On the night before my fifth birthday my father let me watch some of Aliens. I couldn’t make it past the first 50 or so minutes. I had to turn it off after that first encounter in the hive but it started a life-long obsession with the franchise for one simple fact – it terrified me beyond belief. I had nightmares for five years. I slept face down – my young logic being that any chest-bursters couldn’t come out and it wasn’t until my father forced me to watch the film in its entirety that I stopped having nightmares and became fascinated instead.
I have fond memories of watching my father play Alien Trilogy on the Sega Saturn when I was younger. I wouldn’t dare pick up the game box myself as the image of the Alien scared me. I watched my father play it through my hands or from the side of the sofa.
When I finally developed the nerves to play an Alien game myself, I was ten and I was playing Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator (2000). I can vividly remember not being able to bring myself to leave the APC at the start of the third level of the Marine campaign.
I haven’t felt like that for over a decade. Rebellion’s most recent Aliens vs. Predator first few levels were atmospheric and tense but it wasn’t quite terrifying. The closest Aliens: Colonial Marines came was during the scenes in the sewer and that lost its edge on any subsequent playthroughs.
So when I say that I had to actually take time to compose myself after I played Alien Isolation for the first time, I want you to understand just how much it affected me.
Fellow AvPGalaxy staff member, Dachande, and I were invited to Creative Assembly Studios in Horsham, England to get a hands-on with the game and have a tour around the studio. We were put in a dark room, directly in front of two massive monitors and asked to fend for ourselves.
We played through the same segment that the press have played through and that we’ve all seen footage of but there’s a difference between watching those videos and experiencing this game for yourself. I stumbled through the abandoned Sevastapol space station, gathering various items that had I been playing the complete game would have formed a part of the crafting system. Whilst we don’t know much about the system at the minute, what we do know is that it will be possible to use this system to create various items to act as distractions.
One of the doors is locked and I’m unable to proceed. I manage to grab a welding tool and start to weld open the emergency release on the one of the doors. Much like in previous Alien (vs. Predator) games, in order to use the welder I merely had to click the button and off it went. The station is dark and creeky. Thankfully I’ve got a torch which I can use (and narrow the beam) to help light the way to my objective – to restore power to the station – but it’s not something I want to be using when the Alien shows up.
Thankfully I find the console I need but I’ve got to hack it. Amanda pulls out the hacking device. I’m not going to lie here, I wasn’t too sure what to do straight off the bat. You use one of the thumb sticks to dial to a frequency that the computer is emitting. It then presents you with an image and you have to pick three of the images it present you to match the image on the screen in order to proceed with the hack. Dachande picked it up straight away but I was looking to fit in the gaps in the image.
Once I succeeded, the power kicks on and then it comes. The moment when the Alien came slinking down from the vents had me mesmerised and I could only watch as the tail dropped to the floor between my legs and the Alien slinked off into the darkness.
For those who were wondering if Amanda Ripley had a speaking part in the game, this cutscene has Amanda whispering “it’s here” into her headset. Her breathing and pounding heartbeat accompany me through the demo, my heart rate mirroring hers.
We’ve all heard about the dynamic AI of the Alien and to see it in action was a terrifying experience. I had foreknowledge of how smart the creature was and I decided to try and outsmart it. I watched the way the Alien went and decided I wanted to keep as far away from it as possible. Checking my map, I saw I could get to my objective in the opposite direction the Alien went. It would be a little longer but it’d be worth it to avoid the goliath extra-terrestrial. The map itself had that low-fi sci-fi feeling that Creative Assembly are very proud to talk about.
I barely made it far before I caused too much noise (try not to run!) and I heard the thudding of a massive creature running towards me. I barely had time to turn around and witness the first of several deaths on my playthrough of Alien Isolation. I watched myself fall the floor, my feet knocked out from underneath me as I was dragged to face the Alien. On one occasion I didn’t even get the chance to turn around and face my would-be extra-terrestrial killer, only hear him steamroll towards me from behind.
