Aliens Colonial Marines: In Space, no one can hear you team-kill
4th Apr 2012 | 13:00
Ask any game developer, and they'll tell you without shame that they've been ripping off James Cameron's Aliens their whole career. It's the movie that defined the mechanics of convention of the first-person shooter, so when a studio gets the chance to make not just a licensed Aliens game but a canonical sequel to the movies, the stakes are pretty high.
Luckily for anyone who can quote their way through the entire 1986 movie script, Gearbox software isn't taking that responsibility on lightly - seemingly everyone involved in Aliens Colonial Marines is a die-hard fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Aliens universe. Take art director Brian Cozzens - ask him which specific type of film James Cameron used to shoot Aliens, and without so much as a blink he'll respond: "Kodak 5293."
Cozzens didn't leave it at that though - "that stock was chosen because of the exposure, because it was going to be used mainly on dark sets, and it was very grainy. I actually got in touch with the Kodak labs, and had them send me the specs of that stock with the density/exposure curves, and we're working to reproduce those curves in the game. So we can have the same tone and contrast in the game that we did in the film."
That's a level of dedication even a Tibetan monk would begrudge an approving nod to, and it's the rule rather than the exception of the guys working on Colonial Marines. For a game that's spent so long in development, it's looking technically impressive too, thanks to the deferred lighting engine that powers each inky shadow and flickering light aboard the Sulaco. Textures and poly models are generated before you enter the room, then lighting's handled in real-time - it's like a x10 creepiness multiplier.
Every bit as impressive is the sound - from the terrifying Hollywood score to the authentic motion tracker beeps and pulse rifle bursts that came straight from 20th Century Fox's archives. It's in a team deathmatch multiplayer session that we first get to unleash those bursts of fire, and wince at every tracker blip.
Since Gearbox has been building up the solo campaign and its narrative taken straight from the horses mouth after working with Ridley Scott and concept artist Syd Mead who designed the Sulaco, expectations for Colonial Marines' multiplayer component weren't exactly sky-high before we got hands-on - it just didn't seem to be the focus. It's a bit of a revelation to find a team deathmatch mode that's more than a simple xeno-bashing muck about - the asymmetrical gameplay is equal parts tense and grin-inducing.
We're plunged into a team of marines. On the other side, the gearbox devs playing as the Aliens. It's 8v8, first to 50 kills. Before we spawn, there's a chance to customise our armoury and get a grip with one of the new guns designed by Gearbox. In addition to the pulse rifle and shotgun, there's a new assault rifle that feels somewhere between the pulse rifle and S.M.A.R.T. gun, the latter of which gives you a fancy HUD and an auto-aiming mode, but is only available as an on-map pickup. We're not enamoured by the new boomstick, opting for the pulse rifle and its authentic purr and muzzle flash.
After being shredded by the Gearbox-xenos over and over again, and one more time for luck, the tactics become clear - you need to play like you're in the movie. Stick together, hug the walls, use the motion tracker and watch the corners. Basically anything that sounds like Apone would say is applicable here.
Crouching in a corner is particularly effective, and as our eight-man squad starts to get the hang of it, the momentum sways our way. The xenos use ceilings and ventilation shafts to get close, then rush in from short range at the last minute - exactly like the movies, then. Maybe that's the most striking thing about this multiplayer mode - the game mechanics act like James Cameron himself, guiding you into performing a role that replicates the movie and creates a kind of effortless authenticity.
The alien gameplay is completely the opposite of everything we're learning as a marine. For starters, the view's switched to third person. Presumably Gearbox want to make the least disorienting way of moving around, but the unfortunate by-product is that it shows off some pretty rudimentary movement animations - the game's still pre-alpha at this point though, so it can be forgiven for lacking a little polish here and there.
There's a class system for xenos, too. From what we can make out between the panicked muzzle-flashes and grenades, there are three types hitting us - the common-or-garden xenomorph, a sneakier 'skulker' variety who rely on getting close undetected then dropping on our laps, and third monstrosity called the 'crusher' - basically the tank for L4D in xeno-form. Every bit as horrifying and difficult as it sounds.
To succeed, a team of xenos needs to exploit its x-ray vision - you can see surrounding friends and foes thanks to a visual overlay reminiscent of the AvP series' xeno levels. Stick to the ceilings, flank enemies, and time attacks to overwhelm enemies when they're at their most flustered - it seems to work for Gearbox against us, anyway.
The score remains close into the dying seconds. Each xeno-attack is a high-stakes operation - if they time it perfectly they can run though the whole team, slashing us to space-spaghetti. If they don't get the jump on us, our superior firepower and range makes distinctly unappetising mincemeat of them.
It's settled by the last bullet - the xenos tore through us all with the help of a crusher, making it 49-49, and one plucky dev tried to snatch victory with a quick frontal attack. Just before he slashes our eyes out, a hail of gunfire turns him into a smoking corpse, and we claim victory.
It isn't just the balance that impresses, or the cinematic finale we just enjoyed. It's the balance Colonial Marines has found between creating a fun, light-hearted multiplayer environment and /recreating/ the tension and horror from the movies. The shadowy corridors play their part, along with the pitch-perfect sound. The frenzied marine chatter - that's atmospheric. But what really counts, and gives us faith in Colonial Marines after six years in development, is that Gearbox appears to have nailed the action sequences from the 1986 movie, and made them work exactly as you'd hope in game-form.
After the succession of underwhelming AvP games from Rebellion and Monolith the Aliens universe is crying out for a game that delivers on that incredible potential. It's not a question of whether Colonial marines will be the best Aliens game yet - it's a question of whether any game will match our incredibly high expectations as fans. Look into my eye - this is as close as it's going to get.
Our friends over at at Official Nintendo Magazine have also been taking a look at Gearbox's newest Wii U offering, be sure to check their Aliens: Colonial Marines Wii U preview for even more details