In the time I’ve spent playing Alien: Isolation, I haven’t been able to take my eyes off the screen. But there’s not being able to take your eyes off the screen, and there’s not being able to take the screen off your eyes.
On a flat screen, this game is scary. When you’re trapped in virtual reality, it becomes a nerve-jangling brownquake of bowel-loosening terror, on a par with the genre-creating film from whose chest it exploded. But while Alien may be the best horror movie ever made, I'm not sure I'm man enough for 10-20 hours of this stuff.
When Oculus offered me the chance to play Alien: Isolation on their latest developer kit, I was confident I’d be able to survive for upwards of five minutes. I’d been practicing on a standard TV setup, and I’d figured out a relatively death-free way to get through the first segment. I built a noisemaker from spare parts, used it to distract the creature and crept through several rooms before realising I’d taken a wrong turn.
At that point, I did what I imagine I’d do if I really did find myself in a deserted spaceship being hunted by a hissing, invincible nightmare made from knives and acid: I hid under a table and waited to die. It didn’t take long.
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While the visual immersion of the Oculus version doubles the speed and intensity with which Isolation ruins your underwear, there are changes in gameplay that make it creepier still.
In the standard flatscreen version, when you push the button to pull up at your proximity sensor, the rest of your view goes out of focus as you watch the deadly green blob that represents the ‘creature’. In the Oculus version, you have to physically look down to see the sensor. This is horrible, because you’re turning your body away from the unsafe space that harbours the claws and teeth from which you’re hiding, exposing the top of your head and the back of your neck. It gives you the wrong, prickly feeling you get when you turn your back on an empty doorway into an unlit room. It also makes the game even harder, because you tend to sneak furtive glances at the sensor rather than constantly checking the creature’s position.
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More peering occurs when you get in a cupboard. Getting in a cupboard happens a lot in Alien: Isolation, because lockers and cupboards are your main survival tools. Hiding in a locker is the pretty much the only way to share a room with the creature and remain uneaten. Of the few hours I’ve spent playing the game, perhaps half of that has been spent in a cupboard. You sneak breathlessly to another cupboard when the coast is clear, then watch in horror as the alien walks in and stands exactly where you were just standing, tasting the volume of air you’ve just left. To check the coast is clear, you can lean forward and peer through the slits in the door (you don’t want to do this if the alien is right outside), and in the flatscreen version you do this with the sticks. In the Oculus version, you lean your head forward and peer around. Then you look down at your proximity sensor, again by physically bending your soft, vulnerable neck, and you squeeze back out into the room.
Then you realise it’s waiting for you around the corner, listening, and you hear the whung-whung-whung of its feet on the metal floor and you scurry into the next room, as far back under the table as you can go, and it finds you anyway and drags you out and its jaws close over your face.
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As the loading screen returned, I wasn’t sure I wanted another go. However, I was also keenly aware of having made some kind of girlish mewling noise in front of the Oculus team when the Alien dragged me out from under the table and ate my head, so I also wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the Rift off yet.
One of the saving graces of playing this game on the current prototype is that it’s still relatively low-res. After a second go at getting through past the Alien in which I spent an embarrassing amount of time hiding in an air duct before being impaled on the creature’s tail, I spoke to Oculus's Nate Mitchell about how it would look on the final consumer version of the Rift. He mentioned a setup the VR engineers at Valve (several of whom have recently moved over to Oculus) called ‘The Room’ – a dizzyingly immersive, almost completely convincing VR environment that is the Oculus benchmark for what they want to achieve with the consumer headset. Personally, for games like Lucky’s Tale and Superhot, this kind of holodeck-level immersion sounds amazing.
But for hiding in a cupboard waiting to be eviscerated? I’m not sure I have the nerve.
READ MORE: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey speaks to Stuff