Xeno-blast: Hands-on with the Aliens: Colonial Marines campaign
11th Dec 2012 | 16:00
It's mad that we're only now getting hands-on with the single-player mode in
This is a very different project for Gearbox than Duke Nukem Forever, the videogame equivalent of a troubled ruffian bouncing from one foster home to the next. It's been with the Texas developer all the way along, from the first talk held between Brian Martell and Ridley Scott that lit the touch paper. All the same, that worry can't quite subside in the face of rational thought.
See, not only does Aliens: Colonial Marines carry the hulking weight of a five-year development cycle on its slimy great shoulders, it also has to succeed as two distinct entities; as an exhilarating first person shooter with solid weapon feedback, enemy behaviour and level design, and as a kind of walk-in virtual museum of Giger/Scott/Cameron fanboyism. Shooter fans and sci-fi nerds. Easygoing bunch, the pair.
You'd have placed your bets on Colonial Marines clearing the fan-pleasing hurdle first. This is after all, as Gearbox never fails to mention, a canonical sequel to Aliens, set just after the events of Alien 3. One plot hole and the venture's sunk. And yet this absurdly anticipated hands-on session demonstrates that actually, the game's very atmospheric. It's tense. It plays with shadows and vaguely xenomorph-shaped silhouettes in that fine tradition of all Aliens titles since Rebellion's 1999 Aliens Versus Predator.
And damn it all, if it isn't quite affecting after all to stomp over a crest on LV-426, the setting from the 1986 movie, and find the Hadley's Hope facility poking through the gloom on the horizon. It's just as gratifying to be toured through the corridors of Hadley's, passing the sentry turrets that gave up on Cameron's cast, stepping over the acid-soaked floor panels.
Colonial Marines doesn't look cutting edge, but the trumpeted deferred lighting engine (more light sources, higher shadow detail) does a great job of swathing the fairly basic surface textures and architecture in drama.
The atmosphere only lasts as long as the safety's clicked 'on' on your pulse rifle though. When your tour of Hadley's concludes and you're tasked with setting up motion sensors in a series of befuddling identical corridors, the aliens make their entrance with surprisingly little pomp and ceremony. Remember the first time you saw a xeno in, heck, any of the movies? Quite the event.
On the big screen, even the first xeno in a particular scene was treated with such reverence by the camera that you wondered if it wouldn't wipe out the whole cast right here, and you just paid to watch a 40-minute film. That's lacking here in Colonial Marines. Obviously the alien count's exponentially higher than the movies and it'd be silly to treat every enemy as the first, but your AI squadmates don't seem to react like their life's on the line.
At times, they don't even react like there's anything to stub a half-smoked cigarette out over, tracking xenos sluggishly with their S.M.A.R.T. guns and pulse rifles and lackadaisically taking bites and scratches to the back. For their part, the xenomorphs move convincingly - that is to say they move like men in rubber suits, just as they do in the movies. And that's no accident - it's a commitment to honouring the game's source material, says environmental artist Chris Neely.
"Ultimately those movies are limited by guys being in rubber suits, but we wanted to remain faithful to those xenos and to that time period. We wanted to make something that had human characteristic but was still agile and graceful." Those faithfully humanistic enemies have a habit of falling into evocative and cinematic body positions - when you stuff a shotgun under one's chin, it moves just as the xeno did when Hicks pulled off that particular manoeuvre.
But if enemy contact is all the more enjoyable for its faithfulness to the movie, level design feels constrained by it. The challenge Gearbox's level designers face is that what concept artist and Hollywood legend Syd Mead designed to be effective movie sets in 1986 do not appear to translate to effective FPS environments in 2012. In its quest for authenticity, Gearbox has ended up with some tight, often confusingly laid out levels that rely on re-treading ground to create objectives.
