickly then slowly then quickly, then make a rapid turn to hunt an area it hasn’t checked yet is… Awesome. As in: “awe,” a feeling of abject shock and terror, and “some” you are given some experience of it. The alien makes it around the level with shocking speed and is shockingly thorough in how he searches for you.
As the PR guy said, one dies a lot playing this game- and every time you die, the alien approaches the hunt totally different. It walks a different direction to begin with, checks other corners, vanishes at times when it previously pondered on. When it spots you, the ensuing chase lasts at most a few seconds before you have a jaw-tongue pushing into your face. Then you restart the encounter, and taking gambles with when to leave your locker or creep out from underneath the table become utterly terrifying all over again.
You genuinely never know when the alien will suddenly come back your way or decide to check your room. It is brilliant.
Some bits of level design verge too close on Dead Space. Jump scares and passing shadows with sudden instrumentation come across as very stale indeed at this point. But the encounters with the alien make up for any slightly overdone design decisions.
A main mechanic which we unfortunately only get an impotent taste of is the crafting. Throughout the level on show we find gasoline, pieces of metal and other various bits of hardware around the environment, which can clearly be used to create items. The developers say they can be used to defend yourself from the alien (not sure about that) and to provide more options in evading the alien (pretty sure about that.)
One of The Last Of Us‘ best stealth mechanics was using bottles and bricks to distract enemies- yet even Naughty Dog’s 2013 masterpiece had rudimentary AI who always found a noise utterly baffling and never thought to trace the object’s trajectory. We have no evidence of this yet; but I imagine that while a noisy distraction may halt the alien in Alien: Isolation, it is probably only a matter of time before he works out where the noise came from.
The demo at EGX Rezzed was unfortunately short. More of a teaser than a full demo. I’d predict it’ll be coming to a digital store near you in coming months, it has that quintessential demo property.
Alien: Isolation was announced this weekend to release on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on October 7th this year.