Each time I restarted it was like playing a completely different section. I had the freedom to react differently every time. I could try numerous paths and methods of getting to my objective and the Alien would react just as freely as I would. The dynamic nature of the game was impressive. Despite the small area we were actually playing in the game felt open and non-linear.
The dread I felt whenever that blip appeared on my motion tracker is hard to describe. I’m sure a readout of my pulse and heart rate would be a better way of communicating the physical reaction I had when I was crouched behind a small pile of equipment.
It was also possible to hide inside of cabinets and avoid the Alien in there. Whilst I didn’t make my way into the rooms with the cabinets, Dachande did. You had the option of leaning forward to check if the Alien was nearby, or lean back and hold your breath – making sure you made no noise so that the Alien went away.
From my favourite spots behind the piles of equipment, I was given the option to lean over and have a look with a simple press of a button but I did not dare to peak up and see what that hulking creature was doing. My heart jumped every time it looked in my direction and the tension rose when it’s slow, deliberate movements took it towards me.
The sounds played a huge part on the immersion and tension building. There’s something to be said for hearing the Alien when you can’t see it or daren’t look for it. During the tour we were shown the sounds department and spoke to Al Hope (Creative Lead) and Mark Angus (Lead Audio Designer) who showed us various sound elements they were employing in the game.
In particular, I was very fond of the dynamic sound design. With the Alien being an entity unto its own, it would not be possible for the audio engineers to design a score for the game when the Alien wasn’t guaranteed to behave in any particular manner.
To compensate for this Creative Assembly has made the sound react to various trigger elements which includes the players distance from the Alien, the Alien’s environmental awareness and behaviour. For example, the closer the Alien gets to the player, the louder one specific track gets, taking dominance over the ambient background track.
Another element I liked was that the sound was also designed to mirror player focus. When the Alien is close to the player and the player is focusing on nothing other than avoiding the monster, all other sounds become mute and you’re hearing only the Alien, your breathing and the dominant musical track at the time.
Creative Assembly was given access to much of the original sounds from Alien, straight from the 20th Century Fox vault. Al Hope treated us to a recent delivery from Fox and Dachande and I listened to sound engineers from over 30 years ago working on the various musical effects employed in the title credits and from the surface of LV-426.
In the tracks that Al and Mark played for us, it was easy to see where Creative Assembly was making use of the original sounds but blending their own original elements into it. It all worked to very good effect and it made such a fresh changing hearing that suspenseful music over the beating drums of the action games of recent.
Something I didn’t get chance to ask was for the inclusion of that strange and haunting scream/static sound that plays during Alien when Dallas is finally cornered. I hope Creative Assembly read this and consider including that sound when the Alien catches you in the game.
Our hands-on with Isolation came from a segment towards the middle of the game. We had very little idea of where we were narratively with Creative Assembly wanting us to focus on the kind of gameplay they were offering us, not the mystery we would be getting involved with. Much of the story of game remains unknown to us.
We were given a brief synopsis by Dion Lay, narrative designer. It didn’t vary much from what other previews have already revealed but for those who don’t remember – The Sevastapol, a space station owned by a company called Seegson in the process of being decommissioned, is found to be the location of the black box of the Nostromo. A Weyland-Yutani officer called Samuels approaches Amanda Ripley, who in the intervening 15 years had became an engineer under Weyland-Yutani’s employment.
Along with other characters, Amanda Ripley, heads to Sevastapol on the Weyland-Yutani ship the Torrens (Conrad reference for you there!). They find the station completely void of life. They’re unable to communicate with the station and in order to get onboard the crew perform an EVA. Something goes wrong and Ripley becomes separated from the rest of the crew. The story seems to focus around the mystery of the Sevastapol and the Alien’s presence aboard it. As has been previously mentioned, the story was written by Dan Abnett, a writer known for his work with Marvel and on the Warhammer universe.
Dion and Jude Bond (lead artist) also talked a little about what they hoped to accomplish with their character design. Much like Ridley Scott’s Alien felt lived in, Creative Assembly wanted to replicate that sense and feeling with Isolation. The crew are all working class and their designs provide that sense of the weary and tired crew of the future.
