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Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation

We head into deep space for our third, and biggest slice yet, of survival horror. Can Creative Assembly's title keep us scared that long?

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In the cinematic canon, the third excursion into the Alien universe brought divisiveness. Our second return to Alien: Isolation, via a lengthier hands-on with code that'd form the Gamescom build, is thankfully less disruptive to our preconceptions to Creative Assembly's vision for their low-fi sci-fi adventure.

What new ideas there are, are welcome, as they also feed into the survival horror aspect that defines the first-person experience: you're a long way from safety.

This cut is seemingly early on into the game, as we, as Amanda Ripley, meet with fellow crew members, dialogue suggesting we've just survived our first encounter with the xenomorph. It's the first time with the game that we've encountered friendly NPCs and felt we've a unthreatened moment to absorb our surroundings. It's not to last for long.

Our colleague Taylor's injured, forcing us to explore the confines of the deathly-quiet space station for first aid, which takes us into and through the two previous demo sections, both tweaked and given added context. For a time, as we climb into ventilation shafts and sneak through silent corridors, we feel the relative safety of a brooding score and dark locales. There's nothing hunting us. Yet.

Alien: Isolation

It helps us make time to look around our surroundings and look beyond hiding spots. It's doubtful, unless the game's proper opening gives us a brief flirtation with normality, that we'll wander the station in the presence of friendlies. There's a echo of Hadley's Hope here. Everyday life disrupted, the only sign of life, personal effects left behind. A quick slip into the info-loaded pause menu flags a sub-set list entitled 'Missing Persons'.

We're reminded a little of Rapture, though what devastated colony in gaming doesn't these days? There's the odd voice recorder to salvage, personnel telling their story from beyond the grave. Looters for the moment only tell of their presence through graffiti. We note one prominent inscription: "trust no one", shortly before we hear the quiet whir of surveillance cameras turn their lens on us as we pass, and a male voice echoes out through the speakers, enticing us to follow his directions. Clearly a rampaging Alien isn't the only danger in deep space.

This time we're lead to the facility's medical wing, and a lone doctor locked behind a security door. We're directed to burrow further into the area, which will lead us on a breadcrumb trail chasing pass codes, keycards by searching doctor offices and patient rooms.

We're half-sure there's nothing that'll jump out at us. Yet we take corners slowly, measure each shadow, pull up our motion tracker every few feet. We're playing the horror movie viewer with three decades of experience, awaiting what we know will come. When Sega pegged the demo time as "four hour-ish", it was partly with expectation we'd take it slow. Partly because we'd likely die a lot. We do.

Alien: Isolation

When the Alien appears, its as stylish an entrance as before, spilling slowly out of an overhead vent, giving us time to hide, yet Creative Assembly knowing our eyes wouldn't be going anywhere. It's a wholly cinematic and pre-scripted appearance signalling that into the foreseeable future of the demo, we're going to be constantly hunted.

It gives us a better picture of how this'll play out. On first reveal we'd asked if there'd be clear indicator between 'safe' and 'Alien' sections of the station, and no real answer was given. We've only a handful of moments when we feel anywhere near safe. The first is that opening, the second when we're stuck in a ventless room with a killer synthetic chasing after us, and the third is when we're witnessing the creature kill the doctor as he makes to leave his room. The answer then, is somewhere between rare and never.

Even if you escape this first appearance, ducking along walls, hiding in lockers and tossing noise makers to distract the Alien away from you long enough to enter pass codes to locked areas or making it to elevators, its a constant presence.

At the very least it'll be scuttling through air vents over your head, popping up as a fast moving dot on your motion tracker, but make enough noise and it'll drop out of the nearest vent - no slow reveal second time round, giving you just seconds to try and duck out of view.

It's a dynamic threat. It can appear at any time. As it does just after we've watched a video log on a dead doctor's terminal, dropping directly in front of us without any preamble. When it's in your world, just crossing between rooms without being spotted becomes a Herculean effort.

Alien: Isolation

We find out from Creative Assembly, who are patrolling the room the demo is taking place in, watching multiple monitors (the build on PC with Xbox controllers), that some players have managed to sneak through the station without alerting the Alien once. But to even those, they've emphasised the need to save as much as possible.

The studio's went old school with save points. Automatic checkpoints are galaxies apart, and even the manual save points are few and far between, and none are on the critical path. You mightn't want to explore, but you'll need to. As with crafting items, faux-telephone booths are squirrelled away in side rooms. The game doesn't pause as you save, but at least the booth will flag is enemies are nearby to avoid getting stuck in a constant death loop.

Same with computers, map update terminals, or when you're hacking security gates with a scanner or rerouting power between different nodes. The last forces you to cast eyes between a power-outage screen, displaying how many units you've got to play with, and which systems you've got to toy with, and another screen with a map of their location. With this rewiring terminal you can unlock doors, set alarms or disable the 02 cleaning system, making it harder for the creature, or other enemies, to see you.

We get to see all three of those revealed thus far in action. Looters who'll shoot if you get near, blocking some exits, and forcing you to engage or distract with crafted items such as flash bangs and smoke bombs. You've got a revolver, but given the noise it makes, its the epitome of a last resort option. Damaged synthetics will quietly bludgeon you to death, forcing you to use flame-thrower or EMP device to disable them momentarily. And always that skulking, skittering Xenomorph.

Awareness of a faster moving, fatal threat means we continually case each new room for potential safe spots. Sadly it means we lose the enjoyment of admiring the station's design and look fearfully for our next hiding hole. Nicely though by favouring one particular type, be it lockers or under tables or beds, if you switch to another, the Alien will look in those previous spots, opening locker doors, sweeping under beds.. As long as you're not seen (or heard, as with the case of lockers, forcing you to hold your breath when the Alien comes close by) the Alien won't investigate further. Its a small illusion, but one that adds to the experience.

That four-ish time frame extends to five, but the session ends before we can finish. We check how far we're left to go with Creative Assembly, who guess an extra hour at least, and that's not taking in our snail's pace through the world. This larger chunk suggests we're unlikely to get tired of the constant oppression, and the continual threat covers the fact that - so far - we're simply on a quest trail picking up items, one at a time. Enough to continue our optimism heading into October's release date.

Alien: Isolation