Weapons are never the solution in Alien Isolation
"It's absolutely not a shooter..."
In Alien Isolation, the first-person survival horror game from Creative Assembly, you end up carrying a revolver - at one point you can even pick up a flamethrower - and as you're exploring the giant, decommissioned trading space station Sevastopol, slowly, as silently as possible, you bump into other humans. That's what happens to me when I play the game's newest playable level, lifted from a section set further into the game than those previously shown. As I skulk around the ruined corridors of the spaceship, all of a sudden I find myself face to face with a man.
He isn't happy.
You'd think he'd be delighted to see a friendly face, given there's a seething 10-foot-tall Alien stomping around, probably close by. But no. He tells me to do one. This is his room that he's boarded up and I can't share it. No, he doesn't care that we should probably work together if we want to live. Just piss off! Still crouching, I draw my revolver. "Be quiet you idiot!" I want to whisper. It will hear you. And then he does something dumb. He tries to shoot me. So I run away. Into a nearby room. And hide in a locker, peeking out through the slits in the grating.
Then the hissing begins.
It doesn't take long for the Alien to arrive. I struggle to see everything that goes on, but I can hear it. The Alien pounces and tears him to shreds. Then it leaps into the shaft above. The commotion draws another human into the area. Bad move. A few seconds later, the Alien emerges again. Squelch, scream, blood, done for. Then the Alien comes into my room. Thump... thump... thump... hissing, sniffing, searching, hunting. I have a flamethrower, I think. Why not leap out and burn its face off?
But I can't. I'm paralysed with real fear.
Eventually the Alien leaves. A couple of minutes later, I open the locker door, immediately crouched, and inch my way out of the room. Ah, the blood. Lovely.
Before the lights went out, before the headphones went over my ears, I'd heard rumblings about other humans in Alien Isolation. And I'd heard rumblings about you getting a gun at some point in the game. I thought it was just you, aka Amanda Ripley, versus the Alien and the odd de-pressurised cabin. Turns out there are other humans, some hostile, like my unfortunate chap, some ambivalent and some friendly. How they react to you is as random as how you react to them.
In the level I play, which charges me with, essentially, turning the power back on so I can open a door, I also have a revolver and a flamethrower in my inventory, and even a couple of Molotov cocktails, which I craft using, you guessed it, the crafting system. The crafting system does what it says on the tin. Scrap, which you spend crafting something, is scattered throughout the game, as are various materials you need for each item: ethanol, batteries, explosives, containers, sharp blades, gel and adhesive.
There's a touch of risk/reward to the crafting. Most items share required materials, so you have to make a choice. Do I craft a noisemaker? Or a med-kit? Or maybe a Molotov cocktail? Screw it, I need an EMP. The decision is yours. And of course crafting doesn't pause the game, so when you're in the thick of it and you need that med-kit now, you'd better be tucked safely behind a bulkhead.
If there are other humans, then, and you have guns to play with, perhaps maybe we've been misled all along and Alien Isolation is actually a first-person shooter and not a true survival horror?
Not a chance. I have all this gear in my inventory, but I still cower underneath things, behind things, inside things and, during one particularly embarrassing fail, on something. Every time that iconic motion tracker makes that dreadful noise I think, you know what, why don't I take this bloody thing on? Why don't I shoot it in the face? Or burn its legs off? That's what I would do in Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game in which the Aliens are as likely to break out into a glitch-fuelled dance as they are tear your head off.
Each time I don't, because with Alien Isolation there's an understanding as instinctive as the Alien's desire to eat your face: guns are a bad idea, and if you fire one you're already dead.
They just make too much noise. The Alien hears everything, no matter where it is. Shoot someone with your revolver and, yes, you've dealt with him or her, but you better believe the Alien is coming. And shooting at the Alien when it arrives is pointless. The Alien can't be killed with such trivial toys. I'm not even sure it can be killed at all.
So you have to be smart about it. If you bump into another human and it's hostile, you need to work out how to deal with it without shooting yourself in the foot. Make some noise then run away and wait it out. Fire your gun, then run away and wait it out. Set something on fire, then run away and... you get the idea. Like a professional coward, I do a lot of running away and waiting it out.
The weapons in Alien Isolation, then, aren't for shooting people - they're for helping you to survive. It's pretty odd, in a way, and not very video game. But it's entirely deliberate, lead artist Jude Bond tells me.
