Any time a new title set in the Alien universe is announced, shown off, talked up and/or presumably even thought about, you can bet that the concept of 'authenticity' won't be too far behind. It's one of the key promotional messages for any tie-in with Hollywood's most famous extra-terrestrial killing machines, an easy way of telling fans of the franchise that 'hey, we know our shit. We watched the movies, loads. And then we spoke to one of the production designers on it, and they gave us some of the actual stuff they made six thousand years ago. We know what we're doing.'
It's an understandable approach. The xenomorph saga is one of the most well-loved – if ill-remembered, which I'll get to in a moment – series Hollywood has to offer. And it's been pilfered from by games for decades. Fans expect a level of detail, and so why not give them what they love?
Unfortunately, the problem with this approach is that you risk mistaking being authentic (in the mechanical or aesthetic sense) for actually understanding the IP. Lost in the minutiae of aesthetic design, it's easy to forgo perspective on why the films worked so well – and turning that into an enjoyable experience for the player – when you're making the motion tracker sound juuuust right.
Those elements are important, of course. But they're not all important. And when combined with hubris and ineptitude, you get something like Aliens: Colonial Marines, which, according to Randy Pitchford, was " the sequel to Aliens that we've all been waiting for. It's the game I've been wanting to play since I saw that film so many years ago." He must have really hated the movie...
So Creative Assembly, developer of Alien: Isolation (and currently working in an office where authentic production notes, cross-sections and props nearly outnumber people) has a difficult job on its hands. Not only does it have to follow the shambles that was Colonial Marines, but it also has to ensure it doesn't lose itself tracing around someone else's lines. Early evidence is that it might just do both itself and the franchise justice.
Set 15 years after Ridley Scott's original, Isolation focuses on Amanda Ripley, the lesser-spotted daughter of Ellen. Learning that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been recovered and is being kept at a sprawling space station named Sevastopol, she and her (Weyland-Yutani-funded) crew head off to the discover the truth. Before long, as usual, everything goes very wrong.
Hands-on time was limited to a 20-minute demo, set midway through the story. Although this slice is obviously intended to show Isolation in the most flattering light possible, it at the very least demonstrated that CA knows what made the flick work, not just what its set dressings looked like. Think Amnesia with the Alien license and you're nearly there: locked into a series of gloomy comms rooms and connecting corridors with Giger's nightmare-fuel, you have to outwit and outrun it, hacking a (gloriously analogue) computer terminal via pattern-matching minigame before escaping via an airlock.
Which is easier said than done. With the station's power out and a nine-foot war-bred killing machine stalking you, every move made has to be considered, along with the potential consequences of your actions. The play area wasn't big, at all. Detailed, yes: every element of the source material's famous sets have been expertly recreated (and the lighting model cranks the atmosphere). But the square-footage itself is limited to something the size of about six reloads of a gun in any military FPS.
Which makes it all the more impressive that traversing it is genuinely intimidating, thanks to the Alien's presence. You'll peek out from behind cover at least six times before even thinking of exhaling, and spin around in panic every few seconds. The simple action of moving between one piece of cover and another seemed as inconspicuous as initiating a neon-caped Bat Dance scored with an air horn that when depressed played Surfin' Bird: Bird is the Word. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZThquH5t0ow)
Your chances of survival have more to do with choices made under pressure than necessarily the Alien's own thoughts and stalking processes. The development team insists that your foe has its own set of senses, can hear and see you and react to any ill-advised moves. Moreover, according to CA console design lead Clive Lindop, it allegedly won't be constantly fooled by the same gameplan. "A lot of the devices, tricks or tactics you try have a lifespan with the Alien. It [will] only work a certain number of times before he becomes wise, which keeps the player on their toes."
In practice, it does seem reasonably intelligent: prowling around, examining hiding places and obvious escape routes, disappearing into vents only to reappear later. And it's an intimidating creature: often blended against the ship's hull, shifting nightmarishly against it before disappearing entirely or crushing your skull. But the truly terrifying element of Isolation is that it's the choices you make, no matter how well-intentioned or thought out, that are likely to get you killed.
