“Alien: Blackout” feels like a game made for on-the-go gadgets, delivering a tense experience through its platform of choice in a way that better draws players into the xenophobic world of Amanda Ripley.
That the game — which many hoped would be a sequel to computer and console title “Alien: Isolation” — was made for smartphone and tablet feels like a choice driven by the experience, rather than some cash grab for the biggest audience possible.
“We realized that we had a concept that we can do on mobile and designed it on mobile day one,” Jukka Laakso, CEO and co-founder of developer Rival Games, told Variety earlier this week. “It is something that captures the feel of the first movie.”
Specifically, TQ Jefferson, vice president of external development at FoxNext, said they took inspiration from one of the scariest moments of that 1979 movie.
“There is this great scene in the first movie where Tom Skerritt is in one of the ducts and he has a motion sensor on him,” Jefferson said. “And they’re walking him through the ducts saying, ‘Go here. Go there.’ They say, ‘Wait, stop, it’s on top of you.’ It’s an incredible scene where he’s saying, ‘I’m not seeing it,’ and it’s getting closer and closer and then it’s on him and he turns around and it’s right there. It’s a jump scare, one of the best scares of the film.
“That is how we ratchet up the tension in the game and the jump scares.”
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In our time with the game, spent playing “Alien: Blackout” on an iPad, we were able to play through the first couple of missions of the game.
The set-up is that you play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley. The game actually takes place in the same universe as the films and as “Alien: Isolation” and even has the same voice actor for Amanda Ripley. Specifically, it takes place some time after that game, though Jefferson notes that there are no specific time mentions, so we don’t know just how long after “Isolation” it takes place.
“There is room for an ‘Isolation 2,’” he said, “Or beyond that. We know fans are really excited about ‘Isolation 2,’ so we’re not going to dash that opportunity. When we started this project we thought about things like, is this going to get in the way of ‘Isolation 2’?”
He added that “Isolation 2” is currently not in development.
But “Alien: Blackout” does have a bit of that feel to it. In the game, players take on Ripley, who has awoken in a space station where she was placed in hypersleep after being discovered and saved by the crew members there. But when she awakes, she discovers she is alone. Well, almost alone — there is one xenomorph in the station with her.
The game opens on a ship unknowingly docking with the station for repairs only to discover they’re trapped there with the xenomorph. It’s the player’s job as Ripley to guide the four crew members through the levels of the station to retrieve the parts they need to repair the ship and escape, with Ripley.
The gameplay chiefly takes place through the interface that Ripley is using while hiding in the ductwork to avoid the Alien. The device, which happens to look a lot like a tablet, is connected to the system’s cameras, door controls, and motion detectors. It also allows Ripley to direct the team members.
Players use the top down schematic view of the floor the crew is on to open doors, turn on motion sensors and view cameras with taps on the screen. Players can use power to activate up to five things at once: any assortment of motion sensors and doors. They can also tap between cameras at will, or just use the map view to see the dots where crew members are located. The alien only shows up if seen through a camera or when spotted by a crew member — who is often screaming and running — or on a motion sensor when they move.
Touching on a crew member also brings up commands to hurry or sneak, hide or come out of hiding, stop or go. A player can also draw on the screen to show where to head.
The problem is that the more you issue direct commands to a crew member, the more noise you make. The more noise you make, the greater the possibility that the Alien will stop hunting those hapless crewmembers and instead turn its attention to you. This is where things get a little more interesting. As you play the game, focused on the tablet in Ripley’s hands, you can also tap to drop out of that view and into a first-person view of Ripley as she sits in the ductwork by a door. If the Alien is coming, you’ll hear it and maybe even catch some movements. When that happens, players need to manually close the door to protect Ripley or it’s game over.
The first level of the game, which opens with the crew arriving at the space station, featured a relatively small map that included five cameras, 11 doors, and three motion tracking zones. But Laakso said the levels grow in size and the missions grow in complexity as players work through the levels.
The entire experience of directing the crewmates through the map in a game of fatal cat-and-mouse, intertwined with the need to keep yourself safe helps to deliver an unnerving game.
If some elements of “Alien: Blackout” sound familiar to fans of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” that’s not surprising.
Laakso said “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was, in some ways, a jumping off point for this game. The goal was to tick the same sort of boxes that both “Five Nights” and “Isolation” do in terms of fear and tension, he said.
It’s also easy to see how the original movie and specifically, the scene Jefferson described, helped shape this experience. Jefferson said the goal was to capture the tension of that scene, the sort of panic of not knowing where the Alien is, what it’s doing, or how close it might be to you.
“That informed a lot of the moment-to-moment gameplay,” he said. “When Rival and D3 approached us with the concept, we realized it was a game right in the sweet spot of ‘Alien’ that we hadn’t offered to ‘Alien’ fans yet. Mobile seemed right for the length of gameplay and how it worked. It was a very compelling concept.”
While some fans were disappointed with the news that it was a mobile game, and not a PC or console title, or more specifically the sequel to “Alien: Isolation,” Jefferson believes that people will buy and enjoy this game.
The game, which goes on sale for $5 on the Amazon Store, the App Store, and Google Play on Jan. 24, will feature seven levels spread across the seven decks of the space station.
Laakso said the game will also tell a story through the decisions made by players and who does and doesn’t survive.
“We wanted to tell a story that the ‘Alien’s’ fans would appreciate,” he said. “There are four non-player characters and depending on who survives with you, the ending will have a bit of a difference.”