Alien: Isolation preview: One-hour play-through of one scary game
There have been many games based around the Alien franchise of films, books and comics, some truly fantastic - like the first Aliens vs Predator first person shooter - some far from it - like the last Aliens vs Predator FPS. But most of them take their inspiration from James Cameron's gung-ho take on the mythos. Very few look to Ridley Scott's original for game design cues.
You can see why not. Surely a game with just one alien roaming around a vast landscape would be dull? And having the player play a character that panics at the sound of her own heartbeat? That's a true gaming no-no. Tell you what, remove most FPS weaponry too. And limit the use of any items that can cause harm to boot. Doesn't sound like a Call of Duty beating next-gen title does it?
But that's what the development team at The Creative Assembly and publisher Sega could have on their hands, as our (roughly) one-hour play-through of one of the game's sections gave us many reasons to be optimistic about an all-new style of Alien game. One that, for the most part, you are best served by simply running away.
Alien: Isolation is bed wettingly scary at times. It is survival horror with the emphasis on survival as you are being hunted throughout the game and your only option is to survive as long as possible. That's it! You can't kill the alien, you can't outrun the alien, you can't tempt the alien with a nice slice of Battenburg cake. No, you have to mainly hide and outwit the alien to get from A to B, much like Ripley did in the original 1978 movie. Which is fitting as you are also called Ripley in the game.
It's set 15 years after the events of Alien and the destruction of the Nostromo. A new ship, Sevastapol, is sent to retrieve its flight recorder to find out what happened and as you are Amanda, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, you have requested you are part of the investigation, so you can look for details of your lost mother.
However, it all goes south quickly and you find yourself being hunted by an alien.
Before we look at the aspects of the segment of the game we played, we have to set the scene. We played an early build of Alien: Isolation on an Xbox One. There were also PC and PS4 versions in the room Sega had put together for the demo day, but they were further from the door and there were two good reasons we wanted to be as close to the exit as possible; firstly, there was always a chance we'd freak in fear and make a bolt for it; and secondly, to give the proceedings ambience, Sega had blacked out the room, which was underground and about 100-degrees Fahrenheit. Or something. The brief waft of air coming through the cracks around the door would give a little respite from the heat, we suspected.
We needn't have worried because the on-screen action was so intense, we didn't really feel the stifling room temperatures.
We'll admit right now, we didn't manage to last the full hour. In fact, we restarted the game approximately five or six times, most often after being munched on by the iconic creature. Sometimes we died through other means. We encountered synthetics (androids) that wanted to tear us to pieces for some reason or another. And humans seemed to want to deliver cold, hard death too.
There's no second chance, even when fighting other humans on board the ship. One shot will kill you, so you have to be canny and clever to get round them. Either that or - after already dying in the same spot by the hand of the same roaming security guard - before they speak, set them on fire using a shoddily-built flamethrower you've either crafted together or found (we found one).
That has the dual benefit of both looking awesome and attracting the alien to the screams, giving you the essential time to nip off and continue on your escape path.
You might find our blasé response to guard flambé a touch disturbing, but to be honest you'll see far worse before you even get to that point, so you'll find yourself numb to that sort of thing too. And at least it provides a brief respite to the amount of crawling around and hiding you'll be doing when stalked, which raises your own heart rate significantly.
One nod to Aliens rather than Alien comes in the form of the most essential device you will have on you at all times: the motion tracker. This needs to be used constantly, but can only be lifted to see motion nearby when you're not performing other actions. Equip a weapon and the motion tracker disappears so you don't know where your foe might be coming from. Stop to access a computer to open a gate or release a catch and again, you are no longer looking at the motion tracker.
This simple gameplay mechanic perhaps introduces the most heightened sense of fear of all. When you have to solve a puzzle or interact with something you need to progress and then raise the motion tracker only to find a green top almost on top of you is a petrifying experience. In a good way.
Thankfully, in the section of the ship we wandered through (slowly and on our hands and knees mostly), there were plenty of locations to hide in. And there was more than one instance of seeing the black, shiny legs of the alien walking past. Thankfully, it can see and hear you but not smell. Considering the odours released around those times, that is a blessing.
The other gameplay mechanic we had a brief introduction to, but would like much more time with, is crafting. Like with many modern survival horrors (and plenty of other games too) crafting is an important element in making the experience feel more personalised. You can build different objects of either harm or distraction from items found on your journeys. They will rarely help too much - you can't kill the alien after all - but they could give you that slight edge in evading it.
Just before our hour was up a Sega or Creative Assembly employee tapped us and we turned with a jolt. New pants were almost the order of the day, but unlike our poor on-screen character, we were still alive. Sweating and blinking like moles in the rediscovered daylight, but alive. The real world seemed a much safer, friendlier place that day. Even Streatham.
Alien: Isolation will be released on 7 October for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. We suggest also pre-ordering a three-pack of new pants.