Bringing 1979's hide and seek horror to 2014 with Alien: Isolation

Sega and The Creative Assembly christened Alien: Isolation, very deliberately. As shown to me last month, the first-person survival horror is intrinsically tied to the 1979 film that spawned the Alien franchise. That bond patently includes the look and feel of Ridley Scott's classic, but also a desire to realize its specific brand of horror: You, alone, are up against one Alien, the Alien, and that means you should be very, very afraid.

Revealed almost a year after Aliens: Colonial Marines was released, Isolation may seem like Sega's response to widespread criticisms of a game that was horrifying for the wrong reasons. However, as UI Art & Design Lead Jon McKellan told me, The Creative Assembly always had survival horror in mind for its pitch to Sega, and the game it's now been developing for just over three years.

"The original film: everyone loves it, we all loved it, we were all really big fans," McKellan said. "It is a survival horror film, that's what's it is. It's just crying out to be a survival horror game, and we couldn't really understand why no-one had done it, [so] we took it with both hands."

The British studio wants to hook into the elements that defined the film: In Isolation, you play as Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, a character previously limited to few mentions in the films. Isolation is set 15 years after the events of Alien; Amanda, now an engineer for Weyland-Yutani, learns of a flight recording recovered from the Nostromo. Searching for answers to the questions surrounding her mother's disappearance, Amanda heads to where the recording was recovered, a decommissioned trading station called Sevastopol. It's a much larger, city-like setting compared to the Nostromo, but the end result is the same: You're a Ripley, and you're stuck in space with the most lethal killing machine in the universe.
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Alien: Isolation (1/7/14)

Despite how she's barely been used before, I was surprised Fox let The Creative Assembly employ Amanda, a character so close to Ellen Ripley. The Creative Assembly was, too.

"We were all scared," McKellan said of pitching to Fox. "We thought, 'No way, they're not going to let us do this, this will be too precious.' Then they came back and said, 'Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, go for it.' We were like, 'Ooh!"

"I think a lot of the reason they said yes and were so supportive of it," added Lead Game Designer Gary Napper, "is because we're putting the character in a very similar situation to the first film. It's very, very true to the 1979 film."

If the aim of the demo I played was to display that authenticity, it achieved it. For that matter, it wasn't far off a miniature Alien adaptation.

Set halfway through the game, it begins with Amanda exploring a section of the station that's been left in disarray; tables are tossed over, sheets of paper lie scattered across living quarters, and a dead body rests ominously against the wall.

To use Napper's words, a familiar "lo-fi sci-fi" look is immediately striking. There's a mix of industrial, clean white walls and grilled glimmers of light shining onto dank, blue-black corridors. Bright, blocky lights line the floor and the disarranged workstations, and there's a drinking bird toy on one table, and a bobbing-head robot on another. Amanda's breathing is dominantly audible, as low, ominous moans course the ship's innards.

The nods to Alien's major and minor elements are patent and unashamed, but the inspiration again goes further. The developer is so keeping to the film's ethos they're not referencing tech that wasn't available when Alien was made in 1979. What that means is you won't find things like DVDs and tablet computers on Sevastopol, an odd prospect for a near-future game made in the 2010s.

Instead, lucky members of The Creative Assembly get to do things like record footage onto VHS, stomp on the cassettes, and break the signal just to recreate that fuzzy feel of old video on the monitors..

"I think the next-gen capabilities and fidelity means that we have the opportunity to really get that texture across," McKellan noted. "It's not a hindrance."

"We're showing the style in a better definition," Napper added.

"Yeah, that's it," agreed McKellan. "We have the fidelity to really show you the grain, the dirt, the distortion, and the detail."

While that authentic Alien aesthetic is clearly key, the second half of the demo - the bit with the Alien in it - shows what could distinguish Isolation as a horror game.

At first the reconnaissance goes well: I'm picking up clues, finding useful scraps, and only slightly freaking out from the background noises churning through Sevastopol. Then things start to go a bit wrong, and it's here that events meld into a gradual mess of panic: It all culminates in an attempt to restore power to the section, but that goes dismally, and all of a sudden there it is. In a quick cut scene, the Alien slithers out of the shadows while I cower behind a desk. Its tail slinks over the desk and across my legs - eep - and then just like that, it's gone. It's time to get out of here.

