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Xeno-blast: Hands-on with the Aliens: Colonial Marines campaign

Gearbox's shooter locks, loads, and readies itself for the doubting masses

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"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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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