If Alien: Isolation turns out to be anything less than perfect, I will regard it as one of the biggest video game disappointments of my life. This might seem an unreasonable expectation at best. I honestly think Isolation has a good shot at pulling it off.
Let's be clear; Isolation has nothing to do with last year's disastrous Colonial Marines outside of the fact that it's based on the same 20th Century Fox film franchise, and it's being published by Sega. For all intents and purposes, the publisher is taking a mulligan on the Aliens franchise with Isolation.
For starters, they've based the new adventure on the relatively virgin material of the original Alien, not the revisited-to-the-point-of-cliché beats of Aliens. Furthermore, Isolation hails from developer Creative Assembly. Perhaps most importantly, unlike Colonial Marines -- which was reputedly subcontracted out by ostensible developer Gearbox so they could pour their money and efforts into Borderlands 2 -- Creative Assembly has built a team from the ground up specifically for the sake of making Isolation. The team aims to create, in their words, "the Alien game we've always wanted to play."
CA's enthusiasm for the source material couldn't be clearer. From the audio team's barely restrained giddiness at gaining access to long-lost effects tape reels from the Fox archives to the art team's obsessive deconstruction of Ron Cobb's classic set designs, Creative Assembly has approached Isolation from the perspective of Aliens fanatics who also make video games. At one point, I asked lead designer Gary Napper about a piece of key promotional art for the game that appears to feature Ellen Ripley's interstellar hauler, the Nostromo; since that ship detonated in a nuclear fireball at the end of Alien, it couldn't possibly take part in Isolation, which is set years later. Napper simply corrected me, slightly embarrassed by his own nitpicking, compelled to point out that the art actually appears to depict the refinery attached to the Nostromo. It's that kind of team.
Passion, unfortunately, doesn't always translate into a great game experience. I've played plenty of completely terrible licensed or franchised games made by people who worked from the heart. A designer's enthusiasm needs both discipline and grounding to work as a video game; otherwise it amounts to nothing more than disjointed fan service. Thankfully, Isolation appears to be nothing if not a systematic creation. Creative Assembly's designers have approached the game with two guiding principles in mind: First, what made Alien a masterpiece of science fiction cinema? And two, how would that translate into a great game?
So far -- based on a brief but fantastic playable demo -- I can say they're absolutely on the right track. Isolation takes a survival horror approach to Alien, transforming the essence of the original film's second half into a first-person adventure in which players take the role of Ellen Ripley's daughter Amanda. Previously seen only as a senior citizen in the prologue of Aliens' Director's Cut, Amanda here is a younger woman who sets out in search of her mother when the Nostromo's flight recorder is salvaged, 15 years after the LV-426 incident. And here's the important thing: Like the elder Ripley, Amanda finds herself alone and ill-equipped to face the inevitable xenomorphic threat she encounters in the course of her quest.
The alien in Isolation is, like the original film's title, a singular alien. It represents a deadly, intelligent, reactive threat, one the developers promise is capable of learning and changing its behavior based on what the player does. Isolation takes its cues not from the gun-heavy Aliens or (god forbid) the lurid nonsense of Alien Resurrection but rather from the tense unease of the first and third films.
There's potential to make a great game from Aliens, but developers inevitably focus on the cool parts of the movie -- the pulse rifles, the auto-turrets, the power loaders -- without stopping to consider that the movie was an allegory for the Vietnam War and that the "cool" marines were there to show the futility of all that "awesome" technology and training. Alien games miss the point of the films entirely. As such, the terrifying nature of the xenomorphs tends to be lost in video games based on the franchise; even the best Alien games (Capcom's Alien Vs. Predator, Probe's Alien 3) reduce the titular movie monster to mere cannon fodder.
