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
"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
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.
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?