A few months ago, I played a section of Creative Assembly's Alien Isolation. I came away deeply impressed with the game's extremely authentic, and extremely engrossing, take on one of my all-time favorite movies, the original Alien.
Still, at the end of my 45-minute demo, I couldn't help but wonder how Isolation could possibly sustain that level of tension and interest for a dozen or more hours. Creeping around to avoid a deadly xenomorphic stalker made for a pretty fantastic game experience, but one that would feel terribly limited stretched across the length of a full adventure.
The secret to Isolation's longevity, as it turns out, comes from all the non-alien opponents you face. Portions of the space station you creep around in are patrolled by hostile humans — less capable of killing you in the blink of an eye than the alien, perhaps, but no less deadly for all that. Humans and other hostiles pose a more dynamic and unpredictable threat than the alien, which may be devastatingly powerful but also exists only as a single danger — one easily evaded. When you find yourself surrounded on two sides by armed humans, however, things become much trickier.
And it's not as though the alien ceases to be a factor even when it's out of sight. Listen carefully as you explore the station and you'll hear the creature skulking around in the ventilation shafts above you ("offstage," as the developers refer to it), constantly roaming the hidden areas of the colony and forever listening for giveaways to your presence.
All of this became abundantly clear in Isolation's E3 demo, in which humans and other hazards were folded into the game's mix, greatly increasing its difficulty. I managed to creep through the first Isolation demo with only a single death thanks to extremely conservative play and obsessive stealth. But that didn't serve me nearly as well in the new section of the game, where the ever-present alien is only part of the threat. In fact, the more I played of the E3 build, the more I appreciated the chaotic complexity of the scenario Creative Assembly has constructed.
In my first go-round with the E3 build, I slinked through an empty portion of the station with no trouble, eventually using a computer to hack open a portal to the next area. Once I reached the second area, though, things quickly escalated. I rounded a corner only to be spotted by a human scavenger watching for intruders on his turf. He didn't kill me, though; instead, he drew a handgun and warned me away. I retreated, but as I rounded the corner I stumbled across two other scavengers patrolling near the section where I'd entered the area. They too shouted threatening remarks at me, trapping me in an unintentional pincer maneuver.
Unable to advance down the corridor in either direction, I scrambled to an area in between and, while out of both groups' line-of-sight, ducked into a crawlspace beneath some medical equipment. The scavengers didn't forget about me, though, and while they couldn't see me, they knew I was around. Eventually, one of them got nervous and began blind-firing and cursing, trying to spook me out of my hiding place.
A minute later, the alien stormed through the area and murdered them before vanishing back into the works.
It turns out that even when it's offstage, the alien is constantly listening for loud sounds. And it's not just the player's noises that can drawn its attention — the same holds true for other humans as well. In trying to warn me off, the scavengers summoned the xenomorph, which promptly slaughtered all but one of them. Unfortunately, that one set up guard directly facing my hiding spot and refused to budge. Since I'd never played the more advanced build of the game, I didn't realize I had access to a complete crafting system which would allow me to assemble a noisemaker device to distract the guard. Instead, I tried to sneak out of hiding, immediately revealing myself and earning a chest full of lead for my trouble.
No worries, I figured. I knew the drill. Except I didn't, not really, because the AI-controlled characters in Isolation don't always behave the same way. Try as I might, I couldn't reproduce that initial scenario; enemies opened fire immediately upon spotting me, or couldn't be enticed to try shooting at me in the first place. The behavior of the AI characters, like that of the alien, is complex and difficult to get ahead of. I'd die and respawn miserably.
Eventually, I found a way to sneak past the patrols and reach the station's command center in order to set off a chain reaction, activating an emergency alert whose compulsory noise drew the alien into the fray, where it began patrolling my path to the next area. Unlike in my first experience with the game, I found the creature impossible to outsmart this time around.
I tried hiding in a corner of the corridor, only for it to uncover me as it made ever-wider patrols of the area. Dead. I tried dashing straight ahead, only to stumble into another group of dangerous humans. Dead. I tried luring the alien into sight of the short-circuiting synthetic who patrolled the command center only to discover that the alien ignores synthetics unless fired about, causing that gambit to fail as well. Dead.
In all, I died more than half a dozen times, and each time to a different configuration and scenario of hazards. I ultimately couldn't finish the Isolation demo...
...and I love it. Alien: Isolation is a beastly challenge of a game, but in the best way possible. It's smart, constantly changing, constantly reacting. If you know the fundamental rules of the game, you can prepare yourself for any situation; yet there's no way to tell exactly how a given encounter or scenario with ultimately play out. Even when the xenomorph is out of sight, it's never out of mind.
After decades of mediocre Alien-based games, Creative Assembly may just have found the secret to making good on the premise. It's not just that it looks the part, or that the xenomorph is a true menace. Everything about Isolation seems carefully considered not only to be a faithful interpretation of the classic film, but a great game in its own right.