Aliens: Colonial Marines is everything I'd want in an Aliens game starring tragically overconfident space Marines. It is spectacular with sprays of gunfire, acidic green blood, and horrific death.
It is the rolling retreat of Marines in the face of an ocean of crawling, face-hugging, meat-rending xenomorphs.
But before we get into the half hour of gameplay I witnessed, Gearbox Studios' president Randy Pitchford—a man who knows a lot about this sci-fi universe in which he's building his game— sets the scene.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a game that returns players to the setting of Aliens, a planet first seen in the original 1979 Alien movie. That planet, later named LV-426, becomes the setting for terraforming colonists and their inappropriately named settlement "Hadley's Hope".
In Aliens, Colonial Marines fly in to reestablish contact with the colonists who have stopped reporting in. They discover Aliens and with the help of Ellen Ripley, all die trying to kill them off. Ripley, Hicks, and the child Newt all escape on the spaceship Sulaco which is destined for Earth.
In Alien 3, the Sulaco experiences a fire and enters the orbit of Fiorna "Fury" 161, a penal colony planet. That movie ends with Ripley dying as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation try to capture her and reap the Alien Queen that has infested her.
This game opens shortly after the ending of Alien 3 with members of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation arriving at the Sulaco to investigate. They discover aliens on the ship as well as ship logs which point them back to Hadley's Hope.
You play as Winter, a member of the Colonial Marines sent to investigate what happened to the Sulaco after it arrived back at Hadley's Hope with its inquisitive Weyland-Yutani crew. You come in a full battle vessel packed with Marines. When the Marines board the Sulaco all hell breaks loose, say Pitchford.
The game is broken up into three acts. Act One takes place aboard the Sulaco. Act Two is on the surface of the planet and Act Three is inside the derelict alien spacecraft seen in the first movie.
Pitchford said that one of the ways the developers are able to move between the action of Aliens and the horror of Alien is by making sure Winter isn't always in a major squad of marines. They accomplish that by separating the player from the massive troop transport vessel of Marines early in the game. The ship they are on initially crashes, Pitchford says, spreading the Marines wily-nily across the planet like the real-life Army paratroopers at Normandy.
It was important for the game to have a lot of those Marines because it needs fodder for aliens, he added. "You want a nice volume of red shirts because it's cool to see aliens killing Marines," he said.
Earlier, during the half-hour demo, I saw a lot of that. A video quickly ran through some of the scene-setting moments of the first act, and then dropped us into a section of the second act, where Marines are stranded on the planet surface.
The screen is almost completely devoid of the typical icons and symbols that clutter a first-person shooter. The ammo count is displayed on the weapon. When your motion tracker detects movement it beeps. You need to pull it out to use it to sweep the area, which does take up a bit of the screen, but doesn't prevent you from firing a weapon at the same time. There are, however, weapons that require both of your hands, which means you can't use the tracker at the same time.
I didn't notice it, but Pitchford later told me that when Winter is injured a heartbeat monitor pops up along the bottom of the screen to show your current state of health.
In the demo, Winter and a large group of Marines are working their way through a series of bays in a compound on the surface of the planet. They're in full retreat, firing on the aliens that appear and skitter around the surface. As we run through the rooms an alien pops out of an opening in the ceiling, grabs and marines and yanks him screaming up through the ceiling.
Another alien tries to grab you, but Winter holds his rifle in front of him, pushing the alien back. Button pushes finally get Winter to knock the alien in the head several times and fire off a blast of the gun into the creature.
"That's called a close encounter," Pitchford says.
We're outside again running to another set of buildings when a new type of alien appears. It's called a crusher. It has a thickly scaled hide and a flat shovel-like head. It is immune to gunfire. We're running through wreckage on the surface when the creature suddenly appears, running full speed into an unsuspecting Marine, driving his body back into a metal wall, flattening him.
The gameplay ends as Winter skids under a closing bay door with the press of the X button.
There's a brief last-stand speech and a chance to rearm at a table weighed down with an impressive array of weapons. Then we're setting up trying to prepare for the pending alien attack on our fort.
Pitchford says this is a last-stand moment and that we could use some help. The game, he tells us, has four player drop in, drop out coop. Another marine suddenly walks out from the back of the marines, he's being controlled by a second player.
Winter carries a turret down a set of metal stairs to a corridor, the other player following. They set up the device over a transparent image of the turret and activate it. Pitchford notes that the sentry turret actually appeared in the Director's Cut of Aliens.
Winter, the other player and several other Marines crowd around the auto-firing turret, firing into a crowd of aliens that start working their way down the corridor. The aliens come in spiraling paths that has them crawling along the walls and ceilings. Pitchford says none of the movement is scripted, that the AI of the aliens knows to treat the walls, the ceilings—any flat surface, it seems—as a floor.
As Winter fires into the aliens, one of the pops out from a vent on the wall and drags a Marine back into it with it.
The position beyond saving, Winter and his pal run back upstairs where they see aliens streaming into the room through vents in the ceilings and walls. The aliens drop to the floor, jump over crates, bound toward you. The lights go out, in the silence and the black you can hear the motion tracking beeps of an approaching horde.
Red emergency lights kick back on, illuminating a room seething with alien life.
We retreat again, falling back in the face of overwhelming odds. Winter makes it through a door as the other player runs up to it and begins to wield it shut. Pitchford later tells me the ability to wield doors shut is a mechanic in the game, a choice players can make that is accomplished through a hacking minigame.
In this final large bay, these few Marines try to reorganize and prepare for the final breach. Some of them climb into exo-suit cargo loaders. Those are controllable by players too, Pitchford says. The large doors in this big bay begin to dent and bulge inward. Finally edges begin to peel back and then come the aliens, streaming through, skittering along walls, ceilings, dropping to the floor. The room becomes a tableau of blood, red and green; death, alien and Marine.
Winter and the other player are fighting their own battles as Marines kill and are killed all around them. Shortly into the battle one of the men in the exo-suit is overwhelmed, knocked to the floor and then covered in writhing aliens. The bay is pulled open and a massive alien steps into the room, the exo-suits look tiny next to it.> It grabs Winter and bites straight at the screen, which goes black.
"It is our duty and privilege to do what needs to be done to let people recreate the fantasies they have about Aliens," Pitchford says later.
That includes being able to fight off a giant alien in an exosuit, using the motion tracker to witness your impending death and witness a chest burst or too.
But the game can't just be a rehash of what we all loved about the series.
"At the same time, when you play the game that's cool, but the real fun things are what we are adding to the fiction, like the new xenotypes," he said. "The equipment that we got from supplemental material, like from the film technical guide."
Aliens: Colonial Marines hits next year on the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It is in development, Pitchford said, for the Wii U.