In space no-one can hear you scream. Our neighbours, however, can and often have of late as we've shuffled our way through one of the scariest, clever horror survival games we've played in years. Yep, Alien: Isolation has arrived.
Some horror fans will go "pah" to our weak-kneed response, citing Silent Hill, Resident Evil, The Evil Within, et al, as the more blatant terrifiers. But we go "pah" back at them, because what Creative Assembly and Sega have produced is not only a great homage to Ridley Scott's original Alien but possibly the greatest videogaming example of the use of "nothing".
In this age of sending hordes of enemies flooding towards you in wave after wave, Alien: Isolation side-steps the norm. Technically, there's only one real enemy in this game and you'll spend most of the game trying not to see it. Which is a refreshing and bold take on a modern game. But does it hold up to scrutiny?
Like its Hollywood inspiration, some of the scariest moments in Alien: Isolation occur when nothing much happens at all. Those moments when you don't see anything, don't meet anything and don't really have to do very much can be terrifying. Because it is they that put you in a permanent state of panic. So much so that you'll jump at any noise or minor incident.
Remember the cat scene in Alien? Innocent but made you hit the ceiling. Alien: Isolation is 90 per cent that cat scene and that's what makes it so good.
Perhaps before we get ahead of ourselves it's time for some plot.
You play the game as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the star of Scott's Alien, Ellen, who is assigned to a team investigating the disappearance of the Nostromo ship and your mother. The flight recorder from the ship has been found and transported to Sevastopol, a space station owned by major corporation Seegson.
Of course, after travelling there you find that picking up the recorder is not going to be as easy as first thought. Especially as the station has been rocked by disaster. Most inhabitants have fled or are dead and it is seemingly abandoned. Cue the terror.
What Creative Assembly has cracked superbly in Alien: Isolation is the feel of the original 1979 film. Instead of opting for the high-gloss science fiction of many Alien games over the years, it has stuck religiously to the low-tech future Ridley Scott envisioned. Computers are old green-screened PCs with CRT monitors. The décor is very 70s, with lots of beige and brown. And everything looks like it will need more than a fleet of IT executives to keep working.
Also, as the station is in disrepair, the surroundings are mostly shabby and broken - something that's not only used to great effect in graphical terms, but also aurally. The game's tension and ambience is enhanced infinitely by incredible sound effects and the eerie score. The film did this very well, but the game adds interactivity to the mix, which creates one of the most involving soundscapes you're likely to hear in a game.
First Person Survival
The game itself is an FPS, but that stands for first-person survival rather than first-person shooter. Indeed, there's very little shooting to be had at all. Although there are other inhabitants of Sevastopol that you will need to avoid or vanquish somehow (we'll avoid saying any more for fear of spoilers), the main assailant is invulnerable and whenever it is near, fleeing is your best and often only option.
Encounters with the Alien are petrifying in a way that only the first film conveyed correctly. It doesn't even appear for quite a while after you start - we'd played for well over an hour before so much a sniff - but when it does you'll need new pants.
Parts of the game force you to meet it for plot purposes, but another of Creative Assembly's master strokes was to make the Xenomorph an artificially intelligent character. Once it is aware that you exist, the game mechanics has it scampering and stalking about under its own steam. It will not therefore jump out at the exact same point in your travels each time, leaving you to panic at every corner, even if nothing then happens.
Like in the films, you do find a motion tracker along the way that allows you to see and hear the Alien (and other surprises) relative to your position, but you can only hold it up when you're not doing something else, which can lead to moments of "it's behind me, isn't it?".
Run Ripley, run
Most of the gameplay itself, bar running away from the Alien and other surprises, is adventure based. You have to find keycards to get through doors, switch on electrical points to open up new paths, that sort of thing. However, the fact you have to do them all under the stress Alien: Isolation puts you under makes for a much fresher experience than it sounds.
There's also a basic crafting system in the game that allows you to create items you might need from others found lying around the station. For example, find enough bits and bobs to create a makeshift flamethrower and you might be able to scare the Alien off long enough to help you hide in a cupboard. Or build a bomb and you could dispatch any of the other denizens out to deal you harm or even lure the Alien away with noise... before then hiding in a cupboard again.
It's no Minecraft, but is a welcome distraction to the simple exploration mechanics.
As well as the main campaign, Alien: Isolation also offers a Survivor Mode, which sets you against the Alien in claustrophobic, tight locations with a time limit to escape. It's what we played on Oculus Rift a while back and in a way perhaps we shouldn't. Its impact on the normal consumer release pales significantly when compared to the truly terrifying virtual reality experience.
The end sequence of the Alien movie is also available to play as downloadable content, which was free as part of our Ripley Edition release. It gives you control over Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and you must start the Nostromo's self-destruct sequence before escaping. Definitely worth a go for any true fans of the movie.
And that's just it, as such a love letter to the first film, Alien: Isolation will most appeal to Alien's mighty army of fans. There are so many nods and winks to Scott's original that only true fans will pick up on them. Quite simply it's the best Alien game ever.
However, there is still plenty there to shock, scare and thrill gamers who come from the other angle too. It's an excellent slice of tense, scary action that also takes a considerable time to complete. So if you're not an Alien fan or are too young to have invested in the films, but like to be scared witless then here's gaming's scariest turn on that idea.
However, Alien: Isolation is not without fault. It rides a fine line between build-up and boredom that the game doesn't always get right. And after you've hidden in a cupboard for the umpteenth time while the Alien jogs past, you'll resent a little of the monotony. But the highs far outweigh the minor failings.
Alien: Isolation is a rare breed of game that replaces brute force with consideration. And it's happy to leave you in a gibbering mess in the process.
Alien Isolation is available now for PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
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