Unless you’ve been locked away on a derelict spaceship, you’re probably aware that Alien: Isolation isn’t another pulse rifle-packing, Xenomorph-blasting shooter. Instead, Creative Assembly’s crack at the property that spawned the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” is returning the series to its Ridley Scott-respecting roots. For players, this means cowering in a corner, clutching a motion tracker, and praying for dear life that the titular Alien doesn’t discover them.
And yes, that’s “Alien,” as in a singular, terrifying threat that’s determined to remove your squishy innards before dangling them in front of you like a length of sausage links. With just a single space monster on the loose and no military hardware to unleash on the evil E.T., you may wonder how Isolation plans on pacing its story-driven campaign and balancing its survival-focused gameplay. With those very questions in mind, we woke Lead Designer Gary Napper from hyper-sleep for some answers as we draw closer to the game’s October 7 release for Xbox One and Xbox 360.
Xbox Wire: Not being a shooter – or even an action game – Isolation is a pretty drastic departure from previous Alien titles. How would you describe its moment-to-moment gameplay? Is it a strict survival-horror experience?
Gary Napper: I describe the game as… well, we were calling it a survivor horror game, but more people started calling it a stealth survival game, because they found themselves hiding more often than not. Now, you can actually play it fairly guns-blazing and making a lot of noise, but you’ll make the game very difficult for yourself. But the pacing of the game has been set out in a really kind of linear story way. So there are moments of massive tension and then you get a bit of downtime. But again, because of the nature of the game, you are never quite sure if you’re safe. So the most you can hope for is, “I have a couple seconds to build something and heal myself and move on.” We kind of play with the tension a bit. It’s quite nice.
Xbox Wire: It seems challenging to sustain that sort of pacing and tension for a long period of time. How much play time can fans expect from Isolation’s campaign?
Gary Napper: It’s around 15 hours long, but it can be massively longer or slightly shorter, depending on how often you see the Alien or how you play it. Because it acts systematic, you are not sure where the Alien is going be at any time. So sometimes, you can get through entire areas of the game without even seeing it. So it’s quite cool like that.
Xbox Wire: With the game being that long and having only one Alien, did you utilize audio and atmospheric tricks to sell and sustain the tension?
Gary Napper: Yeah, it’s kind of a mix between getting atmosphere from the backdrop sounds – so the moans and groans of the space station – and then layering in things that sound like they could be the Alien… things that make you jump, or stuff you’re not quite sure about.
Xbox Wire: Will players have access to any traditional weapons? Does the game ever turn into a run-and-gun shooter at any point?
Gary Napper: There are no pulse rifles or heavy weaponry whatsoever. It has to feel like… well, imagine you’re shut inside a shopping mall. You may get into a security office, and you might find a pistol with a few rounds, or you might find a baton or something like that. It is that sort of weaponry – it’s whatever you find. It’s not military hardware by any stretch of the imagination.
Xbox Wire: So what is in the player’s arsenal?
Gary Napper: We’ve got Molotov cocktails, we have noisemakers, there is a pipe bomb, you can use a flare… the whole thing is about exploring the environment and finding things to build, and then figuring out whether you want to use them or hold them until the Alien arrives.
Xbox Wire: And these items are built with a crafting system?
Gary Napper: Yeah, it’s a fairly simple system, but the way we went about it was to say, “If you were stuck in a location like that with the Alien, what would we be able to build?” So there are no high-tech devices or anything like that… it’s literally building something that you can weld together that makes a noise when you throw it. A Molotov cocktail, basic explosives, smoke bombs, and things like that. It’s just anything that feels like it’s not too high-tech.
Xbox Wire: Given the primitive arsenal, how important is that iconic motion tracker?
Gary Napper: It is absolutely vital. For me, the definition of the Alien experience is cowering in a corner, staring at this little green screen, and looking at a dot and just hearing it go “boop, boop, boop, boop,” knowing the creature is getting closer. There are some moments in the game where we have an objective marker on the motion tracker, so it kind of points you where to go next. I found it amazing that when we put it in the game, you had this dot telling you where you needed to go, and then there was the dot for the Alien. And when those two dots are in the same place, your heart sinks. I was like, “I’m looking at two dots on the screen, and I’m terrified.” I just knew that the whole atmosphere came together, and it all felt right. So yeah, it’s really kind of low-tech, where you have to bring it out and hold it for it to work. You have to aim it to get any kind of accurate reading – and in some areas, it doesn’t quite work, and it flickers. But it’s really good fun to use!
Xbox Wire: In terms of crafting this type of survival-horror experience, has the Xbox One hardware enabled you guys to do anything that maybe wasn’t possible last generation?
Gary Napper: Massively, [when it comes to] things like radiocity – the reflective light on surfaces and things – and the fidelity and the environment. The art team had a ball playing with all of those, and cranking the dials up and seeing how high they could get them. We have some amazing, breathtaking moments where you just turn around the corridor and it’s almost like classic Alien… having a heavy fog in the air and a strobe light flashing on that fog, and making that shadow in the distance, and so on. When it all comes together, it’s absolutely amazing!