The nightmare returns in Aliens: Colonial Marines

The nightmare returns in Aliens: Colonial Marines

No self-respecting long-running game studio would think of furnishing a lobby without wall-mounted glass display cases. Gearbox Software, just down the road from Dallas, Texas, has plenty to showcase, having ported versions of Halo and 007: Nightfire, and created original IP such as Brothers In Arms and Borderlands. But one of the Gearbox lobby’s cases is curious, because it’s dedicated to an unfinished game. The case for Aliens: Colonial Marines contains action figures of the iconic xenomorphs, sure to traumatise any child on Christmas morning, along with the first draft of Colonial Marines’ script and a magazine feature about the game. The latter two items date from 2008.

Yet Gearbox seems eager to replace these ageing icons of a game announced all the way back in 2006, and just upstairs from this lobby is a playable version of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s here that the game’s creators finally pull back the long-standing veil of secrecy surrounding the title, although the first pronouncement about this squad-based firstperson shooter isn’t exactly a shock. 

“Everybody dies,” says John Mulkey, design director on Colonial Marines. “There’s ?a long list of people who are sacrificed along the way in this adventure.” This proclamation isn’t much of a spoiler if you’re a fan of the franchise, but its simple brutality speaks volumes about the authenticity Gearbox wants to deliver for series diehards.

Gearbox has landed the honour of creating official Alien canon. The deaths in question wouldn’t have been the sign-off point for its licensing deal with 20th Century Fox, but considering the game picks up where 1986’s Aliens left off in cinemas, it’s fair to assume things have only got worse since the USS Sulaco’s ill-fated last crew members made it to their escape pod.

Indeed, Colonial Marines’ campaign opens on a skybridge between a carrier ship and the Sulaco, where you, as a marine named Winter, have been sent 17 weeks after the events of Aliens to respond to a distress signal. The ship had been reported destroyed, “and yet it’s on the other side of that door in orbit over LV-426”, your commanding officer states over the radio, referencing the colonised moon setting of Aliens, a place well known to series fans. The skybridge is rocked by an explosion, and after scrambling to get inside, a soldier greets you with grim news as he tends to fallen comrades: “They tore right through us.”

From there, the first steps within Colonial Marines’ battered carrier are as haunting as they are familiar. Dislodged cryo tubes might be a welcome sight, but perhaps not the nearby torso ripped in half, nor the slashed wires and conspicuous holes in floors and ceilings. After blowtorching your way through a sealed door, the depths of the Sulaco appear, although they’re smothered in alien goo and vines. “God, no, no,” Winter whispers between heavy breaths after he sees a body left for dead in the wall grime, while another marine screams for help. This poor soldier is trapped in repulsive alien muck, begging to be cut out, and written on his shirt is a rather ominous phrase: ‘Tag, you’re it!’

As if on cue, an alien darts about nearby, moving too quickly to hit and appearing at every possible angle. It’s at this point that players can pull out a motion tracker to keep tabs on the organic killing machine. Your marine needs at least one free hand to pull the tracker up, and since the game doesn’t use an onscreen HUD to display health, map or ammo counts, the tracker’s implementation creates a conundrum for players.

“With the motion tracker and that ?trade-off, the goal there, the fantasy, is to ?be one of the colonial marines, right?” says Randy Pitchford, president and CEO of Gearbox. “When we’re playing a videogame, we like the HUD stuff, and we like getting a lot of feedback and information. But it occurred to us, if we’re going to truly get ?that fantasy, that feeling of being a colonial marine, then we have to have, as a component of it, a trade-off of some of our priorities.”

So while players will hear a loud beep when anything moves nearby, they’ll have to pick between a larger gun or a better tactical understanding of the play space. Unless, that is, players team up in co-op. Every mission can be played by up to four people, and players can apparently drop in and out of friends’ games as they please. 

After wasting the errant alien and freeing the trapped, nameless marine, Winter disobeys an order to return, instead venturing farther through the Sulaco’s corridors and confronting larger waves of baddies. Though the xenomorphs don’t appear in Doom-like numbers in this opening level, Gearbox has made the most of their flexible skeletons. They’ll pop out of tiny nooks and crannies before either slithering along the ceilings or rearing back to full, terrifying height. The studio’s also promised dynamic AI to deliver varied combat every time, which should help to pay off on the sense of threat of the setting and those spine-chilling silhouettes.

On the way to a recognisable recreation of the hangar from the films, the marines walk past a series of friendly sentry turrets, then pick up auto-aiming ‘smart’ guns that lay waste to a frightening number of foes before returning to the skybridge. There, the marine you rescued pays off on his foreboding shirt: he falls to his knees as an alien bursts out of his chest, and blows himself up. This forces Winter to retreat, crawling back on to the Sulaco. The death won’t be the game’s last.

From the sound of it, Colonial Marines ?will have Winter traversing plenty of familiar territory, whether pressing farther into the Sulaco, landing on the more open spaces of LV-426 or climbing into alien fortifications. The game certainly looks the part, as Gearbox has made the most of archival access, courtesy of original film designer Syd Mead, to flesh out content and present some that never appeared in the films. Gearbox also says it went to great lengths to build a new, dynamic lighting system within the Unreal Engine 3 framework. “We need to have that play of shadows, play of light,” Mulkey says. “Xenos ?like to hide in the shadows.”

We’re not able to take a crack at the game’s multiplayer modes, but the default option described by the producers will pit aliens against marines in team combat. Although Gearbox compares the mode to 2010’s Aliens Vs Predator, it sounds more like Left 4 Dead, as the human side’s firepower faces off against aliens’ heightened senses, manoeuvrability and melee attacks. Gearbox says that we can expect accumulation and challenges through both the single- and multiplayer modes, and the points players earn can be spent to unlock weapons, gear, alien classes and more. In fact, points earned in each mode may be spent on the other.

Public demos of the game have hinted at gear such as the flamethrower and iconic power loader suits. Beyond that, Gearbox is remaining coy on the exact nature of Colonial Marines’s firepower, but has said that we can expect “the classic arsenal from the film”.

The short demo assuages our basest fears about the game’s delays, comparing well to Aliens in both look and acid-splattered combat. But we see only one brief level, and it’s obvious that Gearbox wants to keep a lid on any major surprises that may be in store.

Perhaps campaign co-op will open up more customisation options, and we hope that the xenomorphs prove as horrifying to deal with as Gearbox promises – having to tensely watch the angles to survive has the potential to deliver plenty of the series’ signature thrills. And hopefully the script will embrace the cocky, character-driven writing that made the films so likeable; the sequences we’ve seen don’t feature much beyond one-liners.

Ultimately, the game will live and die ?by its devotion to its decades-old source material. Positioned in the tight timeframe between Aliens and Alien 3, Colonial Marines is set to unveil a few surprising xenomorph types and more detailed takes on the films’ set-pieces. Between videogames that have done Alien-style combat to death and modern films, such as Attack The Block, that have reimagined the terror of an alien invasion, Gearbox will need all the firepower it can muster to convince us that its space marines are, as Private First Class Hudson bragged so long ago, still the “ultimate badasses”. No doubt it will come out fighting on Sega’s heavyweight stand at E3 in June

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