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Hands-On: Alien: Isolation

Posted on March 19, 2014 AT 12:07pm

Nightmare mode

Alien: Isolation won’t be out until the end of the year, but I can already assure you of two things that will likely put your mind at ease.

First, the game you play this fall will look every bit as good as the videos and screenshots you’ve seen. There’s no Colonial Marines–style trickery here—I’ve played the game on actual PS4 hardware that was sitting inches in front of me. My clumsy fingers accidentally hit the Share button, and the familiar interface popped up, just to make that fact unquestionably clear. From a technical standpoint, Isolation is the real deal.

Second—and far more important in the long run—this is a genuinely scary game. The segment I played, set somewhere in the middle of the story, wasn’t any scripted haunted house filled with toothless, telegraphed jump scares. Instead, it was a brilliant distillation of feeling weak and hunted, of being thoroughly and terrifyingly outmatched.

It should come as no surprise that the object of all this fright is the titular alien, a 9-foot behemoth that happens to be the single largest in the history of the franchise. While the entire game won’t be centered around simply evading him again and again—developer The Creative Assembly has mentioned other human survivors on the space station to interact with, some less than friendly—he’s clearly the star of the show. When he shows up, the mood changes from the eerie emptiness of exploring and looting abandoned facilities to paralyzing risk. You can hear his snarls, the rattle of his movements, and, of course, those frenzied beeps as the motion tracker tells you he approaches. Even when he’s not onscreen, you can still feel his presence. Good thing, too, because if he is onscreen, it’s exceedingly likely that he’s about to notice you, run over, and reconfigure your internal organs.

Yes, this will not be an easy or empowering game, at least not when you find yourself  trapped in an area with the alien. Death is instant and, if you’re not careful, frequent. The feel of the gameplay might best be described as stealth, but there’s a perverse inversion of the formula at play. In most situations, stealth gives you the upper hand by granting you the edge in awareness. You can see in the dark when they can’t. You can crouch-walk silently inches away from a clueless guard. Most crucially, you can predict behaviors.

Isolation is having none of that. You want to sneak a peek at the Xenomorph from your dark corner? Best make it quick, because he can see in the dark. Want to hide in a locker as he walks by? He can hear you breathing, so you’d better be ready to take a lungful, hold it, and pray he’s gone before you run out of air. Better yet, make sure he can’t see or hear the locker open, because he’s smart enough to know that means you’re inside, even if that desk you were crouched behind meant he couldn’t spot your directly. In almost every respect, he has the upper hand.

Your one saving grace is the motion tracker, its constant stream of bleeps thankfully silent to the alien. Even still, it’s less of an equalizer and more of a slight comfort. While it’s out, you need to decide whether to focus your eyes on the screen or the world in front of you—a button press toggles between the two. The depth of field blur isn’t debilitating, but it’s enough to miss a shadow or a flick of a tail that might be your cue to hide. Even with your full attention, its limited readout can’t tell you whether he’s above the ceiling, below the floor, or making a beeline straight for you in the room. And when that blip disappears, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s gone and you’re safe. He could just as easily be stopping to listen or stalking you too slowly for the tracker to detect.

When the odds are pitched so heavily against you, it’s easy to expect that the game might simply collapse into a mess of trial and error that allows you to learn the safe route and simply cheese through after a few deaths. Not so here. Because The Creative Assembly has scripted so few of the Xeno’s behaviors, he’ll rarely behave the same way twice. All of his actions are the byproduct of AI that makes emergent decisions based on what the alien can see, hear, and smell. Most worryingly, I’m told he’ll actually be able to learn from his failures and adapt his approach for your next encounter, making a particular trick less effective the second time around. Given the scope of the demo, that’s a feature I couldn’t witness firsthand, and it’s admittedly one that almost sounds too good to be true. But if it all comes together as advertised, Isolation should deliver something that’s less about memorization and more about awareness, hopefully preventing repeated deaths and subsequent playthroughs from deflating the sense of fear.

Even still, that punishing lethality will likely turn some players off. It’s clear, after going hands-on, that this won’t be a game for everyone—not by a long shot. But if you’re someone who enjoyed turning out the lights, throwing on a pair of headphones, and playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent with your heart pummeling into your ribcage, Isolation is definitely a game to keep an eye on. This is a big-budget, high-quality attempt to refine and expand upon those same design principles of terror, tension, and powerlessness. It’s survival-horror that understands a single moment of unbridled panic, executed correctly, can offer more excitement than a thousand spent bullets.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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