Aliens: Colonial Marines: Can it topple Halo, Gears and Call of Duty?
28th Oct 2011 | 18:30
Many have tried, but few have succeeded. Despite the rich source material and the fact that most modern shooters have liberally borrowed from the films, you can count the number of decent Aliens games on one hand. The hand of a clumsy five-finger-fillet player.
Most recently, Rebellion tried to resurrect Aliens vs Predator, the original of which is still seen as the only credible game to star H.R. Giger's Xenomorphs, but it was a flop.
Even with all the fancy lighting tech and pin-sharp sound capabilities of modern consoles, no-one has managed to capture the brutal, foreboding essence of Aliens. That may be about to change.
"The films are essentially our bibles, and directly influence our daily decisions," says Brian Cozzens, art director at Gearbox, developer of Aliens Colonial Marines. "We're huge fans of the series and we've seen in the past what happens when others take too much artistic liberty with a franchise. We want this game to be convincing!" He goes on: "Obviously we want new surprises as well and we're being very careful about those."
Early signs are promising. The original teaser trailer set fan forums alight with mention of LV-426, the planet nuked during Aliens, and since then footage has really captured the feeling of being part of the Colonial Marines - right down to the kit they use, the way they move, and the banter they shout.
Gearbox have a whole group dedicated to accuracy called the Truth Team. Created in 2008, after the announcement of Colonial Marines, these testers regularly play through the latest version of the game, looking for continuity errors inside and outside the plot. If it doesn't belong in the Aliens universe, or feels too fiddly or tenuous, these guys report back to the devs. It's impressive commitment.
CAMERON VS SCOTT
So, what of the game? The demo we played was a Call of Duty-style thrill-ride, with a wealth of references to the movies. There's no doubting its intensity in these heavy action sequences, and to Gearbox's credit, they've nailed the look and sound of the tools - the Pulse rifles, the Motion sensors - but for us the true beauty of Aliens is the stuff you don't see, combined with the feeling of being inside a terrifying place. Will there be slower moments with more tension and horror?
"Aliens Colonial Marines is much more a spiritual successor to Cameron's Aliens than the other films," says Cozzens. "But we also are big fans of the lone survival aspet of Ridley's Alien. We want the game to stand out amongst current first-person shooters so you'll see where we dial up and down action, suspense, mystery and horror throughout the game - we're aiming for a buffet of these elements."
The buffet offered by our demo is a little limited. It starts as the badly damaged USS Sulaco - now boarded by a fresh batch of marines from the USS Saphora - crash-lands onto the surface of LV-426. Our playable character, Winters, wakes up dazed and bruised but has the sense to grab a shotgun before crawling his way out of the wreckage.
It's here we get our first sniff of Aliens - a facehugger floats motionlessly in a tank until we approach, when it suddenly comes to life, banging against the glass to try and break free. A cheap scare, but it feels perfectly in context. We navigate another series of jumpy moments torn straight from Dead Space and emerge inside a control room. Here the entire wall is missing, leaving an uninterrupted view of the Hadley's Hope colony. Or what's left of it. It's a big, brash homage - a love letter to James Cameron - and it's what we've waited years to see.
Tonally, it's spot-on. Gearbox's much-trumpeted new lighting systems bathe the area in authentic shades of blue and black (and flashing red light, later in the demo) and everything looks as if it belongs in the Aliens universe. The devs are keen to point out the involvement of Syd Mead, the futurist designer who inspired Cameron's film. "Having Syd on board has enabled us to recreate as authentic a visual experience in Aliens Colonial Marines as possible," says Cozzens.
"But we're not bound by the same constraints so we're quite pumped about being able to show you the areas for various locales that the fans never got to see." In addition to new areas, Colonial Marines will revisit famous locales from the Aliens film. According to Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford you'll see the vent where Vasquez and Gorman sacrifice themselves, and you'll travel through the cargo bay which still bares the cloudy-white spatter of Bishop's dismembering. And yes, the power-loader is there - but you won't get to pilot it. Not here, anyway.
