You can hear its footsteps. That's the first thing that strikes you about the Alien in Alien: Isolation, Sega's most adventurous game about icky deep space munsters since Rebellion's 1999 classic, Alien vs Predator. Years of frenzied action movie adaptations - some shoddy, some not-so-shoddy, some disastrous - have trained us to think of the Alien as a sort of rabid, brittle cockroach, darting along walls and ceilings till you shatter it with a shotgun blast. This one's got a bit more gravitas, so to speak. It must weigh roundabouts a ton.
The floor shudders as the abomination rounds a corner ten metres off, all dribble and dorsal spines, stumping towards my hiding place, claws splayed like enormous throwing stars. I slip back into cover, a fraction of a second too late. The Alien roars. Not the squeaky, abrasive roar of a mass-produced xeno from, say, Aliens: Colonial Marines, but a noise that's halfway between a tiger's bellow and the thunder of an on-coming train, a roar that brings out your inner caveman.
It rampages across the intervening space in a heart-beat, grabs my legs as I turn to run, flips me over and punches that prehensile inner jaw through my whimpering, mammalian face. The experience is traumatic - and a huge relief. In a nigh-miraculous recovery from the travesty that was Colonial Marines, Sega appears to have finally remembered what made Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger's offworld predator so compelling: your almost complete inability to do anything to stop it.
Even more miraculously, the studio responsible for this return to form is Sussex-based Creative Assembly, custodian of the Total War series on PC, a series that's about as far away from first-person survival horror as you can get without signing up the cast of Sesame Street. The core of the Isolation team consists of veterans of the developer's hardly dazzling Total War: Spartan and Viking spin-offs; they're joined by new recruits from Crytek and Lionhead among other top tier outfits. Diehard franchise fans are in abundance, naturally. "Having a little bit of information out there that we were making an Alien game helped with recruitment," comments design lead Al Hope with a wry grin of the game's cryptic 2011 reveal.
Isolation is, in effect, the "true" Alien follow-up Ridley Scott never got round to making. It takes place 15 years after the events of the film, and stars Amanda Ripley, Ellen's daughter. She's travelled to a space station owned by android manufacturer Seegson to investigate her mother's fate, having received a cryptic communiqué about "shutting the book". On arrival, however, Amanda is separated from her crew and obliged to explore the vast, deteriorating facility on her lonesome. Well, not quite on her lonesome.
The Alien is modelled on H.R. Giger's original design, right down to its upright posture, absence of skull ridges and sickly grey hue. In game terms, it's most obviously comparable to Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 - a persistent boss that dogs your heels throughout the campaign, which must be avoided rather than defeated. Aside from being inhumanly strong, fast and tough, the Alien is also unnervingly sensitive and intelligent. Run, and it'll home in on the sound of your footsteps. Take shelter in a locker, and there's a chance the Alien will pop its fanged maw up to the grill. You might want to hold your breath (hint: click that analogue stick).
The one advantage Amanda has over her monstrous adversary is a chunky old motion tracker, which is a far cry from a "proper" mini-map: in a sadistic trade-off, the view ahead dims and loses focus when you focus on the screen, and the Alien can elude detection by way of everybody's favourite sci-fi furnishing, the homely air vent.