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Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation - the Aliens title we deserve?

Just before the end of 2013, we were invited to Horsham, England, to see the latest product of Sega's collaboration with the Alien movie licence. Banish Colonial Marines from your mind - this is how you do sci-fi horror right.

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It's been rumoured, and had select artwork leaked prior to today, but as of now it's finally official: there's a brand new Alien title in the works.

That it's a first-person adventure isn't surprising, but the studio behind its creation may be; Creative Assembly, the UK studio more known for its RTS franchise Total War. Equally so may the genre; the studio's console team - who's last work was 2008's hack 'n' slash title Viking: Battle for Asgard - is turning its hand to survival horror.

Publisher Sega's assembled a collection of journalists at the studio's offices in England. The press are excited, the developers nervous. This is the first time anyone outside the studio's been shown the game.

We expect an extensive presentation, a hands-off demo. What we get is one of the shortest talks ever. Zero screens, just concept ideas. And then we're surprisingly given free reign over a twenty minute demo - the team are eager for the game to do the talking.

Thankfully, what we see and play is looking bloody marvellous, with both Creative Assembly and publisher Sega eager to flush the shit stain that was Aliens: Colonial Marines down the toilet and round the amnesia U-bend.

That even Gearbox's critically-panned title could leap back into the UKIE's multi-format sales chart top 20 this week proves that there's still interest in the thirty-five year old sci-fi franchise. Isolation is everything that the buggy, poorly-designed train wreck that is Colonial Marines isn't. An extremely promising first hands-on, and an extremely slick studio tour afterwards suggest this is the Alien tie-in title we've been waiting three decades for. This is the franchise extension fans deserve.

THE TRANSMISSION TRAILER

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ALIEN: RESSURECTION

Alien: Isolation
Say hello the original and best - Isolation uses the 1979 Giger design for its creature, and with good reason...

"We came at this with the vision to do something different, that what had come before," explains project creative lead Alistair Hope. "Games in the franchise had always looked towards 'the many'. You and a bunch of guys against hundreds of thousands of Aliens. It felt like there had to be another interaction for the player, another interaction with this creature."

The answer, Al explains in the opening presentation, was to go back to the franchise roots. A singular Xenomorph. Director Ridley Scott's vision. "The haunted house in space," Hope states.

Alien, not Aliens. That lack of plural in the title clearly emphasises the franchise entry Isolation favours for inspiration. Creative Assembly eschews Cameron's sci-fi war for Scott's space terror. The original's director always pictured a more realistic future encounter in low-tech, sci-fi jargon free surroundings. Working stiffs with no weaponry overwhelmed by an extraterrestrial threat. No marines, no hardware, just, as Scott put it, 'truckers in space'. Creative Assembly have re-embraced that concept and imagined it via the only genre that'd suit: survival horror.

Of course, they had to get the idea green-lit first.

UI Lead Jon McKellan explains that while the dust was settling from Viking: Battle of Asgard, the team got wind of Sega having the Alien licence. "It was a case of 'we could do something with this... it's a once in a lifetime opportunity'. It was all about whether we could go back to that first Alien - everyone else is looking at Aliens," he remembers.

"So in about six weeks we put together this demo concept, a mood piece, that featured a lot of alien architecture... and at the end you faced this enormous Alien. We showed it to Sega, and it went viral [within the company]." It seemed the pitch was an easy sell even to the licence holders. "We went to Fox," Jon says, "with this proposition for this game, and Fox went 'yea, this is great. Let's do this'."

KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY

Alien: Isolation
A motion tracker replaces a on-screen HUD, and is your only saving grace in working out whereabouts your objectives, and more importantly, your Alien stalker is.

As with Gearbox and their story pitch for Colonial Marines, Creative Assembly sketched out an unexplored element to the universe that sits within the existing time frame and is tied to the cinematic entries. The developer spends most of its opening ten minute presentation talking the broad strokes of the concept behind the game's creation that attests to the importance of embracing Scott's vision, but little on the actual story. What we are teased with offers a smart angle with a bold choice for central lead - a familiar name, if an unfamiliar face.

