Aliens: Colonial Marines received heavy criticism from fans after its release last year. So you’d understand if Sega decided to play it safe with its follow-up. Instead, this autumn’s Alien Isolation features just a single monster and is being built by a studio that has never made anything like it before. What are they thinking?
Christopher Dring finds out
When I was nine years old my friend James brought an Alien toy into school.
He had received the grotesque monster for his birthday, and was showing all the kids in the playground. He was planning a sleepover that weekend and told us that (once his parents went to bed) he was going to make us watch the first Alien movie.
I told him that I wasn’t allowed to go, but that was a lie. I took one look at his figurine and couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than watching that creature stalk and butcher a crew of helpless astronauts.
The team at Creative Assembly clearly agree with me. So much so, that their new game – Alien Isolation – is doing away with the big guns and hordes of enemies in favour of something altogether more frightening.
"The starting point for this project was because no one had made the Alien game that we wanted to play," says the game's creative lead Alistair Hope.
“Games in the past have looked at Jim Cameron's second film [Aliens], which was a Vietnam-in-space sort of thing. But we were massive fans of the first film.
"Then, with Sega having the Alien licence, we saw this as our opportunity.
“So a couple of us put together a tech demo in the space of about six weeks. It was mainly for us to work out what we are trying to do. But it became a mood piece, in which the climax was this enormous Alien coming down before the player. It was the wow moment we wanted to achieve, something truly unique. And thankfully everyone we showed it to agreed and got very excited.”
"Minecraft is arguably the most successful
survival horror game of the last generation"
- Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly
Alien Isolation could not be any different to last year’s critically disappointing (albeit commercially successful) Aliens: Colonial Marines. Whereas that game featured big guns and bigger monsters, Isolation – much like in the film it’s based on – contains just one monster.
Hope says: “Before we had anything on screen, I remember asking the guys: ‘We are going to release Ridley Scott’s Alien in the room. What are you going to do?’ We then started having fun conversations about crouching down behind the desk, making sure it couldn’t see us, and then working out how to reach the fire exit. That basic idea we felt would be amazing to experience.”
Don’t let the first person viewpoint fool you – this is not an action shooter. Isolation is a survival horror game and if you’ve ever watched the first film (which I finally did last weekend), you’ll know there’s no other genre it could be.
Yet survival horror is a genre suffering a bit of an identity crisis. Recent hits such as Resident Evil and Dead Space have shirked their horror roots in favour of more action gameplay – the common consensus is that gamers prefer to shoot things, not hide from them. So is it not a risk to take the Alien franchise in the opposite direction?
“We wanted to deliver on that Ridley Scott Alien, that enormous, incredible creature that I was adamant would look down on the player and you couldn’t just sprint past. A monster that didn’t have to be a bullet sponge at the end of the barrel of your gun,” says Hope.
“We are big fans of horror games and big franchises like Resident Evil and Dead Space, particularly the earlier games. But the guys behind those titles probably felt they were only a couple of degrees off being the next Gears of War, so there was an opportunity for them to try that out. And that was their direction.
“You do still see horror in other places, like Fallout and Skyrim. Horror does not have to fit in some statistical, genre box. Your first night in Minecraft, when you have built yourself a rudimentary shelter, it’s really dark and then suddenly there’s someone banging on your door. That’s pretty terrifying. Minecraft is arguably the most successful survival horror game of the last generation.”
"I remember people saying: What do you know
about strategy? You make sports games."
- Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly
The news that Creative Assembly was building an Alien title was one of the industry’s worst kept secrets. But it was nevertheless surprising to see what the studio is building.
Creative Assembly is best known for the Total War strategy series. It’s never made a horror game, or a first-person game for that matter. And outside of the average Viking: Battle of Asgard in 2008 and the equally average Spartan: Total Warrior in 2005, they’ve barely developed for consoles either.
So it seems a bold move by Sega to let this team make Isolation. But as Hope points out, Creative Assembly was not always a PC strategy studio.
“I used to work for Creative Assembly when all we built were sports games, and when we made Total War I remember vividly people saying: ‘What do you know about strategy, you make sports games?’ We found it difficult to get people to believe we could make RTS games. It is natural for people to put us into boxes. But the scope of Creative Assembly is wider than perhaps with other firms.”
He adds: “Also, we’ve hired some experienced people. As you say, the fact we were making an Alien game was the industry’s worst kept secret. And that helped persuade people to contact us. And when we told them it was Alien plus survival horror, they’d respond nine times out of ten with: ‘Where do we sign.’ We had people from Rockstar, Lionhead and Ubisoft, and we were able to help those UK studios that closed, so people from Bizarre and Real Time Worlds joined us.”
There’s no questioning Hope’s enthusiasm. We were meant to talk for 15 minutes, but the chat lasted the best part of an hour as he detailed the team’s ambitions, the game’s influences and what makes it a true next-gen product. Not to mention his love of the first Alien movie.
“After so long of not being able to talk about it, this is wonderful,” he says.
Yet it’s clearly the Alien itself that Hope is most proud of – a reactive, dynamic monster that does not follow any pre-determined path, creating -– the studio hopes – unpredictable moments.
“It is using its senses to look for you and listen for you, and responds accordingly,” says Hope.
“It’s different every time. One of the scariest things for us is when we build a new world and then put the Alien in it, because we don’t know what it is going to do.”
"After Colonial Marines, a lot of people were saying:
"Can we have a survival horror Aliens game?"
And We really wanted to tell everyone that this
is what we were doing."
- Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly
Developing a game in an unfamiliar genre for unfamilar platforms is tricky enough, but Creative Assembly also has the unenviable task of winning over fans that were stung by last year’s Alien: Colonial Marines. That game – developed by US studio Gearbox – received a critical mauling and a huge gamer backlash. Words were said. Reputations were hurt.
Will the fans even come back?
“When Colonial Marines was released, we weren’t completed cut-off, we were aware of some of the comments,” says Hope.
“And a lot of people were saying: ‘Can we have a survival horror Aliens game?’ That was the plus for the team here and we really wanted to tell the world at the time that this is what we are doing. You saw that there is a very vociferous, passionate and intelligent fanbase out there that really loves this franchise. That’s why everyone on the team has a massive smile on their face, because we’ve seen since the announcement that people are responding really, really well to what we are proposing.”
Isolation sounds promising. In fact, it sounds terrifying. The sort of game my nine year-old self would cower from. And if Hope and his team can deliver on its plans, then Sega will finally have an Alien game that’s worthy of the name.