“The beast is done,” remarked Ridley Scott ahead of production on Prometheus, the film that saw the veteran director return to the Alien universe 33 years after the original film. “It wears out a little bit. There’s only so much snarling you can do. I think you’ve got to come back with something more interesting.” Scott may well be right in terms of H.R. Giger’s iconic xenomorph and its celluloid incarnation, but for Creative Assembly, the developers behind Alien: Isolation, there’s still plenty of scares left in the old bitch.
Blessed with extensive access to 20th Century Fox’s archive, Alien: Isolation is a formidable example of painstaking world-building. From the opening Fox fanfare, given a scuzzy 70s VHS makeover, to the near-fetishistic adherence to the style and design of the original film, Alien: Isolation does nothing if not earn its aesthetic place as a canonical sequel to Alien. Of course, plenty of games have built a better world only to see it descend into a never-ending series of gun battles, but after the critical panning of 2013's Colonial Marines, even Sega knew they needed to go back to the drawing board on this one.
This time development has gone to the longstanding, yet relatively unknown, Creative Assembly who originally approached Sega with a small hide and seek demo to whet their appetite. Their pitch was a back-to-basics scenario, where a single venomous creature bearing down on a hopelessly out-classed heroine would bring back the fear that Scott felt had dissipated with the various film sequels and spin-offs.
In that regard, Alien: Isolation is a roaring success. The drip-feed of terror is palpable right from the start, and the slow, steady build to the eventual in-game creature money shot is almost pitch perfect. The alien itself is also a masterclass in design, both in terms of its onscreen representation and with what is going on in the game code behind the scenes. The cycles of animation do great justice to the intelligent AI that runs this show-stealing centrepiece. In short, the single alien at the core of Creative Assembly’s baby is a terrifying and, crucially, believable entity, an achievement much of the game rests upon.
Encounters with the beast are suitably nerve shredding affairs. The slightest noise or hurried movement will bring, at best, inquisition, at worst, a grisly death. Your motion tracker can help keep distance but you’re up against a foe utilising air ducts, short-cuts and hidden crevices that can usurp even the most meticulous plans. And whilst the game will judiciously hand out a weapon or two, each upgrade only makes you feel more vulnerable. The cold steel of a hand gun comes complete with an accompanying cold sweat; it may take out a surviving human scavenger but the resulting gunshot is going to ring through the Sevestepol space station like an intergalactic dinner bell.
Instead, Alien: Isolation not so much favours stealth as rigorously instils it into you from the outset. The station’s malfunctioning androids prove an arduous training ground where encounters inevitably mean ‘game over man’. Marauding groups of human survivors are also best avoided and you’ll soon find that Alien: Isolation is a first-person shooter without much of the shooting. Instead, it’s all about hiding in the shadows, biding your time and planning well ahead to ensure survival.
Therefore the bulk of the game is about carrying out relatively menial tasks; find a keycard to a locked door, throw a switch to open an air duct, scavenge for a particular medical supply. Not exactly exhilarating on paper but it’s the context of these missions, their unremitting dread and the knowledge that a single mistake cannot be rectified with a sloppy gun-fight, that keeps the relative mundanity sharp. Not all will agree, and for them there are no shortage of carnage-based shooters out there, but for such a big title to take a risk at a time when playing it safe is often the ethos, Creative Assembly should be commended.
Of course, not everything is perfect, but even the game’s misgivings seem to have been borne out of the best intentions and it’s likely that one man’s complaint is another's point of praise. Save stations are certainly few and far between, and when faced with a cycle of trial, error and death, their paucity can invoke a joypad-flinging rage. Yet the emotional relief when you duck into a room to evade your predator only to unexpectedly find one such beacon of hope is euphoric, especially after a series of crushing lows, entirely befitting a survival horror game of this particular series.
So, Alien: Isolation is effectively something of a gamble. It bets on players perversely relishing their frailty, on boiling down waves of insubstantial foes into one seemingly indestructible enemy and on the idea that a first-person shooter can offer more than just, well, shooting. It also bets against Ridley Scott’s assertion that familiarity had killed the fear. Sure, we may have seen much of what Alien: Isolation has to offer before, but never from this frightening perspective.