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An hour in hell: Hands-on with Alien: Isolation in virtual reality

Alien: Isolation in virtual reality isn't perfect, but it's one of the best mainstream uses of the technology in gaming. Being inside the world makes it hard to return to standard monitors, but when the bodies begin to stack up it can be hard to continue playing.

Alien: Isolation is tense; it knows how to fill the player with a sense of dread that is rare in this sort of game. The opening hours move slowly, and the progression from an individual on a standard mission into the story of someone fighting for their life is given much care and thought. The pacing is one of the best things about the game, as is the sense of time and place.

Which is why it's so hard to play in virtual reality. I spent way too much time standing in front of a window on the game's first spacecraft, taking in the view of space and the gas giant floating in the view. This may be the closest I'll ever get to being on the bridge of a space craft being briefed for a mission, and it's great fun to just look around and take in the environment. These places feel real, and lived-in, and that sense is only escalated by playing inside virtual reality.

Then the horror begins.

It's one thing to see the xenomorph on a computer monitor and realize it's about the size of a person, it's quite another to be inside the environment and realize that you're sharing your personal space with one of cinema's most proficient killers. The sense of being stalked, of having this entity that close to you, can be overpowering.

During one session it rushed me and knocked me down, and when I looked up I saw it's face inches from my own before the second jaw extended to kill me. It was hard to keep from yelling in shock, and the sudden and violent ways you can die in the game are hard to take when you feel as if you're actually there.

The sense of being stalked can be overpowering

With the Oculus Rift taking up the entirety of your view, and good wireless headphones making sure no external sound can get in, the illusion of being trapped inside this environment is complete.

You can't look away from the TV to remind yourself that you're back in your house and not in space, because turning your head just means you're looking at the wall. Having to flick your eyes from your motion tracker from time to time to make sure nothing is creeping up on you means you can't always be watching what's in front of you, and the near panic of trying to find the alien when you have a ping can be overpowering.

I found myself looking away when it found me and bound towards me. There's nothing you can do to save yourself in those situations, I just didn't want to watch it kill me. It felt like closing your eyes so you didn't have to see the drill the dentist is about to use on your teeth.

So it's effective at what it wants to do, and that's to scare you. But I don't particularly want to be scared in that way. Exploring the environments and the setting is amazing, as is the sense of being isolated in deep space. Being killed, over and over, is not. I had to take a break after trying the main game and some of the survival missions an hour or two into the experience, it was just too much.

If this is the future of horror games, and full Rift support would likely make the experience much better, fans of the genre may be one of the most enthusiastic supports of VR. But I'm tapping out.

What's next

It's also clear that this isn't a "hack" as much as players are accessing content that someone began to work on and then stopped before finishing for whatever reason. The instructions for getting the virtual reality mode working are simple, and the code you need to add to the games files specifically calls for the word "Rift" to be used.

Cutscenes and videos play as if they're projected on a movie screen a few feet in front of you, and you can look around menus to interact with the game's options. These things don't just happen; someone involved with the game spent at least a little bit of time adding virtual reality support.

It's equally clear that the mode isn't finished. Particles don't quite render correctly, and any scene where you see your own body results in clipping issues. The scale is also off, everything seems slightly smaller than it should if you were the size of the character in the game.

These are fixable issues, and once you get used to them you're free to explore the game's environments, even taking advantage of positional tracking so you can look around corners to peek at the alien or lean towards details in the game's world to explore your surroundings.

And yes, it's as cool as it sounds. But it's not exactly fun.

The next level of puzzles.

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