Creating a movie tie in game is always a very challenging prospect, but when the work that you’re doing is going to be inserted into the canonical timeline of a beloved film franchise like Alien it must be an even more daunting task. At least in this case, Gearbox have not been starved of development time for Aliens: Colonial Marines.
For those that haven’t been keeping track, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a direct and canonical sequel to Aliens the movie. You play as Corporal Winter, part of a Search & Rescue unit dispatched to follow up on Ripley and the first squad of Marines that went out to LV-426 and Hadley’s Hope.
Of course, we all know how badly that went down, and this adventure doesn’t exactly go too well either. The first level I saw was a play through of an early mission aboard the Sulaco, which was just drifting silently in space. Aboard, it’s not so quiet at this point, and the player progressed up a rather intriguing gravity generator room. Infested with Aliens.
One of the first things that grabbed me was the dynamic lighting system. It’s a really core area that Gearbox have worked on, getting the same style of lighting as was seen in the films. Warning lights spin in many areas and their amber beams of light flash past your view point, in stark contrast to the blue hues that tend to dominate, coming in part thanks to the personal shoulder lights each of the Marines have.
We had the opportunity to talk with Chris Neely, the Art Director on the game, and asked him about how they tackled recreating this feel in the game.
“I’ve become a student, personally, of just the lighting of the Cameron films! Everybody sees it as this blue wash, but really there’s a lot more subtlety to it. Every time you see the Cameron Blues, there’s always some pink or complimentary colours that kind of white balance the scene. If it’s all just tinted one colour, it makes it cheap, and we’ve used our lighting system, which was custom made in our studio, to emulate the Cameron lighting.”
It might not push the absolute boundaries of the consoles, or be a groundbreaking technique, but the look and style it creates is certainly very faithful to the films. Something which naturally carries over to the design of the world too, where they’ve put in a lot of effort to have this element of authenticity to what you’re seeing. So, although the Sulaco was never really seen in that great a detail within Aliens, here you’ll be fighting through this gravity generator, a wholly new fabrication which betrays a few of the inner workings of the ships from this science fiction universe.
“From the movies, everything that’s new canonically to Aliens, lets you learn something more,” said Chris. “It offers something new about the characters and the biology of the Aliens as well. So to be canon it was almost mandatory that we expanded in some way and offered new information at the same time, and we explore those options and that universe, using the same fundamental principles.
Everything's really, really blue! Except for that flare on the ground, which is red.
“So the Sulaco, for example, was based on Syd Mead’s designs, where he blends form and function, much like a military aircraft. It looks sexy, but it’s utilitarian, and we tried to apply that kind of function to everything in the universe. There are so many generic sci-fi shooters with just corridors and rooms with pipes and steam, that really have no meaning.
“We tried to flesh out the whole space of the ship and give it connecting bulkheads and hallways in a manner that felt like a functional ship, and not just a generic sci-fi shooter. You can go into rooms, and they all have a function, like the gravity well, bridge or engineering.”
“They all serve some purpose, but dovetail with gameplay at the same time.”
Another key part of the game has been in getting the Aliens just right, and their movement is rather fantastic. Similar to how you might remember from previous games that feature this brand of Alien, they clamber around on walls, but with extra layers of intelligence programmed into the AI and an added fluidity to their animations. So, they’ll take avoiding action and independently pick different paths, moving behind cover, ducking in and out of vents, and exactly as you’d expect, coming at you from practically any angle.
We’re promised a large variety of different types of Alien to appear too. Both in those familiar to us and new ones, as Gearbox have again flexed their muscles to come up with fresh species for you to go up against – for good or bad.
When I asked Chris about the challenge of pushing in these new directions, he said, “We were very diligent about maintaining the biology of the Aliens, and not going the kind of cheesy route of the 1990’s Kenner toys. Again, everything has a purpose and a function and ties into the biology via all these variables. Whether it’ll be the different functions of a hive and the roles that those Aliens would play, or the effects from the elimination of the queen and the explosion of an atomic facility right next to their nest, all these variables intertwine for us to explore the potential of the Alien DNA. That’s ultimately what Prometheus was about as well.”
When you eventually get down to LV-426, what you come across here is exactly what was left behind in Aliens. A still smouldering processing station in the distance and a total wreck of a compound at Hadley’s Hope. Again, there’s that attention to detail from Gearbox that shows this to be a huge labour of love, and you have everything from the command centre’s doors being welded shut and empty turrets to Alien corpses having melted away parts of the floor.
It’s here that I actually got to play the PC version of the game, and initially experience one of those tense lulls in action as the squad of Marines worked its way to the wrecked command centre. As I subsequently head out from this key location to place a perimeter of motion trackers, I’m checking my own tracker regularly, the familiar sonar-like pings bouncing back, never picking anything up when I’m looking. Fairly suddenly it all turns on its head, and I’m rushing back to the command centre to beat back a stream of Aliens pouring through a gaping hole in the wall.