Like in the movie, the road to starbeast-death is paved with good intentions. I died a few times (one of them involving a genuinely scary chase), but the most arresting end came when, like many of those on the big screen in 1979, I essentially backed into the Alien while frantically looking to avoid it. It was the sort of unscripted jump scare that Isolation does well: I'd done nothing wrong, technically. I was just unlucky.
"The first and second film both have the same message: technology won't save you. And over-reliance on tech will be your downfall" stated Lindop. "It's a similar thing here. Your instincts will be more reliable to you than hoping tech will save you and be able to deal with [the situation]."
Which means that every bit of tech helps as much as it hinders your chances of survival. The motion tracker, functionally less reliable than the one in Aliens but better than the rigged-together device that gets Dallas killed in the original movie, is still as much a hindrance as help – it only shows the exact location of the Alien if it's in a small 'cone' directly in front of you. If the xenomorph is behind you or to either side, and you'll merely see one directionally representative light illuminate. Coupled this with the frantic proximity beeping, it's enough to send players (me) into blind panic, causing them to cut and run.
Your flashlight, too, is both a strength and a weakness, for obvious reasons. There were also no real weapons to speak of, bar a rather pathetic wrench swing and a homemade chemical defence device that I couldn't really use in the demo. It's very much you against not only the Alien, but also your environment and even your own decision-making processes.
Which, really, is what Alien was about. Ordinary people up against a seemingly unkillable threat, cobbling together defensive weapons and strategies on the fly to stay alive. Isolation conveys this well, while also giving the Alien the sort of menace it deserves. Lindop described it as "lethal, fast, agile, dangerous", and he's absolutely correct.
As is he when talking about "no-one really experiencing that [before], because when the Alien is transformed into game form, it [becomes] suicidal Russian infantry, hurling themselves over the barricades with you mowing them down." PSOne's Alien Resurrection and the original AvP aside, this Alien is different to what you've seen before.
What I played was a promising segment made with obvious love and care. But it also threw up some worrying questions about whether or not Creative Assembly could maintain that level of terror, and involvement, over what is presumably going to be an 8-12 hour running time.
After the aforementioned 20 or so minutes, I was already 'gaming' the Alien: trying to exploit the demo, rather than engage with it. Why? Because I didn't want to die. The punishment for which, in this demo at least, is only to be reset to the last checkpoint. But think about that in the context of the effort and exertion of taking five successful steps, and soon multiple deaths began to force me into other modes of play.
Personally, I'd love Isolation to last about four or five hours. Assurances have been made that it won't all be as intense as what we saw: with only one Alien and a massive space station to explore, it can't be (physically) everywhere: "We're not making a game with that level of intensity for the whole [time]" said senior producer Jonathan Court. "What we've got is you arriving at the station, which has a massive variety of locations, and we have a strong story that draws you through those locations, which gives you a varied experience."
There'll also be other survivors to interact with. How you interact with them, however, is dictated by the situation around you. "People react in different ways. Some may be useful to you or help you, others you might not be sure you want to trust" said Lindop. "Because people do desperate things at desperate times. So the variation of that experience and the presence of the threat, that's what drives the game for [a prolonged] period of time."
And Isolation won't, as feared, devolve into lock 'n' load revenge, either, with Court insistent that "[it] is not a shooter. You can get weapons, but it's not about running through the game shooting."
These are all promising statements, and ones that speak of how highly the team respects the material and the wants of its fans. Both Court and Lindop also spoke of an opportunity to, essentially, put things right following Colonial Marines, and for the most part it's looking good. And yes, it's authenticity cannot be denied: parts of the original score have been dug out of the FOX lot in LA, analogue transmissions have been recreated by actually recording onto VHS and then running a magnet over the top, and the enemy itself is a real threat.
Little gameplay touches complement the work done replicating Scott. You can only focus on the foreground or background separately: Your motion tracker's screen takes up the former. You can guess which on the Alien usually resides in. The flashlight beam can be adjusted to narrow and powerful or wide and feeble. Everything is a trade-off. It feels like an Alien encounter. The question is whether it can sustain it.
According to Clive Lindop "by trying to build a system, or a systematic entity, a creature that is reactive, where you're in this kind of life and death struggle and it's not predictable. That's a very risky thing to do."
Let's hope it pays off.