Developers shy away from insta-kill enemies these days, but the Alien is the definition. If it finds and catches up to me, that's it, I'm space toast. So as it's looking out for any sound or sight I'm there, I try to creep through the station. I bring up the only thing of use I have to hand, the motion tracker, and it's no weapon. It's a basic radar really, showing a white Alien dot against a green grid of distance, telling me roughly how close I am to being dead. Using the device, which I raise to sight by holding the trigger button, I'm able to use the relative darkness to my advantage as the Alien wanders his new den.

It's a limited advantage, however. The Alien will learn my behavior over time, and while it can't change its signals, like the growls for finding or losing me, the idea is I won't be able to evade it using the same trick twice. As it turns out, I fail to use the same trick once.

With lights flashing around me, and EVAC blinking in big yellow letters on the monitors, I reach an emergency airlock. To my dismay, the station loudly tells me - and the Alien - that it needs time to re-pressurize. As the snarling beast comes hurtling towards the airlock, alerted by the noise, I scamper away and hide behind a workstation. As I try to peer over, I just about see it looking around, considering its next move - our hide and seek has been going for about 5 minutes to this point, but I've barely seen my extraterrestrial aggressor.

Suddenly, the Alien comes my way. I stick to looking at the motion tracker, and the dot's gone, replaced by a white block that indicates the thing I'm trying to avoid is pretty bloody close. I try to peer over again, and I catch a glimpse of a slick, black skull glancing away. I panic, and this time steer to look around the desk. It seems to be gone, but then, a roar. Have I been spotted? I try to give it the slip, making to go one way round the desk, then the other. The trick doesn't work. I shuffle forwards and within a few seconds, bam! I'm being dragged back by my legs, and now I get a much closer look at The Creative Assembly's impressively rendered Alien - albeit for just a few seconds as it dangles me in its grasp, crooking its head slightly before I make friends with its drooling house of teeth.

I only die once, though. The next time I pull back much further. The Alien again comes my way, and lingers even longer than before, but eventually it moves on. I duck to another nearby station as the airlock nears being of any use. 75 percent re-pressurized ... 100 percent. I make my way slowly to the airlock, eyes fixed on the motion tracker. I neglect to point it up, forgetting the Alien could be in the vents, but I get lucky this time. Sweet success, sweet, sweaty success.

Sure, those who've played Colonial Marines may be wary of another Sega-published Alien game, even one developed by another studio. There are fairer reasons to retain a healthy cynicism of Isolation, though. The section I played is one slice of a much larger game, and The Creative Assembly has to keep that dynamic between player and Alien daunting and fresh throughout.

Also, Isolation features shooting sections involving other "threats" on the station, but I don't see any of that in the demo. Another thing I don't see is how crafting will influence things; players can create objects to use in distracting and evading the Alien, for example. The team tells me in the proper version of the sequence I'd have a few more things and options to hand. That said, the Alien would have a bit more up its sleeve too.

"We wanted you guys to see the Alien in its raw form," Napper explained, "Because we've built this entire game around that set of core mechanics, that kind of base behavior of the Alien, hunting and searching for you and you having nothing to defend yourself."

Those core mechanics translated to an unnerving game of hide and seek in the Isolation demo I played. The sneaking didn't feel like solving a puzzle, more like entertaining a calculated, panicky gamble. There's a way to go before the game arrives on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in the second half of the year, but if The Creative Assembly's aim was to convince me it can tap into the under-powered, unready tone that makes Ripley's life in Alien so unsettling, then the studio ought to be encouraged.

Update: We've added a further quote from Gary Napper to provide more clarity on how The Creative Assembly is billing the shooting and crafting side of things:

"We've got a crafting system where you can create things that help you evade the Alien or defend against it or cause distractions. At the same time you will find the odd small firearm around the place. It's a large, city-sized space station so there's going to be that sort of thing around.

"At no point are we giving you these huge plasma rifles and M56 smart guns. It's all about that survival horror scrounging, and one of our taglines, like a core pillar of the game has always been 'improvise to survive,' so the stuff you find in the environment is the stuff you want. I think despite there being other threats on the station, you're always worried about what the Alien is doing and where the Alien is. So, a lot of the collecting and everything you do, you're just like, "I'm gonna save this for the Alien!"

This article was originally published on Joystiq.