"We were never going to make the game of the movie," McKellan states when we sit down with him and Hope post-tour. "We had to make something that was close to it, and inspired by all of that." That lead to the team trying to brainstorm a logical 'in' to fit into the existing universe, which lead to a single question. "The Nostromo's gone missing. Who cares? Who'd care about that? Who'd want to know about that?"

It's fifteen years after the events of the 1979 film. Fifteen years after Ellen Ripley blew the xenomorph that killed her crew "out of the goddamn airlock" of her escape shuttle during the original film's climax. Both she and that craft are drifting lost in space, still several decades from being discovered.

The Nostromo's flight recorder - apparently ejected before the mining ship self-destructs - has been recovered. The exact how and the repercussions of its discovery are yet unknown, but one person who is notified of its recovery, and who manages to wrangle her way on board a Company charter to the station were the recorder's being held, is Ripley's daughter, Amanda. Needless to say things do not go as expected, as there's something else on the station, namely a hulking Xenomorph intent on wiping out the station's populace.

"What happens now? That was an exciting escalation," says McKellan of introducing Amanda as the game's protagonist. "The instant reaction was that Fox would never let us touch Amanda Ripley - she's far too important. But Fox thought it was really cool."

Anyone that's watched Aliens, especially the Director's Cut, will know that a half-century later Ellen Ripley's informed of her daughter's death, just a couple of years before Ellen's found and reawakened, and is handed a single photo of her daughter - a snapshot of an elderly woman Ellen never knew.

If Isolation is to be treated as canon - and it is - that insinuates that whatever the outcome, Amanda survives her own Alien encounter. Alistair Hope just smiles.

"When you're not a particularly reputable company," he explains of the Alien franchise's true evil - the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, "and Ripley's told this by someone particularly duplicitous [Company man and all-round asshole Carter Burke]... is it really her [in the picture]?"

It's an intriguing thought. Hope immediately twists it further. "I'm not saying that's the case. It may be true, but there's sixty years there. No-one's told this story, which we should be telling."

And in one easy twist, the studio's added another layer to the Alien mythos, and enriched their story with an authenticity tied directly to the franchise's leading lady.

There's potentially more. The other burning question is how an Alien is aboard the space station. The obvious, easy, choice is that there was another until-now unknown trip to the Alien derelict on LV-426, before the planet it's stranded on was terraformed and colonised.

However, there's a more complicated, yet thematically stronger explanation. Given that the studio's emphasis on Amanda facing "the original Alien" in the Origins documentary (below), you have to wonder if whatever team that picked up the Nostromo's black box found something else left floating in deep space - the original Alien was jettisoned but not destroyed.

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How much more gravitas would Isolation offer if Amanda was confronted by the very same Xenomorph that wiped out the Nostromo's crew and seemingly killed her mother?

Too far-fetched? We're not the only ones to think about that. There's an art piece in Crazy 4 Cult's Cult Movie Art Book 2, released a couple of years ago, that shows just that: the Alien floating away from the escape shuttle. Who knows?

THE CAST, COSTUMES AND CONCEPTS

Alien: Isolation
Creative have used facial capture to create the principal cast of Isolation - and rather nicely used the technology to capture the entire development team, who's faces will be used for random NPCs aboard the station.
Alien: Isolation
Ellen Ripley's design hasn't been based on Sigourney Weaver - it's just by chance that the actress used for facial capture happened to have a similar likeness to the franchise's leading lady.
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Outfits and spacesuits have been iterated out of the original Alien costume designs. The team have created multiple outfits which are randomly pulled together on NPCs to create a much more diverse - and real - line up of people aboard the station.

IN HORSHAM, EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM...

And with the reveal of who we'll be playing as, our collected conference room of journalists are led into adjoining cubicles and sat down to our first look - and hands-on - with what Creative Assembly have been crafting these past three years.

