Long before Dead Space was scaring us with necromorphs or Halo helped the world be filled with Space Marines, there was the Alien franchise, xenomorphs and the Colonial Marines. Those very same Colonial Marines are the stars of the newest entry into the Alien series’ story, with the ingeniously named Aliens: Colonial Marines. We recently got a look at the game, and also got a chance to sit down and talk about it with Gearbox’s Brian Burleson.
Whilst many may associate the Alien series with the horror genre, something that’s certainly true of the first film, Brian is keen to point out that Aliens, the second film in the series, is much more of an action film. Without wanting to spoil too much from the series, he comments on the fact that at the end of Aliens “you’re left with this group of people who are really awesome. And then at the start of Alien 3 they all die.”
If Gearbox can pull of moments of terror like this well they might be onto a winner.
What sets this apart from the films, and reinforces the action gameplay that Gearbox are going for, is the fact that rather than the small handful of marines we’ve seen previously, the Sephora houses hundreds, Winter being just one of many. As the game starts you’re sent to investigate what happened to the first exploratory party of marines, and rescue them if necessary. You can probably guess that things don’t quite go to plan from that point on.
In fact, things start to go bad very quickly and it soon becomes apparent that there are a lot of xenomorphs that need killing. The first one you encounter is very typical of the films, with it constantly out maneuvering you and trying to outflank you.
“The enemies that you’re fighting against are always a threat,” says Brian, “they’re not just cannon fodder. If you play the game well you can feel very powerful, but if you play the game poorly… well we’re not very forgiving.”
If you want to stand any chance against your attacker you’re going to need to pull out that trusty stand by, the motion tracker. It’s then that one of the biggest elements in the game’s design becomes obvious; there’s no HUD.
This is clearly something that’s been brought over from the films, but it really adds some tension to the game. If you want to use your motion tracker you have to lift the device up, lowering your gun for a second. If you’re unlucky that’s going to be when a xenomorph decides to pounce.
The Smartgun is one of the rare moments of HUD in the single player. It looks great, but it might make things a bit too easy.
“We want to make it as immersive as possible though, make it part of the universe. It’s really frustrating when you see games and it’s just an overlay on top of the screen with no purpose in the actual environment; it’s really silly. We’ve been working really hard to make it still in game, but make sense.
And it’s nice to have a franchise that puts the ammo count on the side of your gun.”
There is a moment when a HUD does pop up later in the game, although again it’s certainly one that fits in with the universe. During an escape sequence, Winter picks up a Smartgun to hold off an attacking swarm of xenomorphs. It behaves exactly as fans of the series would expect, tracking your attackers with ease.
The only issue with it is that the game suddenly becomes a bit easy. Whilst your earlier encounter one-on-one had felt genuinely tense and unnerving, this feels all too much like your standard turret sequence from just about any first-person-shooter.
In fact it’s worse than that; with the auto-targeting you don’t have to put in any effort at all, it’s just point and shoot, the Smartgun takes care of the rest. It may well be drawing from the source material, but it doesn’t make for sparkling gameplay.
Once you’ve cleared out those pesky aliens though, an escape back to the Sephora is in order. Sadly things don’t go quite like that, and we’re nearly treated to a chest burster moment before the demo concludes. With the gameplay over, I’m left to dig a bit deeper into the game and the Alien universe with Brian.
The first topic of discussion is looming large right now: Prometheus. The obvious question is whether or not Colonial Marines has any hooks to Ridley Scott’s newest offering.
“The canonical arc and things like the life cycle become clearer in the film, but it’s like a puzzle and every film or game will add a bit more to that puzzle,” Brian responds, but confirms that that’s it really. The film will make some elements of the game clearer (and vice versa), but we’re not going to see any direct links between the two.
Next up, another obvious topic of discussion – androids. The Alien films are renowned for the treachery of these cybernetic beings, so it has to be asked if they’ll crop up in the game.
“Lance Henriksen reprises his role as Bishop,” he responds rather succinctly, “or as a Bishop. We all know what happened to the original Bishop, he’s not doing too well. It’s a different Bishop, same model because all the ships are standard issue with a synthetic. There’s no silly shooting robots or anything like that though, it’s best to fight the aliens and the things that want to kill you.”
Then I’m informed that it’s time for the final question, and I have to ask something that Peter’s specifically instructed me to: What’s the best Alien movie?
“Aliens, of course.” He answers, without a moment’s hesistation. I’m informed by Peter that that’s the correct answer.
So what to make of Colonial Marines? What I saw was a solid, enjoyable experience, but it didn’t feel like it did enough to pick itself out from the first-person-shooter landscape. That first encounter with a xenomorph is very encouraging, but the later sections slip into clichés and feel overly scripted.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the Alien series helped define aspects of these genres; by holding true to the source material some aspects are obviously going to look a little clichéd.
It does bode well that it’s a part of the official canon for the series though, and that Gearbox have been working closely with Fox to ensure an authentic experience. Right now it’s tough to say how the full game will come out, but if they can hit some of the typical Alien beats right this could be a gem of a game. If they misstep though it will become just another FPS.