The challenge Gearbox faces in making Aliens: Colonial Marines is twofold. First, since this is an authorized product, they need to make a game that seamlessly slides into Aliens continuity. Given the way that dev studio CEO Randy Pitchford can quote chapter and verse from the movie franchise timeline, this problem seems to be well in hand.
The second part of the challenge is what seems trickier. They need to make a first-person shooter that stands out in a very oversaturated category. One could argue that James Cameron's sci-fi masterpiece may have wound up informing every piece of human-soldiers-vs-extraterrestrials fiction since it came out. But, series like Halo, Resistance or Killzone have set the gameplay expectations for this kind of experience. Do the intergalactic jarheads of Gearbox's upcoming game stand a chance?
This was all in the back of my mind when I sat down for hands-on time with Colonial Marines last week.
I started in a mission about ¼ through the game that takes place after the Sulaco crash-lands. My character was part of a squad of marines ordered to investigate. Surprisingly, the Xenomorphs feel even scarier than they do in the movies. I wasn't expecting that. Here's where the game stakes out some territory of its own. In the movies, you only ever get quick glimpses of the Xenos as they pounce and kill.
In the game, I watched their creepy movements as they worked their way straight at me or crawled along the ceiling or walls. Xenos come in different classes, too. Lurkers are sneakier and will flank you. As you work your way into hive environments, they'll blend into the scenery before attacking. The more aggressive Soldier Xenos are what viewers saw in Aliens. They attack in numbers and soak up ammo to soften Marines up for the kill.
Colonial Marines does a great job of mimicking the chilly atmospherics of the movies. The sound design was mostly quiet in downtime but the screeches of the Xenos and the bursts of the Pulse Rifles sounded "right." Environments are appropriately dark and become oozy and throbbing as you enter the Xenos' nests. I fought through one such area and it was pretty clear that I was on the bad guys' home turf. I died a lot in this section, with Xenos surrounding me often. You'll get acid spit in the face or burning blood splatter if you let Xenos get too close to you, meaning that you'll need to shove enemies away before you start shooting. They're a lot faster than the player so this isn't as easy as it sounds.
Vitality gets replenished via health packs but there were moments where they were few and far in between. Armor and weapons will have scalable attributes to improve their functionality. I got to wield the familiar Pulse Rifle in the game but the gun that felt the best was the M65 smartgun, which tracked targets after locking on. It's the kind of weapon that makes you sad once it runs out of ammo. You'll also be able to deploy automatic turrets in certain parts of the game. The one time I did this was when making a stand in a makeshift command center while Xenos swarmed in from all angles. This made me feel a little safer but only for a little while.
Lead producer Brian Burleson was my guide into the Campaign portion of the game and, like Pitchford, he too was frequently dropping Alien factoids. For example, he pointed out how the motion trackers—so familiar to people who've watched the films—can be unreliable. The tracker's alert chime sounded while I stalked through a silent corridor and I flipped it open to see what set it off. Turning a corner nervously and expecting an attack, it turned out that the culprit was a rag caught in a ceiling fan. And, yeah, my NPC partner gave me shit about being so twitchy. The first part of the mission walked me through the Hadley's Hope colony, placing motion detectors throughout. Familiar scenery and details abound in Colonial Marines. You'll also find audiologs that bring new insight into the residents of Hadley's Hope and will stumble into rooms that hint at the experiments evil corporation Weyland Yutani might have done in trying to harvest the Xenomorphs.
My hour with the game made it feel like a competent shooter with strong horror elements. The work put into infusing the game with Aliens lore comes across well. And the animations of the Xenos had an eerie hypnotic quality that made me shudder and panic even while shooting them. If anything will make Aliens: Colonial Marines stand apart from other FPSes, it's how well Gearbox blends the mix of first-contact terror, military bravado and human emotion that the Aliens movies do so well.