What we play is a incredibly short slice of game, set some way through Isolation's story. As the first door of the first tight corridor (rather than scale areas 1.5 times the size as is traditional in FPS titles, the team have kept the dimensions accurate to the character to enforce claustrophobia) opens, we can't help but grin. An iconic audio cue sounds, and we pace into a rec room that's visually familiar to where John Hurt's character meets his grizzly end aboard the Nostromo and the true horror of the film begins.

Alien: Isolation
Mess hall designs - and in fact, the entire station - are heavily influenced by the look and feel of the movie's Nostromo.

There's an almost grainy filter over everything, something that's intentional to keep the look as close to the feel of the original film, the team explain, though, as with everything else, it's being tweaked.

While the studio has utilised the original film's score, along with audio clips sourced from 1979 recordings (discovered while trawling 20th Century Fox's archives), as with the movie, it's kept to a minimum. Discordant sounds filter into the ears, there's the flicker of air-con, the clunk of boots on metal walkways. The environment's soaked in atmosphere.

We've been told what we're to encounter, but not when, not how. Expectation spikes the heart rate.

We pace through a handful of quiet rooms, all flickering lights and stepping over the odd eviscerated body - both human and android - and use our flashlight to alter the light from tight beam to wide cone.

We head into a lab to hack into a computer, a beast of a machine with raised keyboards and flickering screens. All technology's been designed to fit the 70s era in which Alien's future tech was envisioned ("a world which is clunky, chunky, you push buttons that might not work," says Hope of prescribing to the authenticity of the original and avoiding the slick tech of side-prequel Prometheus), with the team making a conscious decision not to draw any inspiration from technology beyond 1979 when designing new equipment and architecture.

It's now that Creative Assembly decide to introduce us to the centrepiece of the experience; an encounter with a single, hulking, lightning-fast Alien. An encounter we've to survive with only a rudimentary motion tracker as protection.

ORIGINAL HORROR

Alien: Isolation
Clunky keyboards, dodgy computer screens... and one very familiar encounter.

What happens next is survival horror boiled down to its truest essence. Isolation's more akin to the slow-burn Japanese horror games than the emboldened trigger-happy direction the West's taken the genre in the past decade. Creative Assembly talk about the low frequency / high impact of these encounters, building the dread before pouncing the xenomorph on you ("it has to be about this tension and release," McKellan says of the game's pacing).

This Alien is Giger in design, rather than the redone Cameron creature (prominent difference: that elongated head dome). Its introduction, its tail suddenly dropping onto the computer we're working at, with the rest of its body slowly unraveling out of an overhead panel before it drops gracefully down, is a nice nod to its 1979 reveal.

But its movement is wholly the creation of Creative Assembly, who've had to fill in the blanks that cinema could get away with quick cuts and camera angles previously. During the studio tour after our play test, we're shown an impressive computer model of the Alien put through its paces as the creature is set to varying speeds.

Far from the wall-hugging, skittering insect type seen in Aliens, the studio's take is a hulking, ever-tense aggressor that pounds with the weight of an elephant on the metal walkways, but can hit cheetah speed upon spotting a threat. The first time this happens to us, as we pop our head up from behind a wall, scares us shitless. The sudden jerks of those playing around us proves we're not alone.

Creative Assembly have got that iconic screech just right. The vibrations of the creature's footfalls, reenforced not just through the rumble of the PS4 controller but the muscle-deadening bass that thrums out the in-built speakers of the gaming chair we're sitting on, causes us to start to sweat in fear. By session's end, our shirt is soaked through.

CAVEWOMAN VS THE PERFECT ORGANISM

Alien: Isolation
The short section we played centred around one alien encounter, as we tried to escape an oval area with multiple rooms and walkways as the Alien patrolled around, seeking prey.

This giant death dealer cannot be killed, only avoided. We've only a rudimentary motion tracker as aid. When we ask whether there'll be any other tools, the team skate round the issue. They confer, admitting as vaguely as possible that there'll be a crafting system in the game, using items you pick up within the world, but for us not to expect to rely on these creations to protect us all the time. The Alien will learn.

"You might use [the tools] once, then the Alien will react exactly as you want it to react. But it won't react to that again," McKellan admits.

