I published my big reveal preview of Alien: Isolation early last week. Isolation, I can categorically state, having gone hands-on with it, currently looks like an excellent game. In fact it has the potential to be one of this year’s best. From what I’ve seen and played so far, it appears to be stunningly realised project, being created by a dedicated and very talented team who really get what makes Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece work. It’s also utterly terrifying and, thanks to its uniquely systemic game-design built around an ultra-sophisticated, purely AI-driven Alien, utterly unlike any other survival-horror game out there.
But according to the internet, I’m wrong about all of that. After all, what can I know? I’ve only played it. The internet has an elevated level of insight and wisdom. The internet knows that because Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines was crap, no Alien-related game can ever be good again.
I’m not even being facetious. That’s literally as in-depth as the argument goes. And it utterly defies logic. Or rather, inversely, it hammers together a contrived logical conclusion where, in fact, there is none. Colonial Marines is a different game, based on a different Alien film, made by a different developer for a different set of hardware. The only elements shared between the two games are their publisher, Sega--which seems to be actively distancing itself from CM and pushing hard towards a dark new future with A:I--and the use of the overall Alien franchise license.
To infer that Colonial Marines will have any influence on the quality of Alien: Isolation is exactly the same as saying that the Gamecube’s Batman: Dark Tomorrow ensured that Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum was a bad game. But then again, I remember that a large proportion of the internet made exactly that conclusion when I gave Arkham Asylum a glowing reveal preview. Time flows like a river, and history repeats.
But I want to do more today than point out the insanity of that argument. Beyond breaking down the illogical perceived link between the two games, I want to explain to you, in as great a level of detail as I can muster, exactly what it feels like to play Alien: Isolation. Because an important point that people seem to be missing here is that the early press goodwill for Colonial Marines that left so many players--ourselves included--feeling burned came long before any hands-on time was allowed. The first time I actually played CM, I could tell it might be a stinker, and my preview from the timereflects that.
Alien: Isolation though, went straight to hands-on, without any preceding hype campaign, and with barely even any developer introduction on the day. Trust me when I say that that’s really, really unusual for a game reveal of this scale. Creative Assembly just wanted us to go straight in and experience what it's created. And it was right to do that. The moment-to-moment experience of playing Alien: Isolation sells itself better than any developer PR spiel or longwinded online promotion campaign could. And that moment-to-moment experience is what I want you to understand today.
The demo goes like this: I’m thrust into a darkened room and put on a seat in front of a TV. I’m given a set of headphones and PS4 controller, and then the remaining lights are switched off. Grinning nervously, I tentatively start the demo. After an opening text preamble, I’m thrown into the darkness.
I’m alone in a barely-lit corridor. What little I can see of the immediate environment already feels oppressive; all solid, unswerving lines, angular, blind corners, and chunky, ‘70s sci-fi machinery. But more than that, my limited visual stimulus turns the ambient soundscape into a roaring aural attack. Rumbling engines, fizzing electricals, hissing vents…They all conflagrate to create an immediate sense of chaos.
Intimidated, I begin to step slowly through the audio-visual assault, my senses engaged and exaggerated, and my mind already playing frantic tricks on me. Is that a pipe, or an exoskull? Is that a window shutter, or a ribcage? Is that really just the sound of a wheezing steam pipe, or is something sneaking up on me, vocalising its murderous intent? It feels exactly like the final stages of Alien, all pounding, overstimulated panic, ambiguous, environmental scares fuelled by my own paranoia, and a crippling sense of complete and total helplessness.
I’m checking every corner. I’m lingering on every source of potential threat until the exact moment that I realise that doing so is stopping me from looking at every other source of potential threat. Long before the Alien appears--not that I even have any idea of when or how that will be, given the systemic, AI-driven nature of the beast--the sense of sheer exposure is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a game.
I realise, after a little while, that I’m crouching on instinct. I’m crawling along via a desperately improvised, deeply contrived route that, at any given moment, I ensure takes me through the smallest spaces in the immediate vicinity with the most available cover. I don’t consciously think about any of this. I don’t even realise I’m doing it until it’s become my standard method of traversal.
