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Hands-on: The unbearable horror of Alien Isolation

By Mike Jackson on Tuesday 10th Jun 2014 at 2:00 PM UTC

There's a lot to be said of a horror game with an atmosphere so immediately intense that it takes us a few minutes to pluck up the courage to leave the very first room.

It was almost embarrassing. There I was, a grown adult in a room full of journalists and game designers, genuinely bricking it. After the roughly one-hour demo - which I'm sure could have been done in half the time if I wasn't nervously tip-toeing and peeking around corners the whole time - I had to shake the hand of one of the developers present.

"Well done", I said, offering up a sweaty palm to the poor chap.

Clearly, then, Alien Isolation is already looking like quite the achievement - a truly horrifying horror game. And with not a single zombie or ghost in sight. We can't, at this early stage, pass judgement on the quality of the whole game. But we can say, as a matter of fact, that for that one hour, the world around us disappeared as we found ourselves totally engulfed in the calamity of the desolate and haunted Sevastopol station and the desperate plight of protagonist Amanda Ripley.

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If you read our previous hands-on report, you will already know that Alien Isolation is not a shooter. You're not a marine. You're not a badass. Unlike most games, and certainly unlike previous Aliens games, it doesn't offer a sense of empowerment. It wants you to feel the exact opposite, in fact.

The developer has already made it perfectly clear that the Xenomorph, which stalks you ominously throughout the entire game, cannot be killed. It, not you, is the star of the show.

Yet you can find a gun - an option which presented itself in the latest demo. And you can even assemble weapons using a crafting system and raw materials such as scrap metal and batteries that you find around the station. So if the Xenomorph can't be killed, what are these weapons for?

What this new E3 demo revealed, much to our distress, is that the alien is not your only enemy. There are others, but they're not your traditional foe. While the space station appears completely deserted, other humans - former workers, it seems - still remain and are very much alive.

"Human encounters are almost as intense as alien ones"

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

They're not evil villains, they're innocent victims of the horrors that have befallen this derelict space fortress. But that's the problem - the unimaginable terrors that they've somehow endured has rendered them totally unhinged. They're unsettled, erratic, and scared blind by any movement that the see. And when they see you, creeping around in the shadows, they instantly freak out.

This makes them very dangerous. Not just because they tend to bare arms won't think twice to shoot in your direction should they spot you, but also because any noise they make will attract our alien friend, and that's bad news for all involved.

Human encounters are almost as intense as alien ones, in fact, and they offer up a slight moral dilemma because you can't help but sympathise with them. Somehow, they've managed to survive a Xenomorph massacre. The wise thing to do when you see someone, given the chance, is to sneak up behind them and bump them on the head, ending any risk that they might cause problems for you later. But after all that they've been through, it doesn't seem right to bash their heads in - or even kill them - just to assure your own safety.

At one point we were spotted by a crazed man, who fired shots at us from down a corridor. We took a shot back in self defence before realizing that this was a huge mistake. Immediately we dived into an adjacent room and hid in a locker, Amanda slamming the locker door with the speed and intensity that we felt in real life. It's incredibly visceral.

Slideshow: On the set of Alien Isolation

We hear gun shots, a shriek, and then silence as our attacker meets his painful end at the hands - or spiked tail - of the alien. Then he comes looking for us. The alien, apparently controlled by a totally unscripted artificial intelligence, enters the room. We can barely see him against the darkness, with his shiny skin only illuminated in brief flashes from the nearby obligatory flickering light.

Just the sight of the Xenomorph is incredibly unnerving. We can hear Amanda's heavy breathing inside our claustrophobic safe box. Her heartbeat thumps through our headphones and through the controller's force feedback. We're breathing heavily, too, teeth clamped tightly and a frown so intense it's causing our forehead to ache slightly.

Pause for a second. There we were, grown adults in a room full of journalists and game designers, absolutely bricking it.

Things only got more intense. Later in the demo we were tasked with powering up some generators. There we encountered yet another non-alien enemy. Casually manning a nearby computer was an android, a seemingly harmless worker bot who ignores you - until you tamper with his computer.


"We hear gun shots, a shriek, and then silence"

As you activate the computer in the generator room you set off the station's alarm system. It's a panicking moment because, until this point, you've just spent every moment creeping nervously, avoiding any and all sound, and suddenly the entire space station is engulfed in this eruption of noise. That is part of the unbeatable suspense of Alien: Isolation - any noise you make is considered a problem.

And to make things worse, we turn around to see a now very angry android, eyes glowing, demanding that we surrender to his arrest. He grabs us by the neck. We wrestle free but he continues his assault. It's quite the conundrum; if you run away the alien will hear your clattering footsteps and kill you. If you creep too slowly the android will catch you and rip your head off.

This is where we finally see what all those scrap metal pieces and batteries we've been gather are for. The crafting system in Alien Isolation is much like any other; you need pre-determined amounts of particular objects or ingredients to craft contraptions and weapons. Most of the system was unavailable in the demo, but we were able to knock up a small electromagnetic pulse grenade.

Its glitzy explosion disables our android pursuer, much to our relief. But now we still have to make our way through several corridors with alarms ringing, lights flashing, one pissed off alien and, in the distance, a couple of bewildered, gun-wielding humans wondering what the fuck is going on.

What a night it's going to be.