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Horror reawakens in Alien: Isolation

By Rob Crossley on Tuesday 7th Jan 2014 at 4:00 PM BST

You are being watched. Somewhere out there, hidden within the walls of a derelict space station, an alien lurks.

Should you dare to sprint across the abandoned vessel, the hammer of your boots against metal will be joined by the thump of another pair of feet, echoing from behind. Your skin will tighten as the thudding sound closes in. You will seize up, you will be knocked to the floor and, as you turn to face him, you will die knowing you were easy prey, that your escape plan was a misbegotten shambles.

Alien: Isolation is not an action game. Moving is generally considered a risk. This is survival horror at its purest: you and your predator, trapped in a confined space, with no weapons to speak of.

Your foe, the eponymous Xenomorph, is a nine-foot-tall master huntsman that can dash at wicked speed. UK developer The Creative Assembly wants the alien's lethality, and all the physical superiorities he carries, to be fearsome and formidable.

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To that extent, the studio has succeeded. The first time the alien spotted me, during a closed-door play test at the studio's offices in December, I reacted in a most pathetic and human manner. Seized by panic, and pulling a face as if I was about to be hit by an oncoming car, I let the towering Xenomorph run at me. There was no window for escape; no last-gasp QTE or elaborate semi-interactive cut-scene. Only death.

"The alien is trying to figure out the best way of getting to you without being spotted," says Clive Lindop, lead designer.

"He's trying to figure out an ideal position to pounce from. He's not always going to take the direct route. The way most predators survive and control their territory is, although they are aggressive, they naturally try to avoid damage. They don't want to run incredibly long distances to kill you, they would rather capture you by surprise. They would rather hit you from the side."

Players take on the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, fifteen years after her mother went missing

These authentic and merciless hunting traits are part of a wider, grand objective at The Creative Assembly. The studio wants to build an alien AI that can outwit your survival skills. With a meticulous attention to detail, and an almighty decision-making algorithm designed for every occasion, the team is trying to create a problem-solving apex predator that can think on his feet.

This is more unconventional than it may seem. Enemies in video games are not, despite their appearances, programmed as ruthless killers. Instead they are basic challenges that can be overcome, often, in visually spectacular fashion. Think of all those Russian soldiers standing, inexcusably, next to explosive barrels, or directly beneath a chandelier, or those that take cover but leave vital appendages exposed. This alien, which is said can notice patterns in your play style, is an entirely different breed of adversary.

"Whereas on a typical shooter you would have an AI that only lasts twenty seconds - come out, shoot, take cover, drop dead - this alien has to enter your world for ten, fifteen, twenty, even thirty minutes," says Lindop.

"We want him to be unpredictable, dangerous, an unknown quantity. We want your interaction with him to be instinctive, almost animal like. Because he's unpredictable, we wanted you to work on instinct."

Dreadfully intense hide-and-seek encounters, as experienced during CVG's half-hour playtest, appear to be at the heart of the gameplay. You will tip-toe through the Sevastopol, a deserted trading station suspended on the uncharted fringes of space, armed with little more than a basic motion scanner and flashlight. By choice, The Creative Assembly has enfeebled the scanner's usefulness - it provides just a general sense of where movement is coming from. And the flashlight, in careless hands, helps the alien pinpoint the location of his prey. Wits and awareness are man's original survival tools, and Alien: Isolation aims to test these to their limits.

Slideshow: On the set of Alien Isolation

You are cast as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, who hasn't heard from her mother in fifteen years. Her life changes when she discovers that the flight recorder of Ellen's missing ship has been found, somewhere, on the Sevastopol. In an act that mirrors the plot of the original film, Ripley's unbearable curiosity takes her to the desolate and decommissioned trading station.

The facility, bleak and airless, has been powered off for some time. Once you enter a room, it lurches back to life, with cranks turning, lights blinking on, and clangs of metal ringing into the distance. It appears to have been vacated in a hurry, with boxes thrown around, paperwork strewn across the floor, and chairs piled up to barricade a door.

Bowls, spoons and cereal containers sit on a canteen table, abandoned. Various toys and figurines from the late '70s stand on desks and tables, smiling into space. Aside from the vessel's obligatory sci-fi hum, the only noticeable sound is a toy drinking-bird, rocking back and forth at the pace of a heartbeat.

Outside, the view is glorious. As an iron blast-shield draws open, golden light from a nearby star pours in through the window. It casts a sort of inverse silhouette, of light suspended within darkness. Dust caught in the glare sparkles like snowglobe pieces. A nearby planet, orange with a mauve hue, dominates the view. This is an oasis, an observance of the universe's quiet magnificence, a small retreat from the panic and terror across the corridor.

THE LONG WAIT Games studios often 'white box' their early game ideas - piecing together rudimentary parts to give a rough preview of the game's underlying appeal. If the test is positive, it can reassure publishers they are investing in the right project, and help motivate and focus the development team.

This wasn't the case with Alien Isolation, of which the core gameplay could only truly be tested when the enemy AI reached advanced stages of development. It meant that The Creative Assembly was was working in blind faith for months, as senior producer Jonathan Court explains.