I’m forced into a more open, well-lit room. It’s horrible. I feel like I’ve been served up on a plate. I hug the walls and keep my view focused on the middle of the room, and on as many doors, windows and vents as possible. I know it’s of no real, practical help, but it makes me feel a little bit better.
Back into the darkness, I have one eye always on the motion scanner in my left hand. It’s doing nothing, but I keep zooming in at regular intervals just in case something pings in and catches me unprepared. Nothing does, but that’s almost worse. And besides, I know that I’m unprepared, whatever happens.
When pulling the scanner further up into my field of view, the area around me blurs out in one of the most convincing depth-of-field effects I’ve ever seen. The flawlessly faithful production design and stunning graphical fidelity, when softened under the blur of the focus effect, look real. Flat-out real. Suddenly, I am on the Nostromo. I, in real life, am on that ill-fated ship. There’s no video game simulation about it. I don’t know whether to grin or sob.
Having tracked down the blocky little computer responsible for fixing the door systems, and repaired them by way of a lo-fi, Atari 2600 code-matching game that cruelly requires me to stand up, fully lit for the duration, I force myself to press on. I collapse back in my seat for a moment and breathe out. Then, through a doorway, I see a tail flick.
Shit. Shit shit shit fuck shit. I do not move. I do not move until I’m as sure as I can be that it’s gone. I know that I can’t ever be sure, but I know that if I sit still indefinitely--as tempting as that is--then I’m definitely dead. For a little while though, I just cannot move. I’m talking about both the logical, tactical actions of my in-game self and the physical capability of the real-world me controlling her. I am genuinely just too scared to touch an analogue stick.
Once I’ve regained my cognitive functions and motor control, I press on. I find myself in a long curl of corridor with labs and control rooms linking the two sides of the loop. I am definitely not alone, but the motion tracker still isn’t helping. Looking ahead at the vast swathe of darkened tunnel in front of me, I do not know what to do. I just do not know what to do at all.
I hit the ground and fall back on my sneak-and-crawl approach, moving inhumanly slowly but feeling that it’s still too fast. Hiding behind a machinery hub--I say ‘behind’. Not knowing where the Alien is, I could be in full display in the centre of its field of view--I stop and try to regain my compsure. It doesn't come easily. I use the cover system for a little peek around the corner. I don’t want to, but I can’t move into the lab in front of me without checking first. It looks clear, so I move gingerly across the corridor and enter.
I hear a ping.
The tracker still isn’t helping. One of the four large blocks around its screen border has lit up, roughly telling me that the Alien is somewhere over on my left. But that prognosis covers 90 degrees and a huge distance. I crouch, back to the wall, and wait.
The pings become more frequent. Then it happens. The light on the scanner switches from a static block to a moving blip on the inner radar. It’s near. It’s coming. Its movement is slow, leading me to believe that it’s on patrol rather than actively hunting me, so I immediately get under a desk and hide. I don’t know it yet, but that desk is going to become my new home. The blip gets closer. Then it really happens.
It’s here. It’s in the room with me. From under the desk, I can see its legs moving. That's enough. It's too much, in fact. It’s slowly stepping around in the vicinity of the doorway, gaining a feel for its surroundings and getting its bearings. I know that it doesn’t know I’m here yet, but beyond that I can’t think. And I don’t want to. If I think too loud, it’ll hear me. The way that this thing moves, even at a slight distance, even when ‘alone’, makes it feel utterly intelligent, inquisitive, and alive. I’m not hiding from Pyramidhead here. I’m not running away from a Resident Evil zombie, avoiding a gore-textured hitbox. I can feel this thing’s presence in the room with me. It’s real. I swear to God it’s real.
I’m not feeling scared in the way that I usually do in a horror game. I’m not half-participating, half-watching, with my protective feelings really towards my in-game avatar and my health bar. These are real-world feelings. I’m scared for myself.
I don’t move. I absolutely do not move. The developers will later tell me a story from playtesting, about the time they temporarily put a giant gun in the game in order to see how players reacted to the Alien when fully armed. Everyone ran away the moment they saw it. No-one even tried to fire a shot. I will have no problem believing that story when they tell it to me.