That won't be the case in Isolation. Amanda has more in common with Alien's blue collar space truckers than the second movie's gung-ho marines, and while you may occasionally come across firearms, they alone won't turn the tables. On the contrary, the developers have expressed pride in the fact that the survival horror vibe in Isolation is so deeply entrenched that their test audiences' instinct upon finding pistols has universally been to continue sticking to the shadows rather than go in shooting. The alien this time around is no easy target; rather, it takes the form of a hulking beast, roughly three meters tall, one capable of murdering the younger Ripley on sight. Stealth and caution are the name of the game. As such, those expecting to play Isolation like a typical Alien game are in for a nasty surprise: A single careless movement equals death.
Isolation explores ground by a number of games inspired by Alien; the relationship between Amanda and the xenomorph reminds me of Metroid Fusion's Samus-X, or Nemesis and Pyramid Head from Resident Evil 3 and Silent Hill 2. The difference is that most of the encounters here aren't scripted beyond the appearance of the xenomorph into general scenarios. Rather than simply going through what amounts to an elaborate QTE in order or survive, you have to track and observe the alien and act appropriately when the time is right.
If Isolation has a single obvious spiritual predecessor, it's Sega's own Enemy Zero. That Saturn cult classic was a survival adventure designed by the late Kenji Eno in which players found themselves trapped in a spaceship, helpless against invisible alien predators that could be tracked only by sound. Likewise, Amanda's best weapon against her unearthly stalker is a motion tracker -- and, like those in the films, it's a rough indicator at best. The motion tracker will show the alien's relative distance and direction from the player, but wielding the device causes the on-screen perspective to focus on its screen; the world around it grows blurry and indistinct. It's not unlike what id aspired to do with DOOM 3's flashlight, but it works far more effectively in the context of this survival horror game than it did in that twitch shooter.
The motion tracker is by no means the only faithful interpretation of the film aesthetics. Isolation looks like Alien every inch. Creative Assembly has dissected the set design of the 1979 film and created four principle environmental design formats, including habitation, science, and engineering. Each area of the space station is built to resemble (though not simply copy) the various areas of the Nostromo according to that area's purpose.
The result is something like fan service, but in the best possible way. The demo includes a few "habitation" zones, which closely resemble the Nostromo's dining areas. There are specific callbacks, like a "drinking bird" toy endlessly bobbing on one of the cafeteria tables and a pile of skin magazines on one of the couches, set amidst broader aesthetic traits such as white vinyl furnishings and standardized directional labels on walls and machines. Despite the superficial resemblance, the space station's cafeteria is much larger than the Nostromo's ship, as befits a commissary for a space populated by more people, including families -- and in addition to the drinking bird, one of the tables also includes a toy robot and crayon drawings.
Meanwhile, other spaces look completely different, yet familiar. The corridor in which the demo begins is crammed with grey pipes and tubes; the computer chamber in which the alien makes its first appearance contains tons of equipment that echoes Alien's tech design, with lots of analog devices and simple digital readouts -- the future as imagined in 1979. That same approach extends to the game's music, which combines Jerry Goldsmith's cues with new material, and to the characters themselves. The crew of the space station wears "space trucker" gear with a decidedly vintage feel, too. One older woman I spotted sported a pink paisley blouse with a butterfly collar worn over her jacket's collar: Totally disco. On top of that, the game incorporates lots of thoughtful little details to bring it all together, like the ringing silence that overtakes the audio during a brief depressurization sequence.
The question that the demo's exhaustive fidelity leaves me asking is: Can all of this possibly work throughout a full-length game? Alien consisted of two hours of a few people working through a story in a tiny number of locations; while it's easy to recapture that essence in a 40-minute demo, will it wear thin when stretched over a larger experience? Is Alien: Isolation too authentic, to the point of slavishness?
One trick up Creative Assembly's sleeve to fight the fatigue of familiarity: They're adding their own twist to things. For examples, there's a massive corporate presence lurking in the background of Isolation, but it's not Weyland-Yutani. Rather, it's a European conglomerate called Seegson, a smaller entity that aspires to imitate WY's success. As such, some of its technology is more primitive. Early in the demo, you can spot an android that's been ripped in half, but it doesn't look properly human -- more like a mannequin. This wasn't simply a matter of incomplete game content; one of the game's artists confirmed that the team "doesn't want every Seegson synthetic to look like Ash." The company's technology definitely seems similar to WY's, all the way down to a computer voice that sounds identical to the Nostromo's MU-TH-UR, but it's not as sophisticated on many fronts.
