Alien: Isolation preview: extra terrifying

There's a sense of dread looming around every corner. With every step you take, you hear a clanging sound overhead, along with a haunting screech. You think you can stand still and simply hope it just wanders by, but your heavy breathing gives your location away. There's nothing you can do to stop it. It can hear you. It can sense you. It can practically taste you. And before you can let out a blood-curdling scream, the Xenomorph leaps out from the shadows and pierces you right through the chest, as it howls in victory.

That's the atmosphere that persists through Alien: Isolation, the latest take on the populat sci-fi franchise from Sega and The Creative Assembly. But unlike certain other attempts at the franchise, this game appears to know what a Xenomorph should be. It should be powerful, swift, brutal, and above all else, it should be frightening. And there was no shortage of fear when Shacknews went hands-on with the game at GDC 2014.

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Alien: Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, daughter of famed series lead Ellen Ripley, as she's hopelessly marooned aboard a space station, alone with a killer Xenomorph. The hands-on demo began about halfway through the game, with Amanda continuing her search for any sort of escape. The sound design shone through here, creating a truly haunting atmosphere that led me to believe that the Xenomorph could jump out at any moment from anywhere. That feeling was amplified that much more when the power went out in the space station, leaving Amanda to try and restore the power, while hearing the menacing alien approaching from above or below.

While there's no exact way to tell where the alien is hiding, the motion tracker (an element borrowed from the original movie) is the best way to try. Using the shoulder button, Amanda would hold out the motion tracker, which would let out an audible cue if the Xenomorph was close. Using the motion tracker blurs the background slightly, but it's worth it to get an idea if the dreaded alien is close.

After restoring the power, a brief cinematic saw the Xenomorph burst into the space station. I had to hide behind a table until the alien made its way outside, where I was then tasked with attempting to make my escape. This is where patience is key. The Xenomorph will hear you if you abuse your sprint, moreso once it's in a nearby room. But either way, you'll inevitably cross paths with the alien killer. At this point, once your motion tracker starts to go off, it's time to hide.

The only hiding space I was able to find was a nearby set of lockers. As I hid in the locker, the alien walked by and quickly suspected something amiss. It approached the lockers and a pair of button cues appeared on-screen to control Amanda's breathing. Failure to do so would cause the Xenomoph to reach into the locker and begin his feast. Once the Xenomorph continued its hunt elsewhere, it was time to exit the locker and continue through, remaining wary that the slightest noise could attract the creature's attention. It's tense, it's frightening, and it creates the feeling of helplessness. If the alien finds you, that's it. Game over. Dead. And that's exactly the kind of atmosphere this game is out to create. Unlike previous Alien games, the humans absolutely cannot fight back.

In fact, The Creative Assembly may have actually gone too far in the other direction and designed the game to be scaled too much in favor of the alien. The much-heralded Alien AI may have made the creature almost too smart. After a few dozen attempts, I was never able to complete the demo, getting stuck at the exact same spot. One of the last sequences has Amanda activate the station's airlock by smashing a nearby button. The airlock's activation gets the attention of the Xenomorph and it's at that moment that I realize there's nowhere to go. The Xenomorph quickly makes a beeline towards me, but there's literally nowhere to hide. I attempted to sprint towards one of the lockers, but since the alien could hear me sprinting, it quickly spotted me and reached through the metal doors. I also attempted several times to hide away from plain sight, but the alien could quickly sense me and stabbed me with its tail. Unless there was an obvious hiding spot I was missing, it didn't look like there was any way to escape and I wasn't the only person previewing the game to run into this conundrum.

Aside from this arguable design issue, Alien: Isolation looks promising. It's taken almost four years, but The Creative Assembly may indeed have something workable and something that might just live up to the vaunted Alien franchise. Alien: Isolation is aiming for a 2014 release on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.