That we’ve already sneaked through a short sample of upcoming PlayStation 4 survival horror Alien: Isolation says a lot about the game and its developer. Knowing that it could have easily been haunted by the spectre of Gearbox’s atrocious Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Creative Assembly has instead punctured any scepticism with a full round of playable Pulse Rifle firepower. This is a game that the British-based outfit wants you to brave for yourself, and that brings bloodcurdling credence to its aims and objectives for the complete campaign.
However, that isn’t to say that its aspirations aren’t outlandish to say the least. This latest interactive spin-off of 20th Century Fox’s seminal sci-fi series is not built from the blueprints of James Cameron’s thunderous take on the property like so many of its predecessors, but instead the high-stakes game of chase that made an unnaturally svelte Nigerian actor the subject of countless sleepless nights back in the drug addled days of 1979. As such, rather than pitch you against an army of the franchise’s titular tyrants, you’ll instead have to deal with just one of the exaggerated extraterrestrials, who’ll learn from your play patterns as you progress.
It sounds like an unattainable ambition on paper, but there are reassuring signs during our hands-on that the determined developer may be onto something special. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the series’ Sigourney Weaver-portrayed protagonist Ellen Ripley. Set some 15 years after the original movie, the youngster is transferred to a space station named the Sevastopol in search of the flight recorder from the Nostromo – the shuttle that acted as the host of the frightening events from the first flick.
It’s evident that this premise has been expertly inserted into the property’s canon, and it brings a personal motivation to your actions. While brand diehards will no doubt already have an idea of where this tale is likely to conclude, the events leading up to that inevitable ending should add some appreciated fabric to a franchise that arguably hasn’t received the respect that it deserves in recent years. Moreover, breaking the male protagonist archetype could end up being an inspired decision; while Amanda shares the plucky personality of her parent, there’s a vulnerability that’s reflected through her panicked breathing patterns each time she witnesses something out of the ordinary onscreen.
Isolation appears to be an ideal sub-heading for the intergalactic excursion, as the claustrophobic corridors that we traipse through during our 20 minute taste of the title are utterly uninhabited. That doesn’t mean that there’s not plenty of character, though, as the developer is really flexing the horsepower of Sony’s new system to render a setting that you can buy into. Discarded magazines decorate sterile workstations, while abandoned ventilators animate streams of ribbon in the centre of dining areas that will appear instantly familiar to franchise fans.
You may not be exploring the compartments of the Nostromo, but the whole game feels heavily inspired by Ron Cobb’s classic set design. And as a result, the release has an old-school visual aesthetic to it that feels retro in spite of its futuristic format – it’s sci-fi as perceived from a 70s perspective, rather than a more modern mind. As such, you’ll hack computers using a dot-matrix tool reminiscent of the original Game Boy as opposed to an iPad, while monitors adopt the bulky footprint of cathode ray technology instead of the more efficient liquid crystal. This archaic approach is underlined by a heavy grain filter, which transforms the clinical hallways into grungy passages.
Even at this early stage, it really does look exceptional, with intricate attention to detail apparent in every crevice of the somewhat linear locations. Duck beneath a table and you’ll spot the remnants of an engineer’s chewing gum pinned to the fibreboard terminal, while family photographs and used whiteboards tell optional tales for those willing to digest them. Fortunately, you will find yourself examining everything as the title forces you to progress with real trepidation, cleverly orchestrating your progress with clangs and clunks that will leave you spinning in circles searching for the source of the sounds.
Thankfully, you have a tool to track the animated objects that your eyes can’t see – primarily, the single Xenomorph that shares your surroundings. Holding down the DualShock 4’s trigger brings up your iconic motion tracker, allowing you to keep tabs on your antagonist even when you can’t make visual contact. This mechanic works a little like indie hit Outlast, as using the glowing gizmo impedes you in other areas, clouding your peripheral vision and taking your attention away from any activity taking place in front of you. It’s a risk/reward dynamic that’s not quite shared by the rest of the experience yet – bringing up a holographic map of your location, for example, pauses the action – but it’s still early days.
Nevertheless, you’ll fall upon the gadget when you come into contact with the segregated tail of your primary rival. The climax of our demo sees us trying to escape from an enclosed laboratory, as Ripley’s leathery friend tries to sniff out his evening meal. Getting past the famished Martian requires meticulous execution, as you sneak behind knee-high surfaces trying not to make a sound. The developer claims that the enemy will learn from your actions as you play, meaning that you’ll need to change your approach frequently, but we didn’t really get a feel for that during our hands-on.
However, what was instantly apparent is that this adversary is incredibly intelligent. Leave your flashlight on, and the slobbering space invader will locate its source, resulting in an explicit execution involving two sets of teeth. Similarly, make a break for the exit cavalier style and you’ll be caught up in no time, with your pursuer taking pleasure in cutting your casual jog short by impaling your tender torso. Being thrust into the encounter is a bit startling at first, but we quickly acclimatised to the careful pace required by the title, and eventually made our escape.
Not before one seriously tense moment, however. Eluding the enemy requires you to wait for a door to unlock, meaning that you’re left taking refuge in a conveniently cleared out locker. It may be a survival horror cliché, but pulling back the analogue sticks and triggers to hold your breath while the Xenomorph inspects the slight shelter is an interesting touch that prompts the kind of white knuckle response that all of the genre's best games strive for. Of course, whether the release can maintain that for a full 10 to 15 hours will remain the real challenge.
Assuming that the company can pull that off, though, the most authentic interactive Alien experience awaits. The inclusion of a health bar and crafting items indicates that there’ll be more to the title than a mere game of hide and seek, but if the Xenomorph really is as adaptive as the developer claims, then the areas where you’re forced to slope through the shadows are certain to be the harrowing highlight of this horrifying affair. It’s not exactly an original pitch – but this time The Creative Assembly appears to actually have the pieces in place to create something great.
Have you got the stomach to get secluded in space, or is the mere premise of Alien: Isolation giving you the creeps? Scream where no one can hear you in the comments section below.