"When we did our white box, it returned literally nothing. That can be terribly frustrating, and we needed to maintain a tremendous amount of faith in the guys who are working on it.

"We still felt we were on the right course, but just expected to see the fruits of that game earlier. It was only when we brought all of the game's elements together for the first time - the animations, the models, the sounds, the lighting, the atmosphere - that everything started to work.

"We all remember when that happened for the first time in the game's development, because we all jumped."

Perhaps the most iconic scene in Ridley Scott's original Alien film is when the "chestbuster" makes its silver screen debut. For a 1979 audience in particular, it must have been an unforgettably bloodcurdling moment. But thirty-five years later, how can you replicate that sense of shock in, of all things, a first-person video game?

Or for that matter, how do you make people fear a creature that was recently ridiculed as a shambling village idiot in an alien suit, as depicted in Colonial Marines?

The answer to both questions is simple yet audacious: remove the guns.

"The easiest thing in the world would have been for us to make an on-rails horror game. We're taking the hard route here"

"We're going against the grain on fifteen other years' worth of Alien games," says Lindop, courteously not mentioning Gearbox's recent calamity by name.

"Many of those previous games tended to give you a pulse rifle, a grenade, and lots of aliens that can be blown to pieces. In those games, the aliens were basically bullet sponges.

"The easiest thing in the world would have been for us to make an on-rails, roller-coaster horror game. We're taking the hard route here."

Artificial intelligence is one the most underdeveloped elements of modern video games, with ongoing investment in cinematic aspects (graphics, orchestral scores, elaborate set-pieces and so on) naturally taking priority. After all, a smarter game doesn't usually sell as well as the prettier ones.

Although The Creative Assembly isn't avoiding the conventional virtues of triple-A games, the driving force of Alien Isolation is on empowering the AI. Your adversary is imbued with what the studio is calling "behavioural suspect response", a term for how his base actions dynamically adapt to various stimuli. If he hears something, he will try to locate the source. If he detects movement, even fleeting, he will creep towards it.

This is a battle of senses and perception. A war of eyes and ears. If you spot the alien without being detected, it's an achievement on the scale of landing a headshot. It gives you the upper-hand; the chance to mentally plot a safe route to the next area.

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The first-person perspective adds an almighty tension to the proceedings. This is not a typical stealth game where players can hide and leisurely survey the area with a third-person camera. If you crane your head out from cover, you are at risk of being found.

Yet, conversely, success is hinged on your observation skills. The alien's movements, the sounds he utters, and the accompanying audio motifs can be studied over time to gather an idea of what he is thinking. This perhaps best defines the risk/reward structure at the heart of the game: watch without being watched.

"One of the key things is that there will be moments where you're not sure whether you've seen him or not," says Lindop.

"You're falling back on very basic animalistic behaviours, like looking for movement."

"We want the alien to be unpredictable, dangerous, an unknown quantity"

He explains that my earlier moment of petrified dysfunction was an encouraging sign that the studio is on the right track.

"That kind of thing is a good sign for us, as this is a game that's all about instincts. When humans are presented with something that shocks or disturbs them, they tend to stand still.

"There are moments in Alien: Isolation where the right choice is to do nothing. That's quite different for a game, as usually you have to do something to progress. But if we correctly express the alien's lethality, people will instinctually know what to do."

One picks up an unmistakable sense that this project, now in its third year, has been a brutal endeavour for The Creative Assembly - a studio which is synonymous with Total War games. Switching focus to anything outside the realm of turn-based strategy is a big enough task, but to construct an AI in the hope that it can organically create scenes of spectacular terror is a troublesome ambition.

"People say, well it's obvious, right? An Alien survival horror game," says Lindop.

"It seems like such an obvious thing to do, why has no one done this before? It's only when you try do it that you'll realise why others haven't."

THE REWIND To give you a sense of the lengths The Creative Assembly went to in order to create an authentic Alien 1979 experience, look no further than how in-game video was designed.

The challenge, says UI lead Jon McKellan, is that modern design tools struggle to replicate the feel of antiquated technology.

"So, we decided to go whole-hog and record gameplay footage and UI elements onto a VHS tape player," he says.

"This was then played through an old goldfish-bowl TV, whilst we held up magnets up against it and jiggled the cables."

The team then recorded the rough footage, resplendent with that iconic VHS fuzz, and exported it as assets to use in-game. The result is in-game logo animations that lurch sideways and belch out static interference.

"We actually recorded the footage over old tapes of the Alien movie," he adds. "I guess we wanted to keep the DNA in there."

It's not yet clear how much Alien: Isolation will lean on convention to help it along the way. What's understood is that there will be improvised weapon crafting in the game, and presumably enemies who are susceptible to such things.

Lindop, nonetheless, has a resolute vision for the project, and the last thing he wants is to build another Colonial Marines. Like that seminal film released to an unsuspecting public in 1979, the Creative Assembly wants to create something original.

"You don't need to blow something up, or kill a bad guy or defeat a giant boss to feel like you've succeeded," he says.

"As is true in real life, if you survive something that's dangerous or adrenaline driven, there's an enormous high afterwards. That's exactly what we are going for."

Alien: Isolation is due for release in "late 2014" on Xbox One, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Sega is publishing the game.