Creative Assembly's driving philosophy for Isolation is the use of minimalist design for maximum effect. The game doesn't have a heads-up display to speak of, but neither does it use Call of Duty-style veins and blood haze to denote damage. There's no need: Amanda's state of being is completely binary. She's either alive and well or else the alien has spotted her and she's instantly dead. Computer interfaces are totally diegetic, from the motion tracker to the console-hacking point of view. Aside from small on-screen prompts (displayed discreetly in a retro computer font), Isolation goes out of its way to minimize the clutter of being a video game... but neither is it the sort of linear, limited corridor shooter that usually employs a minimal interface.
To further cement the movie connection, the art team refers to many of its visual tricks as "practical effects." For example, to create the sensation of distorted video displays, they rendered video loops, output them to VHS tape, then recorded playback while introducing real tape judder. Likewise, Amanda will employ a "jury-rigging" system for creating improvisational weapons and tools -- the demo had her collecting things like gasoline that could potentially be used to create, say, a Captain Dallas-approved flamethrower.
All of these elements come together to make what appears to be a damn good survival horror title. My time with the game consisted of equal parts marveling over the fidelity to Alien's atmosphere and edge-of-my-seat tension. Even before the alien made its first appearance, the game cranked up the anxiety and messed with my mind. At one point I paused to check the motion tracker only to look away a moment later and see a shadow dart past, accompanied by a musical sting. In-game, Amanda gasped; in real life, I did too.
The game clicked with me. I played the demo cautiously and ended up dying only once (I dashed too loudly to hide in a locker, and the alien spotted and killed me). The game's designers insisted I simply got lucky -- the average among everyone else who tackled the demo was eight or nine deaths -- but I disagree, and I think in trying to talk up its difficulty they're selling their work short. I made it through the demo by playing slowly and cautiously, keeping low and out of sight and painstakingly observing the alien's movements. I tracked it visually, by sound, and with the motion tracker; I moved slowly; I kept obstacles between myself and the monster at all times. The xenomorph knew I was nearby, and it prowled for me in its "aware and alert" posture, and I played with sometimes agonizing timidity to avoid giving myself away. I went to great pains not to be hasty, especially after my disastrous locker dash. And it worked.
In my opinion, a great game shouldn't be a trial-and-error experience; you should be able to succeed by playing correctly and intuitively. The fact that I had such a successful run doesn't mean Isolation is easy by any means; my hands cramped from the intensity, and every time I broke from cover I sweated the exposure. No, my nearly perfect run simply means Isolation doesn't rely on cheap, arbitrary gimmicks. It's consistent, reliable, and fair -- a game designed to be played the way its protagonist's mother approached her own alien encounters. In other words, it has real potential for greatness, both as a game and as an Alien tale.
Will Isolation live up to that potential? Colonial Marines looked awesome in demos, but as I noted at the time, the fan service was front-loaded -- once you had pulse rifles, auto-turrets, and a power loader, what else was there? Not a hell of a lot, as it turned out. I think the same question holds true for Isolation. Having seen the xenomorph, sneaked around, and run through a blaring emergency alarm, what else is there? A synthetic freakout? An escape sequence? Eggs and facehuggers? A queen's nest? Or will the developers do something genuinely new with the property beyond what I saw in the brilliant but familiar demo?
Moving to survival horror gives the Alien franchise new context as a video game, but Creative Assembly needs to do more than just assemble familiar pieces -- they need to be creative, too. I count Alien as one of my five favorite movies, a film I can watch repeatedly and discover something new every time. My time with Isolation hinted at a game finally worthy of that hallowed property; if Creative Assembly makes it work, it'll easily be one of my favorite games of 2014. And if not... well, there's no shortage of disappointing Alien games. What's one more for the pile?