Jude showed the level of detail that they had managed to attain for their human characters. He explained that Creative Assembly had discovered a company in Sheffield, England that specialized in using multi-camera rigs to take multiple photos of a face and to construct a photo realistic 3d image. Creative Assembly were then able to convert that image into an in-game asset that retained near photo realistic levels of detail.
Due to the relative ease of creating detailed models this way, Creative Assembly had all their staff provide their likeness for the extra characters in the game. It is their hope to have a completely unique line-up of character models, a hope they’re on their way to achieving.
I’m going to talk more about Creative Assembly’s Alien later on in the preview but during this section of the tour Jude took the time to show us the Alien model that the team had created. Whilst it is not exactly a 100% replica of H.R Giger’s Alien, it’s an immensely detailed model that looked fantastic up close.
Prior to this I’d only had fleeting images of the Alien as it stalked me in the darkness or the released screenshots. Yes, they changed its legs but seeing it up close, I was able to see the biomechanical aspects of its design and it was lovely to see those plugs and bolts integrated into the creature.
Jon McKellan (Lead UI Designer) and Jon Court (Senior Producer) talked us through their design ethic and what they had hoped to achieve. In imaging the world that Alien Isolation would be set in, they decided to try and envision their locations as if Ron Cobb would have. Even in the conceptual phase, much of the artwork was done in a way that looks very reminiscence of Ron Cobb’s original artwork for Alien and I think that shows in the images we have already seen.
Creative Assembly have been trying to conceive a functional world, taking background elements in the film such as the various Cobb decals and bring those to the forefront as something to read and recognize. The intention is that players will recognize logos and use those to navigate around the station.
Using a style that Creative Assembly is dubbing low-fi sci-fi, the design team decided to construct their world and the items within that world with materials that would have been available prior to 1979. This was to retain the kit bashed appearance of Alien. According to McKellan that provided the team with some challenges. One particular example McKellan gave was in envisioning how a hacking tool would look designed with technology in a time before hacking was a concept people were familiar with.
Bringing up the end of the studio tour was none other than the Big Chap himself. This part of the tour focused more on the Alien behaviour and movement with Clive Lindop (lead programmer) and Garry Napper (lead game designer) talking us through it.
Dachande and I were treated to a simplified explanation of the Alien’s behavioural pattern based on its perception of its environment. The flowcharts that they showed us also revealed that the Alien seems to appear in both scripted manners (like the demo we played) and to spawn elsewhere in the map and hunt Amanda down.
We were also shown the level of detail that has gone into the animation and the fluidity that model is capable of with the animation. During this demonstration we also discussed the changes to the Alien’s legs – this was primarily to reduce the feeling of “man-in-a-suit” and with some of the animations I was being shown and the speed in which they were taking the Alien to, I can completely understand.
The animation of the turns and movement changes the Alien was doing at such great speeds looked fantastic with the digigrade legs. All of the animations looked completely fluid and worked so well.
Something I would like to mention is how the pose in which the Alien moves. With Aliens: Colonial Marines we’ve been subjected to the Aliens approaching you from below your eye level, come at you like dogs. To see the way Creative Assembly was having this hulk steamroll towards you, towering above and moving so fast was just imposing.
My experience with the game so far was really positive. I had not expected it to have quite the physical effect it had on me and I honestly don’t know if I’ve got sufficient manhood to be able to sit through an entire game that terrifies me as much as my time with the demo did.
I look forward to seeing how Creative Assembly progresses with the game but I sincerely hope that they continue the way they’re going. I think after recent years that this is the game that the Alien fanbase deserves.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Creative Assembly for inviting us to get a chance to play the game and to speak to the developers. Be sure to check out our interview with Al Hope and Jon McKellen. Also have a listen to Dachande and I’s podcast recalling the visit.
Continue here to find our interview with Creative Assembly about Alien: Isolation.