“How was it?” He asked eagerly, already knowing the answer this his hilariously nonchalant query. He stood guard over the curtained hands-on demos Sega was showing off at this year’s E3 convention, watching as people went in slowly, cautiously and came out…different. I had just spent the past half hour playing Alien: Isolation and I knew there was only one answer.
Alien: Isolation is intended to be the Alien game we always wanted. While there have been decent games based on the storied sci-fi franchise (see: 2011’s Aliens Infestation and 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator), many have gone the way of last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, which is to say terribly. Granted, Colonial Marines is deliberately more Aliens than Alien and thus more action-oriented, but it’s still pretty awful.
Isolation is, as its name suggests, about being alone against both the Xenomorph and other unsavory threats. In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, searching for her mother in the time between the films Alien and Aliens. The alien cannot be killed, forcing you to hide as it begins to learn how to more effectively hunt for you.
However, in this demo, instead of playing any of the game that we were treated to in a hands-off theatre demo just prior, I am dropped into what appears to be a challenge mode. Or at least that’s what it most likely is. In the upper left corner is a clock tracking the time it takes you to complete your objective, and it starts off by listing off three optional goals to take 20 or so seconds off of your final time. This includes collecting ID tags and locking down a stairwell and not using your motion tracker.
That last one seems absolutely ludicrous. Taken directly from the films, the motion tracker is a little handheld device that plots moving objects near you which you can pull up by holding down R1, forcing your focus to slim down to the tracker itself, reducing everything else to a fuzzy shroud of danger and darkness. It’s a neat little addition to the mechanic that really highlights how empowered the Xenomorph is and how little knowledge can do to stop the inevitable.
Let’s talk about the inevitable. The challenge starts off in a single room, completely devoid of anything save for a few supplies and a flamethrower. I end up seeing this room a lot. Like, a lot. Towards the end, as sweat simultaneously fuses my hands to the controller and slips the sticks from my thumbs, I skip picking up even a single item. It’s a fruitless exercise.
Your goal, as far as I could tell without completing the challenge, is to make your way from one area to another, start a generator, and then escape as alarms sound and lights flash all around you. It is a wholly terrifying experience. On cue, every time, the alien crosses your vision as you first exit the safety of the starting room. Immediately, I always crouch behind a crate and wait for it to meander away, intently watching the dot on the motion tracker flicker this way and that way as I unintentionally hold my breath.
The way the first area was laid out was such that it formed something like a squared-off tennis racquet with two small air vents connecting small alcoves around either lower corner and the interior expanse taking the form of a room filled with towering server-like structures. My go-to move here was to dash to one of these air vents (which eerily and automatically open aperture-style when anything moves near it, including the Xenomorph), wait for it to settle into an area, and dash along either side to the middle room.
This worked about 80% of the time with the other 20% resulting in the alien catching sight of me, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream, and smashing and clamoring its hardened claws against the clattering and tinny metal ship interior as it sprints straight for me. It is no less scary the twentieth time than the first. It’s pretty great.
In the room, there’s a chance for you to dash to the next area, but the safer bet is to hide in one of the nearby lockers, offering you one last moment of solace before embarking on the next half of the challenge. Oh, did I say solace? I meant regret. When the alien comes by and you see it snarling—dripping its gloopy drool from its shimmering fangs—through the vents, you can pull back on the stick to move further away, implementing an in-game representation of a natural reaction, one akin to leaning in a shooter to dodge an incoming headshot.
More than that, you can also press a button to hold your breath, something we see in the hands-off demo just before, with your vision blurring and your heart thumping with a vengeance as you keep holding. Unfortunately, there is no tutorial prompt telling you how to do this in the challenge, so I just pull so hard back on the stick that I fear I’ll snap it right off, holding my own breath instead of this unfortunate Ripley’s.
Luckily, the one time the alien chooses to hover around, incessantly crossing back and forth before me, he doesn’t quite smell the probably fragrant human fear emanating from my and Amanda’s body. But crossing into the next area does little to reduce my constant paranoia. There is just about no time to which I am not crouching and not seeking a table or locker or something to hide behind or beneath. It’s a largely open corridor with slightly segmented rooms making up its length, the one furthest away housing the generator (obviously).
Needless to say, I never quite make it to the end. I manage to turn on the generator quite a few times, but then the whole place seems to go into Freak The Fuck Out mode, where every alarm and every light ever made in the history of the universe goes off and draws the alien into what I can only assume is an increasingly soured mood. First he spots me under a table. Then he catches me trying to make a run for it. And then he somehow sneaks up behind me. And then and then and then…
I set the controller down, truly impressed with what I’ve played of Alien: Isolation, which comes out later this year on October 7. The overbearing threat, though singular in its number, is entirely unsettling. You can thrive on the only tools you are given and nothing more, though the supplies will probably come in handy in other encounters. The sound design is crucial, shaking every part of you when you hear that shrill cry and the floor-crunching stomps coming your way.
As I step out from the darkened area, I manage to reply to the sadistic fellow.