The aforementioned motion sensor deployment objective feels dictated by the area, not by narrative or to create an interesting set-piece, and at certain points in that mission, which culminates in a wave survival-style standoff using sentries, the whole area feels too small for your squad of four space marines to traverse without tripping each other up.
By excelling in tone, authenticity and atmosphere, Colonial Marines risks lacking finesse as a shooter - meaningful objectives, memorable encounters and a clear sense of why you're here, what you're doing and where you need to go to next. But there is still hope. Hope in the form of drop-in co-op.
That's a mode that hasn't been given a run out yet, but if you use your mind's eye to replace the often inept space marines at your side with mates - mates with headsets, a good aim, and an encyclopaedic one-liner repertoire - you're surely not far off. Even though the industry's doing its best to kill our love of shooting things together as friends by oversaturation, there are certain activities that are perfectly suited to it. Pretending to be space marines, one checking a motion tracker while the other one whispers "stay frosty," is one of them.
And then, inevitably, the competitive multiplayer. The component that it seemed at first Gearbox had developed just to give us something to play at preview events until it was happy with the campaign mode. It's still here, growing in numbers with newly announced Escape (4v4 point-to-point capture) and Extermination (4v4, er... point capture) modes. Being marines versus xenos, it's very asymmetrical - and Gearbox has done a great job of balancing each species to force you to play like James Cameron's calling the shots.
Wanna run off alone and take down all the xenos, hotshot? Yeah, say hi to Vasquez and Gorman in the boiler room. "The aliens know what they're doing and the marines need to stick together or they're gonna get their asses kicked," explains Neely. "But if you work with your buddies and help each other out, let the guy who's hurting grab the armour, check the corners, you have a chance and you can make a stand."
That's no marketing B.S. either - whether you're racing to unlock various doors and race to the A.P.C. in Escape mode or charging bombs on alien hives in Extermination, you'll need to be a freaking hive mind. It's admirably team-focussed, and plenty satisfying when you're shuffling around in an outward-facing circle, wasting all phallic beasts who come your way.
For their part, the alien players need to think smart, rather than as one (although it helps). You'll fall to bits like a pack of smokes in a tumble dryer if you try anything head-on - but then, why would you? You can walk on walls and ceilings. If you're playing as a Spitter class, you can hock acid-bile into marines faces. If you pick the Bull class, you can charge around like a Tank from Left 4 Dead who done burst right through the walls of Valve's shooter and into space.
Conclusion: you've got options, and in absolutely no situation is "run in on foot, clawing the air menacingly" the best one. In fact strategic sneak attacks are just about your only guaranteed kill. Claw attacks are surprisingly weak, and though it's possible to skewer someone with a tail whip for an insta-kill, it's also jaw-clenchingly difficult to pull off. Whichever class you pick, you're moving around in third person, a design choice intended to reflect the xenos' heightened sense of awareness (and lack of eyes).
In execution though, the camera can be unhelpful. Instead of running up to a wall and heading straight up it, you'll often veer off in another direction and wind up chasing your own tail. If Colonial Marines' competitive multiplayer is going to be the slow-burning hit Gearbox seems to believe it will be, that third-person camera needs work.
And we really hope it reaches a happy conclusion, because the modes we've played are well-balanced, perpetually tight and while they might not convey visionary map design, they're multi-pathed enough to keep each round unpredictable. There are many ranks to grind through online, unlocking visual customisation options, custom loadouts, legendary weapons like Hicks' shotgun and ego-caressing badges.
But as an online experience, Colonial Marines still feels like it's climbing walls, tip-toeing tyres and taking the odd soap-beating in basic training. Day one patches seem likely, likewise regular post-release updates. But in single player and multiplayer, some people are going to ignore the wobbly floorboards and flickering lightbulbs in Colonial Marines because the license means that much.
It won't be a technical accomplishment, but by the strength of its atmosphere and its secondary purpose as a first-person Aliens encyclopaedia it's odds-on for best game carrying the name since Rebellion's 1999 effort.