Why Alien: Isolation is a true return to survival horror

And how Creative Assembly captured the sweaty-palmed terror of the original film

For all the things Alien: Isolation gets right, there’s something particularly impressive about how lean, how focused it is. Publishers of big-budget games are usually desperate to appeal to the widest possible audience, in the process often blunting a game’s edge in the rush to reach the mass market. By contrast, Alien: Isolation only wants to do one thing, and it concentrates almost exclusively on doing so – and that’s to scare the ever-loving crap out of you.

The early raves from demonstrations at press events and the like are not misleading. Isolation is terrifying stuff, a shock machine designed to hit you with sharp jolts of terror at regular intervals. This isn’t a game that expands its remit as it progresses, eventually shifting focus to more action-led mechanics. As Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, you’re tasked with exploring the space station Sevastopol pretty much exclusively on your own. You’re not the only human presence, sure, but for long spells you’ll feel like it. You certainly can’t accuse Creative Assembly of not staying true to the game’s title.

It begins in classic space-horror tradition, with Ripley instantly discovering that things are a long way from how they should be aboard the Sevastopol. If the malfunctioning lights weren’t enough of a hint that you should really turn tail and run, the fact that the place looks like a bomb has hit it - and that at least one of the two survivors you encounter isn’t going to last another five minutes – lets you know that something is terribly wrong.

Reach for your motion tracker, and you’ll see that green blip getting steadily closer, as you desperately hunt for a place to hide.

Understanding that the scariest bit in any good horror is the slow, tense build-up to the inevitable jump-shock, the developer sensibly keeps the xenomorph out of sight for a little while. Your mission is always to complete a fairly basic task, whether it’s reaching another room on the ship, or locating a key card to access another room on the ship. The objectives aren’t challenging in and of themselves, but doing so without alerting the Alien? That’s another matter.

Soon enough, your main objective is simply to survive; in the first instance, it’s about finding a place to hide. You’ll hear a hiss of steam and a metal grating clanging against the ground, as the beast descends from the ceiling. Whether or not you’ve seen the films, you’ll immediately be inclined to leg it, though the trick is to make as little noise as possible; a risky strategy when you’ve got a lean, mean killing machine patrolling nearby, seeking out something fleshy to rip apart. When it’s particularly close, you’re encouraged to edge away or squeeze the left trigger to hold your breath, lest your nervy panting give away your position.

Preorder the game and you’ll get a bonus mission featuring the crew of the Nostromo, voiced by cast members of the original film - including Sigourney Weaver.

It’s properly nerve-wracking stuff, partly thanks to the astonishing atmosphere the game generates through its incredible attention to visual detail and its remarkable sound design. Just about anything that makes a noise will have you hissing ‘shush!’ under your breath. Whatever your current mission is might seem straightforward on paper, but where ordinarily you’d jog happily towards the next waypoint, here you’re always on edge, anxiously tiptoeing around the Sevastopol. You’ll strain your ears, listening out for any nearby crashes or bangs and trying to gauge which direction they came from when they arrive. Reach for your motion tracker, and you’ll see that single green blip getting steadily closer, as you desperately hunt for a safe place to retreat to.

If you happen to be a fan of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Alien: Isolation will be especially evocative, expertly capturing the retro-futuristic look of the 1979 film. The Sevastopol may not be the Nostromo, but it’s an effective surrogate, filled with similarly chunky, old-fashioned hardware. It’s got that lived-in (or should that be died-in?) appeal of the best science fiction, to the point where it almost feels like a horror period piece. That’s quite some achievement.

It’s a potent, brutally nerve-shredding slice of survival horror.

Aesthetics aside, this is a wonderfully reductive experience. Narrative rarely intrudes, with a bare minimum of cutscenes, and most of the story told in the first-person, allowing you to move around freely – and there’s none of that Gears of War-style trudging to the next waypoint while holding a finger to your ear. In each case, you’re quickly back to being left alone again.

The Alien isn’t the only enemy you’ll face. There are Working Joe androids who can prove hazardous to Ripley’s health, and while she can be armed with a pistol, it’s rarely wise to use it unless you absolutely have to – not least because the loud crack as you fire off a round is almost certain to attract the kind of attention you really don’t want. Besides, ammunition is incredibly scarce – on the default difficulty you’ll have to make just about every bullet count, and on the higher settings you’ll likely have to be even more careful. Violence here is an absolute last resort.

In some respects, it’s redolent of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, whose similarly indestructible opponent provoked a constant gnawing dread.

All of which, together with the game’s widely spaced checkpoints, makes this an extremely challenging game. Throw in the fact that the Alien’s appearances are unscripted – and therefore entirely unpredictable – and you’ve potentially got a recipe for frustration. Should the xenomorph bust through a vent while you’re a long way from any hiding spot, you’re left with very few options. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s a very real risk that the Alien might lose his ability to scare so effectively over time. The ungenerous checkpointing is one way of compensating – the fear of losing a significant chunk of progress is as tangible as the desire to escape those slavering jaws – but some players might find the terror steadily seeping away with every player death.

Most, however, will find this a potent, brutally nerve-shredding slice of survival horror. You’ll feel like a rat in a maze, scuttling around searching for a piece of cheese while a feral moggy who hasn’t been fed in days is sporadically let loose, leaving you squeaking and whimpering as you somehow try to focus on the task in hand and not the knowledge that you’re one wrong move away from being eaten. If Creative Assembly can maintain that feeling for the game’s duration, this could be a strong contender for game of the year.