With the action ramped up as I mow down aliens, I first encounter the way you react to getting splashed by acid blood. It burns away your armour plating, with smoke wisps rising into your view, and eats into your health which is comprised of a trio of rechargeable segments. A mechanic I remember first seeing in Resistance: FOM.
“It’s just the necessity of the design, really. We have the degrading armour system, because if you’re in close encounters with Alien blood, it’s going to slow you down, and it’s just the same as that your armour gets taken down and starts eating into your health,” said Chris.
“Then you have the contrast of working with your co-op buddies. Are you going to be selfish like somebody in the movies, when someone shuts the door, and people end up dying? Or are you going to help your buddy out, give them the health and cover them?”
Indeed, through all the gameplay I’ve seen and played, Winter has never been alone. Well, aside from when I was running well ahead of an AI trooper I was meant to be following, but this constant company holds true when I’m sent to find another pair of Marines with whom we lost contact.
It’s time to break out the smart gun, and what a piece of kit it is! You move much slower with it, which explains how I was able to outpace the AI, and you can’t quickly switch to a second weapon or stowe it for later use, but it’s utterly awesome. You practically feel invincible as it automatically targets onrushing Aliens, and you let off bursts of fire which just slaughter everything you can see. Until you run out of ammunition, that is!
Pushing onwards with just a shotgun and my AI buddy, who had conserved his ammo much better than I had, I reached the end of the level and my play time, with a huge new alien rushing at me.
I came away from Aliens: Colonial Marines feeling like it was quite a smart game. Gearbox’s obvious passion for the title has led them to an nice mix of tension, action, homage and evolution in the singleplayer, which they have hopefully maintained through the length of the game. That’s all before you get to the competitive multiplayer…
As with practically every game these days, there’s a lot to do with multiplayer in this title. Gearbox have really pushed themselves to come up with fresh and interesting ways to pit Aliens against Marines, so whilst there is the standard deathmatch modes, there’s also a whole bevy of objective based games to be getting on with in the interstellar war.
The first of two which I played was Extermination, which sets a squad of Marines on the offensive in a fairly small arena. As a marine, your job is to take and hold objective areas as they come up, in order to neutralise Alien eggs before they can hatch. It’s a kind of one-sided form of King of the Hill or Domination modes you may know from other games, and all the time the opposing Aliens are trying to stop you scoring an objective. Once the allotted time is up, you switch species and whoever does best over the two rounds wins.
As in the wider horror genre, sticking together is your only way to survive!
So with three different kinds of Alien combined, it allows for a variety of different strategies and play types. Since the Aliens can always see the position of the Marines, even through walls, the Lurker is perfect for that ambush of a lone soldier, who rounds a corner only for you to leap from above and rip him a new one. Perhaps he was foolishly chasing after a Spitter who nearly hit him before ducking around a corner?
Of course, on the other side, the Marines have a large variety of weapons to choose from, but in there were also heavy weapons like the smart gun or a flamethrower to pick up. The weapons and gadgets don’t really matter, unless you’re sticking together and covering each others’ backs.
It’s a core principle which holds over to Escape, the other game type which I played. Here, instead of attacking, the Marines are on the run, trying to push to an extraction point before they all die. Sticking together is vital once more, as you have to complete various little tasks, all the while holding off the endlessly re-spawning Aliens.
If one of you gets separated, distracted or taken down, it throws the team off balance. You’ll either have to head back and revive the downed player, which is bound to result in another ambush or two, or push on without them to get to the next checkpoint, where your fallen comrades will respawn.
It sounds most similar to Left 4 Dead’s Versus mode, and will be just as tricky to master. A really good team of Aliens will be able to wipe out a poor squad of Marines with just seconds on the clock, but a well organised team of Marines who pick up the heavy weapons and use turrets along the way, whilst sticking closely together, should make it through to the extraction without too many problems.
That’s just two of the modes which will be on offer, with others still under wraps, which I didn’t get to see. To round this preview off, I simply had to ask Chris one final, burning question: If an Alien wore shoes, would they wear toe shoes?
“Absolutely! I have those exact shoes, by the way. I go jogging in them, play frisbee golf and go camping… those are great, they really are!
“So yeah, if an Alien was going to wear shoes… I mean, they kind of look like that anyway. Aliens have got some toes and they’re armoured, so it’s kind of the same thing!”
– Thanks to the incredibly enthusiastic Chris Neely for taking the time to talk to us. Aliens: Colonial Marines is set for release on 12th February 2013.