Alien: Isolation Ratchets Up the Tension With Challenge Mode

Alien: Isolation is playable at E3 2014, but it’s not the same lengthy demo that journalists were shown during E3 Judges Week last month.

Instead, The Creative Assembly and Sega opted to bring new content to the E3 show floor that emphasizes speed over story. Though the mode doesn’t have a name yet, the best way to describe it is as a “challenge” mode, in which players must face down CA’s systematically smart alien creature in short, timed bursts.

The mode, which seems meant to bring some additional replayability to Alien: Isolation’s story campaign, dispenses with the narrative framework of the game and drops players into maps where their primary goal is escape. In the demos of campaign levels CA has shown so far, Isolation generally ramps up in intensity through multiple stages: players enter an area where the alien is skulking but not necessarily hunting them with conviction; players complete an objective that alerts the alien to their presence; players must work past the alerted alien as it walks around the level rather than staying hidden in vents.

In Isolation’s challenge-type mode, the game skips directly to the third stage of the situation, with a fully alert alien quickly and frighteningly moving around the map, searching for the player. In the demo shown on the floor, players have a few additional objectives they can choose whether to pursue. These include “locking down” a stairwell area, presumably by sealing a door with a welding torch or interacting with a panel (I skipped that one); searching for ID tags of inhabitants of Sevastopol Station (I skipped that one too); and completing the map without using the motion tracker (there was no way I was going to even attempt that one)*.

Other than the setup, the situation is largely the same as we’ve seen in other demos, although the intensity was incredibly high during the challenge mission. The alien isn’t just stalking, it is looking intently for the player, and it uses vents scattered throughout the map to move quickly. The alien’s artificial intelligence is systematic based on its senses, and that can make it unpredictable — more than once it wound up behind me more or less at random as it searched, and every move throughout the challenge map has to be a calculated measure of the risk of leaving hiding based on the chance that you’ll make it to your next safe place.

The best part of the challenge-type mode demo, however, was that nowhere felt safe. The level starts players in a ready room where they can grab a few crafting materials and a flamethrower for defense that can drive off the alien briefly, but players quickly kicked out of that room — or rather, the door opens, which alerts the alien, and it’s time to GTFO.

From there, players have to duck under tables, block line of sight, and generally avoid death for as long as possible. They always have their trusty motion tracker (unless they choose not to use it), which gives an idea of where to go and where the alien is, but it’s just as important to keep one’s eyes open and head on a swivel.

My demo lasted roughly 11 minutes — I was killed in the first two as I panicked while trying to remember how to use my flamethrower, then managed to beat the map in an additional nine. A timer runs throughout that lets you know how long you’re taking, so the goal is to be speedy, stealthy and smart. The flamethrower lets you fight off the alien if you should get in a pinch, so far as the very limited ammo lasts. After that, it’s all about what you can find on the ground to craft, or how quickly you can get out of sight. The demo ends when you reach a generator you have to manually (and loudly) start, and then backtrack to a waiting elevator to escape the area.

Sega didn’t have much in the way of details of what else players might see in the Alien: Isolation challenge-type mode, but it seems rife with possibilities. Obviously, CA can riff on the things you can and can’t use in any given challenge to ratchet up the difficulty or make for different experiences. Just like daring players to forego the motion tracker, the same could be done with the flamethrower or other craftables, adding time limits, throwing in the human and android enemies we’ve seen in the campaign, and so on.

There’s also the possibility of CA building out some great maps. The demo featured a section of the station littered with spinning lights, flaming machinery and blaring klaxons, and at first I thought I was actually working through the Nostromo, the ship that serves as setting for most of Alien the film. (In fact, it was a section of Sevastopol called “Engineering.”)

A phenomenal idea for a challenge map would be to put players in the final act of the film, trying to set the self-destruct mode for the Nostromo, gather air canisters to bring to the escape vehicle, and deal with trying to lure the alien away from the shuttle in order to escape. It seems like a no-brainer map for CA to build that will greatly appeal to Alien fans like me, and the challenge mode appears as though it’ll easily support similar cool ideas.

Though I only spent around 10 minutes in CA’s demo, the tension and fear delivered in those few moments suggest that a little something outside Alien: Isolation’s story could be a very meaningful addition to a stealthy horror title that’s already looking pretty impressive. Details remain thin, but there’s definitely a lot of potential in the kinds of things CA might be might do with its hyper-deadly AI.

*I should say that I skipped those optional objectives because I was legitimately afraid to pursue them. The alien’s unpredictable nature meant that I never found it worth the risk to explore or take too many chances. I mean this in the best way possible: the alien is big, scary and deadly, and attempting to run down those side objectives seems like it will definitely add significant challenge to the challenge mode.

You can keep up to date with all the E3 news over on our E3 channel.

Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Find more of his work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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