There's a reason that the first word in the next game based on 20th Century Fox's sci-fi horror franchise is singular. Alien: Isolation will be taking its cues from Ridley Scott's slower, more atmospheric 1979 original. That means no space marines and no P5000 power loader. Just you and one big, scary Xenomorph. Which you won't be able to kill.
Isolation happens 15 years after the first Alien movie. It's set on a derelict space station called the Sevostopol where lead character Amanda Ripley must hide from one Xenomorph. Desperate for answers as to what happened to her mother — who, of course, is Ellen Ripley, heroine of the Alien/Aliens movies — Amanda is on the Sevostopol as part of a mission to retrieve the black box flight recorder from the Nostromo. (The clips that follow have been provided by Sega. They're from the same, work-in-progress section of the game that I played.)
Seeing as how it will be coming one year after the widely panned Colonial Marines, Isolation has a lot riding on it. It's Sega's last hope to cash in on any remaining goodwill players might have for a title set in the Alien universe. To do that, developer Creative Assembly has focused their efforts away from the sweaty, screamy, shooty milieu of Aliens, pinning their game to Alien. Lead designer Al Hope said he's noticed that both the role and the size of the Xenomorphs diminishes over time in the film series and that Creative Assembly wants to restore menace to the iconic extraterrestrial species.
The section of Isolation that I played through is from a level about halfway through the game. Amanda must make her way through a darkened section of the Sevostopol to hack an override command into the control network and power on a section of a research lab. The efforts to create a sense of dread were clear: flickering lights, the groaning strains of metal and eviscerated android bodies. With detritus everywhere and the occasional flickering terminal screen awaiting input, the Sevostopol felt lived in. It felt "died in" too. At one point, I got to look out a window at the stars outside, a beautiful moment that drove home just how alone and stranded Amanda is.
The hacking minigame offered a little twist to how such challenges are usually presented. Instead of words, I was given a set of pictogram symbols to match in sequence as a timer ran down. There was no threat bearing down on me in the instance I played but I can see that feature getting appended to moments when the Xenomorph is right on Amanda's tail.
Over the course of the 10 minutes or so that I played, I jumped a lot. When lights suddenly went out, when unidentified liquid dripped from grates overhead, when I crept by empty spacesuits. I was already feeling like the Xenomorph was all around me before I actually encountered it. The sound design is great, environmental noise mixed with moody tones and barely-there music.
And when it happened, that encounter was incredibly nerve-racking. From the instant that the Xeno dropped down from the ceiling and unfurled itself, I knew Amanda's feeble melee swing wouldn't stand a chance against it. Hiding's a necessity in Isolation. You can crouch under tables, duck behind corners and squeeze inside closets or lockers. There's a peek feature that will let you lean around cover but it will expose you. When you're hidden, you'll need to use the motion tracker — familiar from the films — to locate where the Xeno is.
Keeping it in the detection cone is key, as it's the only way you'll ever know where he is. Moving silently and watching the tracker at the same time felt like a morbid dance, where my eyes and body needed to be doing different things at the same time. Further complicating matters, using the motion tracker blurs the background so that you won't have as good a grasp on your surroundings. Oh, and opening hiding spaces when the Xeno's too close will make enough noise to alert it.
The Xeno's stalking isn't pattern-based, meaning that it will track you down differently every time. Getting detected by him is instadeath; there's no running away from it once it locks onto you. There's a small reaction window that you can take advantage of as it starts to turn its head or before it's totally sure of where you are, though.
Part of the cat-and-mouse tension in Isolation comes from wanting to see where the Xeno is while simultaneously knowing that's the worst thing you can do. If you can see it, it can see you. So you have to move around using a sort of machine intuition and getting only quick glimpses.
Hope said that there'll be a crafting system in Isolation but stressed that you'll be finding or building things to change the odds, not create a Xeno-killer. Creeping around the Xenomorph reminded me of the first time I saw a Big Daddy in BioShock 1. The difference here is that Amanda won't have any powers or weapons to take out her oversized hunter. All she can do is survive.