If you’ve played an “Alien” game recently, there’s a pretty good chance you found yourself peering down the iron sights of a Pulse Rifle, unloading its fiery payloads into bullet-sponging bad guys. Developer Creative Assembly is taking the previously action-focused franchise in a decidedly different direction – one that aims to test players’ emotional mettle more than their twitchy reflexes. Inspired by the slow-burn scares of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, rather than the body-count-ratcheting antics of James Cameron’s sequel, “Alien: Isolation” isn’t a shooter, but a first-person survival horror game.
While its camera perspective will be comfortably familiar to anyone who’s saved the world, galaxy, or universe from behind a space marine or super-soldier, “Isolation” shares little else with the first-person shooter genre. Spinning a side story from the film that spawned the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” “Isolation” puts players in the quaking boots of film protagonist Ellen Ripley’s offspring, Amanda. Unfolding 15 years after the USCSS Nostromo self-destructed, the story’s set-up is simple: Find the craft’s flight recorder to gain insight into what happened to Amanda’s Xenomorph-thwarting mom.
Our hands-on demo saw us on a derelict spaceship, searching for clues and trying not to become an alien appetizer. Wielding a flashlight, we slowly searched the creepy confines, stopping occasionally to shine the beam on some unsettling sights; one bloody trail led to a man whose intestines had spilled from his belly; another victim, slumped in a wheelchair, sported a gaping void in his chest. With our pulse beginning to elevate beyond any doctor-recommended level, we tried not to be unnerved by the silence that was only occasionally broken by a flickering light or whirling fan.
Like a grade-schooler at their first horror movie, we squealed when a burst pipe yielded both a loud explosion and shooting flames. The jump-scare was the least of our problems, though, as the sound seemed to attract the game’s titular evil-doing extraterrestrial. “Isolation” features just one Xenomorph that serves as a constant, life-siphoning threat; attracted by your flashlight, sprinting footsteps, gunshots, and any other unexpected bump in the night, the space beast delivers swift and immediate death upon finding you.
Thanks to our motion tracker, we got a bead on the baddie’s location and hid in a locker before it could shish-ka-bob us with its tail or floss its teeth with our spine. In one of the demo’s more frightening moments, the Xenomorph slowly passed by our hiding spot as if sensing its prey was close; smartly taking the advice of some contextual game prompts – “lean back” and “hold breath” – we were able to remain hidden until the monster moved on.
With some distance between us and the alien’s drool-drenched maw, we continued searching the ship’s medical facilities. We collected key cards and a number of crafting supplies – batteries, gel, blade, scrap, and adhesives – before encountering some of the craft’s human survivors. Scared and armed, they weren’t about to invite us into their quarters for tea and cakes. Approaching them led to a bullet exchange (and the first firing of Amanda’s pistol) that ultimately brought the hungry beast back. Upon being unceremoniously skewered through the stomach by its spiked, segmented, scaly tail, we decided to adopt a stealthier approach to circumventing the strangers.
Picking up a minor objective that tasked us with hacking a power source, we pushed forward, motion tracker equipped, pistol safely tucked away. Following a few heart-pounding encounters that saw us just barely dodge death, we reached the control room. Before we could crack the code, however, we had to power-up a pair of generators. Activating them granted access to the terminal we had to hack, but also freed an android from its capsule. At first, we thought the Synthetic was there to lend a hand, maybe help us with our objective. We were 100% wrong about that, though; when approached, the humanoid spoke to us in a very matter-of-fact manner. He was unquestionably creepy, but didn’t seem threatening… until he choked the life out of us.
Over the next few minutes, we died – a lot – as we tried to figure out how to perform our task with this slow-but-deliberate robo-psycho always over our shoulder. Bullets barely slowed it down, and hacking the terminal before it killed us proved impossible. Thankfully, we recalled all those crafting items we’d scooped up earlier; bringing up the building menu, we were given the option to fashion flares, med kits, Molotovs, and EMP mines. Given our threat’s inhuman nature, we made the latter item via the game’s intuitive crafting system.
We lighted the Synthetic bastard up real good with the EMP, disabling him just long enough to complete our objective. Of course, it’s at this point that all hell broke loose. The android rose from his EMP-induced coma, we headed for the exit, and both the desperate humans and the alien gave chase. More than once, the camera panned down to our midsection, where the alien’s piercing appendage could be seen poking through. Several attempts – and a variety of increasingly gruesome death animations – later, a slick combination of stealth and EMP placement saw us to relative safety.
With our palms sweaty and our brow moist, the demo came to a close. Based on our breathless hands-on session, it seems “Alien: Isolation” is shaping up to be a narratively rich, character-driven, scary-as-hell romp through a world heavily inspired by Ridley Scott’s original chest-bursting benchmark. Toss in the fact that science-fiction’s most frightening foe is as interested in chilling our spines as it is in ripping them from our backs, and “Alien: Isolation” not only promises to do right by the beloved franchise, but also return the survival horror genre to its hair-raising roots.
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