"It's absolutely not a shooter," he stresses. "The weapons are never the solution. They can be part of the solution but you're not going to win the game with them. That ain't gonna happen. They're almost a hindrance rather than a help."
It all goes back to that first Alien movie and Ripley's desperate struggle for survival. Before writing this preview I watched the film again, just for a refresh (it's just as powerful today as it was then), and while the crew doesn't have access to a revolver, there are flamethrowers about, a rudimentary motion tracker that looks a little like a leaf blower, and what is essentially a cattle prod. None of that stuff does them any good. In the end (er, spoilers), Ripley still has to blow the Alien out of the god damn airlock.
In Alien Isolation you have a motion tracker, but really all it's good for is letting you know how close to death you are. Your wits keep you alive, and how smartly you deploy your equipment.
Another example: in the power plant are two consoles that are offline. To activate them you need to charge up two generators, on either side of the room. Between them is a synthetic - sorry, artificial person - in a tube, with its cold, blue eyes staring blankly at you. It's obvious, isn't it? When I turn the power on this thing is going to wake up. And then what? Hostile? Ambivalent? Friendly?
Hostile. It walks calmly towards me and tries to strangle me, telling me I'm hysterical. Yes I am bloody well hysterical! If it grabs a hold of you, you can mash a button to escape, but the damage has already been done and you're unlikely to survive another attack. All the while lights are flashing and an alarm is blasting. Oh god, the Alien is going to turn up soon, and I have a murderous, psychopathic synthetic trying to strangle me to death.
What's the solution? There are a few apparently. Mine is to lob an EMP at his feet, stunning him for a few precious seconds - enough time to make my escape! Oh, the Alien is outside. Well, I'll hide then. The Alien will come in and deal with the synthetic and then bugger off.
It ignores the synthetic.
So, another look inside the inventory. In true here's-one-I-made-earlier fashion, I have a soundmaker, a couple of flares and a Molotov cocktail. If I lob a soundmaker over the Alien's shoulder, I think, perhaps it will be drawn to it, then if I time my crouched escape just right, I'll avoid the synthetic blue glare. I give it a shot, then make a run for it.
Winding through corridors, some barely lit, others with flickering light, crashing into crates, stumbling into overturned chairs, past a corpse, trying to get to the objective marker, towards the door that was previously sealed, and I can hear the hiss of the Alien behind me. But I make it. I open the door and trigger a cut-scene. I've done it! I've survived.
Oh, wait. It's the Alien again.
"You can beat the Alien with these weapons but you aren't going to kill it," laughs Bond when I tell him my Alien Isolation story. "That was a conscious decision we made right at the beginning, and it was because we wanted that pure Alien experience of surviving, and pitting the player against a single solitary predatory animal that was superior to you in every way... That feeling of being hunted.
"As soon as you allow it to be defeated with firearms then it's like, well, I'll just sit here in the corner and wait for it to come. It's just ruined. Just instantly ruined."
The thing is, even though you're carrying guns, you just don't want to use them. It's not because the game is screaming at you about it, it's just that it feels like a bad idea. All of the time. You and the game have an understanding, which is a credit to the way it's been designed. You might not know what to do, but you know what not to do.
When Creative Assembly was pitching an early Alien Isolation milestone to Sega, it showed off a small encounter with the Alien set loose in a restricted area, just to prove the game was working as it should. In that early build players had a weapon. But when the developer took the build out to focus tests to have people play it, no one even attempted to shoot the Alien.
"People just didn't want to shoot it," Bond remembers. "And it was like, well, good. If you do you're going to regret it."
This is why I reckon Alien Isolation looks the business. After the calamity that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, it's refreshing to play an Alien game in which firing your gun is the last thing on your mind.
I still have concerns. I wonder if the terrifying gameplay we've been shown so far can sustain itself for 10 hours or however long Alien Isolation will last. Pacing is important here. How will Alien Isolation provide downtime from the horror? Will there be a safe area of some kind you can explore without worrying about the Alien bursting through the ceiling?
More on this will be revealed in the run up to release, I'm sure. So for now I'm happy to revel in the pure horror of Alien Isolation, reassured that Creative Assembly has resisted the temptation to let players blast their way out of trouble.