"You'll think of a couple of different techniques that you can string together," Hope continues. "You combine a few things - 'I'm going to do this, and that. And it works. That's cool, I'll remember that'. Next time, the Alien doesn't fall for that. It doesn't mean that thing will never work again, but you can't spam it over and over again and expect to win. It's an intelligent creature. It'll adapt. It'll get frustrated, just as you will, and try different approaches." It's the cavewoman versus the perfect organism. You're outclassed in every way.

But for the sake of this demo, we've only the motion tracker, and a general direction in which to head in order to escape the area. Bulkier than what the UNSC have, the tracker must be manually pulled into view with a press of a button. It takes up the lower quarter of the screen, and depth of field pulls everything else out of focus as you look at it. As with the films, it only gives a rough approximation to a threat's location, and doesn't take into account air ducts or service shafts. Your death could literally be coming out of the walls.

One concession, which doubles as a nicely subtle GPS, is the outer rim of the tracker. This will flash to indicate the direction of your next objective, or a nearing threat. While the mission mainly had us locating and flipping some switches, it's the latter we're most preoccupied with.

Being spotted is effectively a game over. Stealth and avoidance is key to survival. The Alien's perception is based on movement and sound. Move within its line of sight - even poke your head around a corner in a well lit area - and you're dead, via a quick cut-scene of the Alien dispatching you in any one of a number of horrific ways. It's the same if you try and run or walk nearby to where its roaming.

You're forced to skulk, plan your route via crouch-crawl and through a path of darkened areas, low walls and empty lockers (this last forces you to hold your breath and pull back from the door as the Alien paces nearby).

The team emphasise that encounters aren't pre-scripted. "It's not any prescribed paths or patterns," Hope says. "It's reacting to your actions," and goes on to explain how even in demoing it shareholders and the team with new builds have lead to unexpected deaths. McKellan akins it to the feeling of encountering Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. "This thing is coming for me," he explains, the relentless pursuit horrifying in itself.

Alien: Isolation
Tech is low-fi sci-fi, keeping in line with the original film, and the idea of working stiffs in space. It makes it much more realistic, and terrifying.

And it is, on first run, terrifying. The developers give us an hour, and it takes at least a quarter of that to clock through the section. The first few deaths are quick, horrifying. But then, as the kill count stacks, a certain clear-headiness from familiarity settles in. The heart rate is still high, but the suspense diminishes. Each play drops the Alien somewhere new, but the rules of engagement remain the same. In the aftermath, discussion turns to how the team can maintain the tension, the surprise, the terror, throughout the game.

"The Alien has no problem navigating the world," Hope replies when we query it sticking to walkways in its patrols, disappearing into vents only to drop immediately elsewhere on the level. He hints that a wall between you and it isn't the simple solace it seems to be. McKellan broadens the idea. "Sometimes you can do something you feel is safe, then the Alien will do something different, catch you off guard, throw you."

Whether such encounters are too obviously signposted is another issue, the unpredictability of the movie a big part of making the viewer feel constantly unsafe. That, we don't get an answer for, but there's a sense that the team are polishing and refining the experience to make it as seamless as possible. The game's already finished from start to end, with the studio adding window dressing, lighting, and getting "the balancing right, get the pacing right - get people playing it" to make sure it's the ultimate homage to Alien, and a damn scary play in its own right.

It's clear despite how open and welcoming the team are at today's event, they're holding a lot back. Questions on specifics beyond what's shown today are meet with vague responses. This is the barest slither of gameplay, and even then you can tell the studio are nervous about finally showing off what they've been working on.

"Part of the nervousness of having you guys here is that you're seeing a work in progress," McKellan admits when we query a small detail in the Alien's design. "We're still on the journey... we're still fine-tuning it."

They want it to be authentic, the real deal. So do we. On first impressions, it looks like they've nailed it. The game's release later this year cannot come fast enough.

Alien: Isolation will release on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC 'late 2014'.

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REVIEW. Written by Gillen McAllister

"Only Rocksteady's Arkham series matches its quality in licence representation, though Isolation arguably betters Arkham for retaining the purity of its vision."

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