Back in our demo, it all kicks off when a Xeno announces itself in characteristic fashion by rudely snatching a squad-mate through a vent. Shotgun cocked, it's time to kick ass. We're assaulted by a wave of enemies, but they fall apart after a couple of blasts, and it feels just a little underwhelming. There's none of the tension or desperation of movies here, although the scene ends with a tactical retreat when a new alien type - the Queen-sized Crusher - busts into view and scatters the surviving marines.
We understand the need to mix things up, and the Crusher does just that, but having spent so long revelling in the authenticity of Colonial Marines, introducing a new breed to create an obligatory 'boss fight' feels a little jarring. "In the Aliens universe, there are variants that we see throughout the various films and we thought it would be quite interesting to explore these differences," says Cozzens, as we ask about the inclusion of the Crusher.
"We're also dealing with some factors that have occurred after the atmospheric processors explosion that we feel could make the traditional Xenomorph formula much more unique and exciting. But that's a surprise!" Mutant aliens seems like a decent bet. But if that still seems at odds with a faithful follow-up to the film - like the finer details of Colonial Marines' plot - Gearbox's writers are taking pains to make absolutely certain that it slots seamlessly into the canon.
We can at least confirm that the next part of our demo definitely feels canon. Winters regroups inside a maintenance tunnel, grabs a Pulse rifle, and deploys sentry turrets. Waves of enemies attack, but the humans have the upper hand now, their superior firepower ripping the alien menace apart. This is more like it.
The Xenomorphs respond by scuttling into vents and attacking the electrical systems. Gradually, we're plunged into near-pitch darkness, a strobing red beacon our only source of light. Then they attack again. Now there's panic, and terror - the sense of hopelessness - that threads through the film.
Fittingly, our demo ends with a death - ours, to be precise. Having retreated to the cargo bay of the Sulaco, we're still alive, but our numbers have been reduced. Then the Crusher smashes into shot, and its opening gambit is tearing apart the marine unfortunate enough to be closest. Then it turns its attention to us. Helpless, we can only stare at the screen as it rushes over and bites Winters' head clean off. Good night.
Will the death of all playable characters be a theme of the final game? Are Gearbox so keen to service the franchise that they'll kill off the player whatever they do? It would be an admirably bold move for sure, and one that could give Colonial Marines an interesting additional angle to anyone not blown away by its authenticity.
"At Gearbox we're all hardcore game players and we make sure to analyse and enjoy all the games that might be relevant to whatever title we're currently working on," says Cozzens. "We feel the horror genre of videogames doesn't get enough attention so we definitely are handling this aspect with kid gloves." There's no doubting the real sense of horror in the game so far. The bodycount, the atmosphere, the impressively lit settings - they're all pointing towards a game desperate to terrify.
Yet, Gearbox have their work cut out in this department, especially as the game will be playable in co-op. How do you scare four players at once when they're all looking in different directions, or chatting over Live? It's tricky. The demo gave a flavour of more traditional scare tactics like vents collapsing in showers of sparks, hisses of steam, and classic misdirection where you're encouraged to look one way, only for something else to happen out of the corner of your eye. Or behind you.
However, horror is only half the battle. Right now the action seems solid - definitely competent, without dazzling. The pacing of the demo was high-tempo, leaving us with little down-time to reflect on each encounter. And despite looking authentic, weapons currently sound like pop-guns, making blasting Xenomorphs a touch unsatisfying at this stage.
The Aliens themselves lack that spider-like menace that comes across in the films too - there needs to be more fluidity to their movements. However, there's plenty of time to work on these problems, with 'early 2012' the new estimated release date for Colonial Marines. It's a long way from the game's initial announcement back in 2008, before the ill-fated Aliens vs Predator was even talked about - but this is something Cozzens is keen to downplay.
"There was quite a bit of time between the announcement of the game and when we wrote our first line of code. Very much a side effect of everyone being so excited to have the opportunity to work on this title. There are certain parts to the franchise that are quite unique and we don't want to rush these things either - we desire them to be fun!"
So do we - it's something we've been waiting a long, long time for - and if we're not grinnin' when Colonial Marines drops its linen this will feel like one of the generation's biggest missed opportunities.