Within the first ten minutes of my time with Alien: Isolation, the eponymous alien had thoroughly mauled me to death not once, not twice, but three times. I was frustrated, I was tense, and frankly, I was a little embarrassed. Still, there was no question in my mind about whether or not I wanted another go at it. Please sir, I want some more.
I never did finish that E3 demo that SEGA had set up, and taking a peek at neighboring screens, it didn’t look like I had even gotten close. Despite that, Isolation was quite possibly the highlight of the day for me, and easily the most memorable experience I’ve had at this year’s expo so far.
For those not savvy on the project, Alien: Isolation is a Creative Assembly game set in the universe of the Alien films, taking place 15 years after the events of the first movie. You play as Amanda, the daughter of the film series’ heroine Ellen Ripley, investigating a space station in search of her mother. Of course, things go terribly wrong upon discovering that said space station is now home to one hungry alien.
To clarify, that is definitely “alien” in the singular sense. There’s only one enemy in this game: a surprisingly clever AI-controlled monster that stalks you through the ship using sight, sound, and smell. Forget any ideas about blasting your way through with a sci-fi arsenal though. Your best, and really only, recourse is stealth. You have access to weapons, but they’re only mildly effective at discouraging your hunter, and if it catches you, it’s a grisly game over.
To aid you in evading this beastie, you’re given a motion tracker, which can be used to pinpoint its current location; although this creates both light and noise, neither of which is something you want. Otherwise, it’s an hardcore game of cat and mouse, with shadows, the underside of tables, and lockers as your new best friends.
I ended up playing around 20 or so minutes of the demo before ceding my spot to a growing line of people behind me. As I walked away, my heart was racing, my stomach hurt, and I struggled to stop my hands from shaking. I genuinely felt physically ill, and yet, I can’t wait to do it all over again.
Alien: Isolation might just be the scariest game I’ve ever played, and not for any of the reasons horror games before it have frightened me. Until more people get their hands on it, the comparison that’s going to be thrown around a lot is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but that’s not fair in the least bit.
Amnesia was damn scary, don’t get me wrong, but the monsters never felt real. They were threatening, certainly, and hiding from them was absolutely tense; but I never got the impression that left to their own devices, they would ever stray from their fairly predictable patterns and patrols.
On the other hand, your nemesis in Alien: Isolation feels all too real. You’ll hear it moving through the ventilation shafts, plotting its course with an objective in mind. You’ll occasionally catch brief, furtive glances at it from behind corners, and you can see it pause, thinking, considering its next move. You wonder if you’ve made any mistakes. Did I leave a door open that it will want to investigate? Is it here by coincidence, or did I make too much noise? Should I chance creeping towards a locker for a better hiding spot? If I make a run for it, do I have enough juice in this flamethrower to get it off my tail?
It’s these sort of uncertainties, moment to moment, that give the game a true sense of dynamism. No run-through will play the same, not because of randomized events or procedurally generated content, but because going head to head with this alien means that two thinking, feeling beings are competing against each other with the highest of stakes.
For me, the tone that this sets radically raises the bar for interactive horror, creating a level of suspense, immersion, and in the end, dramatic force that just wouldn’t be possible in a singleplayer experience without a superhuman level of suspension of disbelief. There are moments in the game where you can have Amanda hold her breath as the alien creeps by, and I couldn’t help but hold my own breath too. I jumped, I shouted, I swore, losing myself in the experience, and completely forgetting the fact that I was probably frightening the poor people just trying to walk past the booth.
But I couldn’t help myself. Evading the creature in Isolation felt like a confrontation with a real monster; one that could think, make decisions, and eerily enough, learn from its mistakes. Because of this, and despite my many, many deaths, I never felt cheated. I never felt like the game had sprung a “Gotcha!” moment, throwing a predetermined scare at me from the shadows. Instead, I could recognize when I misplayed, got too impatient, or was caught unaware of my surroundings. I was learning as well, adapting and becoming smarter and more capable with each and every try.
There’s a level of challenge, and ultimately satisfaction, that comes with that; a complexity in my relationship with this AI-controlled opponent that I had never experienced before. As inane as it sounds, I got the impression that we both had something to prove, and today, I came away on the losing end.
Alien: Isolation was difficult, no doubt, and unquestionably pretty taxing on my mental stamina; but I’ll be back, and whether it takes 10 tries or 100, I’m going to beat that monster, and I’m going to feel damn good doing it.