Aliens: Colonial Marines: is authenticity enough?

An awkward moment follows Gearbox’s demonstration of Aliens: Colonial Marines’ campaign. After a moodily lit climb up the floors surrounding the gigantic power generator of the marines’ starship, the Sulaco, the Aliens fan in us is delighted to find it exactly as James Cameron’s cast left it back in 1986. But then senior producer Brian Burleson is asked what Gearbox’s new game brings to the firstperson shooter genre besides its storied, weighty licence.

In a way, it’s an unfair question: the licence dictates everything, including weapon balance, enemy movement speed and level design, and by committing to authenticity Gearbox leaves itself little room for experimentation. But there the question lingers. After such a long spell in development, and such an ardent focus on fan service, is Colonial Marines really a game, or a movie set tour? Burleson replies with a smile: “It has aliens in it.”

It’s immediately evident when playing the solo campaign that Colonial Marines is as uncomplicated as Burleson’s answer, its appeal lying in its fanatical attention to detail. Our playthrough begins with a trot across the surface of LV-426. The mission takes place after the events of Alien 3, with the aim of finding out what happened on the Sulaco’s doomed mission to the planet. Our fellow marines trudge behind us – ready to be controlled by either online co-op buddies or AI.

Stumbling over the Hadley’s Hope sign and seeing the colony emerge from the gloom is surprisingly powerful. Gearbox’s enthusiasm for the game’s deferred lighting system isn’t just bluster. The lighting instead adds to the atmosphere, used thoughtfully to create arresting silhouettes and to rattle your confidence – the next dark corner may not hide a xenomorph, but you’re never sure.

“We spent a lot of our preproduction time making this custom lighting system that plugs into Unreal Engine 3,” explains environment artist Chris Neely. “We had to design something from the ground up that would give us the capability to create… all this tension, to create all these dynamic events and to recreate the look and feel of what we experienced growing up watching [Aliens].”

It’s the latter where Colonial Marines exudes confidence, with tonal and narrative continuity its métier. That brings its own problems, though. Many areas in the game were imagined by futurist concept artist Syd Mead some 27 years ago, meaning they were designed without AI pathfinding or drop-in co-op in mind. The in-game result is a mission structure similar to BioShock and the System Shock games, but on a far smaller scale.

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