In 2014, Creative Assembly answered a 35-year-old distress beacon. Since the release of Alien, in 1979, no one had managed to make a game that did justice to its vision, and then Alien: Isolation drifted through the sucking void to wake us from our hypersleep. Here was a game that understood, finally, the essence of the franchise: the quiet, the glacial stretches of uneventful mood-building, like the piling of paint on a canvas, and the dread of death should you shuffle into that which hunts you.
How do they follow that? Well, they don’t. The next game in the franchise, which may be named Alien: Blackout, isn’t being made by Creative Assembly. The cause has been taken up by Cold Iron Studios, which was founded, in 2015, by three developers from Cryptic Studios – who made City of Heroes and Star Trek Online. Solid MMO credentials to be sure, but the last thing an Alien game needs is superheroes, and – though you might pray for it when you hear that telltale hiss – the power to beam up would somewhat ruin the suspense.
Nevertheless, we must trust the folks at FoxNext with delivering the goods. President Aaron Loeb has said that Cold Iron is creating an ‘action-packed persistent world, steeped in the mysteries of this beloved Alien universe.’ Yikes, action-packed? Meanwhile, a listing on Cold Iron’s careers page describes a ‘shooter set in the Alien universe.’ A shooter? Surely not. Good though Alien: Isolation was, nobody can deny it looked all the better for following the gung-ho and gungy Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game infested with bugs of the wrong kind that most wanted nuked from orbit. We loved Isolation because it came unclouded by combat. We admired its purity.
So what should Alien: Blackout be doing? First things first, if it’s to succeed, it needs a good setting. The main reason to play Alien: Isolation was to see a space station impregnated – to witness the clash of corporate sterility and uncontainable fertility. Poking around its setting, Sevastopol, felt as though you’d been swallowed by a whale – its corridors the colour of bone, the guts of its engine hangars rumbling with digestive boom. After all the propaganda posters adorning the station walls, their smiles hermetically sealed, it was a relief to see the place torn open by a force from hell. What’s more disturbing: seeing a man-made structure succumb to the parasite burrowed deep in its chambers, or quietly willing it to happen?
If we take the name ‘Blackout’ (20th Century Fox does have a trademark for it) and imagine the places you’d least like to see the power fail, then what makes the shortlist? Easy, just ask David Fincher: a prison. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay cribbed its setting from Alien 3 – with a prison that seemed to double as an oil rig, beaten by the winds, on a planet with a sky like dried blood. Fox is well within in its rights to pinch it back, and if Blackout wants to delve into shooter terrain, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. You can multiply the monsters, swap your protagonist for a platoon, and give everyone guns. There’s no reason the mood and menace can’t survive such harsh atmospheric conditions; just ask James Cameron.
If Isolation was the first game to do Alien proud, perhaps Blackout could right the wrongs of Colonial Marines and do Cameron’s sequel right. Or maybe it could straighten out the frayed ends of Fincher’s underrated film. The tools of action – the shotguns, the craftable explosives, the flamethrowers – can be used, as Amanda Ripley handily demonstrated, to tighten the bolts of terror.
While we’re in the mood to tighten and tinker, perhaps the greatest sin Isolation committed was its inability to end. It’s final hours were spent, just as the many hours before it, doing one damn thing after another. I found myself picturing Sigourney Weaver at the end of Alien, scrambling through the halls of the Nostromo, and I prayed for the finality of a self-destruct timer. The other disadvantage to its bloat was simple: the longer it was, the more we were exposed to its terrors, and the more our nerves recovered from their acid burns.
Perhaps that’s why we daren’t tread too far from Isolation’s tone. But we needn’t look only to horror; there are plenty of action games out there with debts to recoup. The Metroid games fused action as fierce as a laser with a lonely, awe-struck atmosphere. The digital ammo readout atop Halo’s assault rifle, borrowed from the pulse rifles of Aliens, seared the eye with a constant reminder of dwindling resources. And I often wonder if the entire tower defence genre wasn’t dreamt of after seeing the auto-turret sequence in that film. Just because there weren’t any good official Alien games doesn’t mean its seeds weren’t bursting from many of the greats. It’s only fair; you snooze, you lose.
Whether or not they go with my madcap prison siege Alien game, we won’t have to wait long for official word on Alien: Blackout, with an announcement likely due at The Game Awards, on December 6. Geoff Keighley’s cryptic tweet simply said, ‘World’s will change,’ and while you might wince at the thought of going back with a full armoury and the intention to blast everything in sight, remember: that’s exactly what Ripley did.