The beast’s breathing gets louder as it starts to more comprehensively search the room. It’s methodical and painfully slow in its investigation, and through the tiny window of vision I allow myself I can see that it’s learning with each and every action. It’s checking corners. It’s pausing to sniff at the closed doors of lockers. It’s returning to double-check locations that it’s not 100% convinced that it’s cleared. Don’t look under the desk. For the love of God, do not look under the desk.
Eventually it’s upon me. It’s prowled around to my blind-spot behind the wide desk-leg in front of me. It’s only a couple of feet away from me, and somehow it still doesn’t know I’m here. It must know. Surely it knows. Surely it’s just toying with me now. It steps around to my side, the floor thundering with each fall of its demonic, clawed hooves. I don’t want to look at it, but I can’t not look at it. Its tail slithers glacially past me, and I realise that I haven’t exhaled in about 30 seconds.
Eventually, miraculously, it leaves the room. I refuse to believe that it’s gone. It just doesn’t seem possible that I’ve survived. I don’t move for what feels like another minute or so, until the last ping has long-since left the motion tracker. The devs will later tell me a story about the time they stepped in to help a journalist whose controller they thought had broken, after they observed him sitting motionless under a desk for several minutes. It turned out that he’d just been waiting to find an exploitable behaviour pattern before escaping. Then he’d realised that there aren’t any, and his brain had shut down in fear. I’ll believe that story too.
I creep back out into the corridor, and immediately slink back over to my earlier hidey-hole behind the box. I’m not even thinking about moving to the objective. I’m just thinking about not being killed for a few more seconds.
It’s coming back down the corridor. I haven’t alerted it in any way. I (hope I) can see that in what little of its movement I can interpret from the tracker. For now it just seems to be retracing its steps to double-check the area of corridor outside of the lab. The area of corridor that I’m now in.
My mind is an emotional blue-screen-of-death. I peek over the box. I can’t see death coming yet, but that doesn’t matter. Trying to evade this thing now feels like trying to hide from the Grim Reaper in a maze made of glass. It’s somewhere around the vertical horizon of that curved corridor, and steadily closing. I duck back down. Then I hear the breathing again. And the stomping. Oh God, the stomping.
Before long it’s on the other side of the box. I don’t want to look. I really, really don’t want to look. But I can’t not. There’s a fatalistic compulsion tied to just seeing it, to just witnessing the awesome, horrifying spectacle that is this thing’s existence. I feel like just the sight of it could kill me, but I just, have… to see. Suddenly the actions of Tom Cruise’s seemingly idiotic teenage son in War of the Worlds make total sense. I peek over.
No. Just no.
The two of us perform a slow-motion, cat-and-mouse waltz around the box, myself shifting my position so as to remain just out of line-of-sight, while also attempting the impossible task of keeping an eye on exactly where it is. After a couple of rotations it loses interest and stalks away down the corridor. I wait. It moves out of sight. The tracker stops. I move. Slowly, I move.
Five feet, and it’s still gone. Seven feet, and it’s still gone. 10 feet, and I breathe again. I can see the door to the next part of the station. It still feels like forever away, but I can see it now. I turn to check a small staircase leading up from a small doorway on my left. I stop and my back tenses up. I want to be sick. In the bend of that staircase lurks a shadow, living in the space left by the blotted-out light from the adjacent room. The shadow is huge, black, still, and seemingly made of carving knives and nightmares. It isn’t gone. It was never gone. It had just stopped moving. Stupid stupid stupid. It’s not an Alien tracker in my left hand. It’s a motion tracker. There is no way to be sure.
My mind has time to process roughly half of these concepts before it’s on me, pinning me to the ground and bearing it jaws. Half a second later I’m dead.
That’s Alien: Isolation. Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn’t mean anything any more. It never happened. If Alien: Isolation fails on any level, fine. Games can do that. Games do it all the time. But let’s let it fail on its own terms, yeah? If, in a tragic twist of fate, it does so, then that disappointment will have to come on its own terms. Because having played it, let me tell you right now that there’s nothing else out there like it.