Truly frightening games are not particularly plentiful nowadays. While zombies have become as much of a staple category in gaming as the superhero genre is in Hollywood, most games with such creatures are not the survival horror triumphs their early predecessors were. But a certain extraterrestrial franchise may be the first triple-A survival horror blockbuster worth its salts on the new generation of consoles. The name of the game is Alien: Isolation, and thankfully, it is no Colonial Marines.
A quick glance at the first-person perspective of Isolation may cause the quick to judge to believe there isn’t a difference between it and the previous interactive entry in the Alien franchise. Take a closer look: this is, potentially, a game that will leave many sleepless at night. This time around, you step into the shoes of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver in the original films), as she searches for answers regarding her mother’s disappearance. She of course ends up on a space station that is already infested with the eponymous Alien.
Understanding the story premise is the easiest part of Isolation, as playing through the game is no walk in the park. While the Alien is easily the most lethal enemy Amanda faces, other human beings and the android Synthetics add additional hurdles in the fight to stay alive. In the short video demonstration I saw at E3 2014, Amanda encountered an armed space station resident suffering from paranoia. The developer playing was able to sneakily move past him, albeit taking a roundabout route. From what I saw and played, the stealth approach is the primary way you will play in Isolation. It has to be–entering hand-to-hand combat range of an Alien means instant death. The only way to escape an encounter with the Alien is by using the franchise’s signature flame thrower. Unfortunately for Amanda, gas tanks and other weapons are scarce. Saying Isolation is a struggle for survival is an understatement.
Immediately upon starting the game, I immediately notice that developer The Creative Assembly nailed the look and ambience of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film–a “lo-fi sci-fi” style. Most presentations of futuristic settings in media nowadays glimmer and have a clean, sterile sheen (J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, for example). Isolation’s space station had a classic grunginess to it, with everything being dirty and roughed up. Displays on monitors and devices feature scrolling scanlines and monochromatic colors. There’s even a subtle ‘80s film grain to everything. This retro-futuristic aesthetic combined with dim, flickering lighting produced an unsettling feeling as I exited the safe zone into an area containing the Alien.
Sound design is an important tool to draw out fear in players and I was soon reaffirmed of that fact as I slowly made my way through the station. The noisy rumblings of machinery made Isolation’s space station feel like a cold, empty place. I nervously moved Amanda forward, ever so concerned that her steps may attract an Alien. To help avoid trouble, the motion tracker can be pulled out, but then the game’s view focuses on the device and your surroundings appear blurry. Switching between sensing your environment and checking the motion tracker is crucial to steering clear of danger. But players are only human and will get detected by the Alien, as I soon did. Luckily, Amanda can hide in a number of spots: cabinets, lockers, under beds, and under desks, to name a few. These moments can be the most anxiety-ridden in Isolation, as the game doesn’t allow you to passively sit there while the Alien sniffs near your hiding spots. You will need to continue using your controller to make Amanda hold her breath or risk getting caught.
What I played was a short Challenge mission requiring me to get from point A and B. Even this brief experience pointed out potential problems the final game may have. Firstly, for a title running on PlayStation 4, Alien: Isolation’s visuals are rough around the edges. Textures are somewhat low-detail, for example. Many would probably mistake it for being a last-generation game. From a gameplay perspective, I wonder if there will be enough variety to keep players interested and not quit out of frustration. The one-hit KO from the Alien and heavy requirement for careful stealth made my playtime with Isolation very much a trial-and-error experience. Encountering an Alien the first several times may prove to be exhilirating, yet I question the game’s ability to maintain its scariness after watching Amanda get devoured dozens of times. Some may see it as a challenge, but others may find it to be torture and tire of the hopelessness.
That’s not to say Alien: Isolation is a lost cause, because there are signs of potential. However, like how Amanda Ripley must traverse around the station, tread carefully when it comes to building your excitement for the game. Otherwise, you might be left yelling in disappointment when it launches. And in space, no one can hear you scream.