It takes around ten months to release a game to the public. The press and hardcore video game hobbyists usually follow a game from a game’s initial announcement up until it’s release, usually around two years, but for the general public it’s ten months of television, print, and public marketing. Eight prior to the release, when the heaviest early previewing in the press takes place, and then two months following. That’s how good game business is done.
By that metric, Aliens—a collaboration between 20th Century Fox, Sega, and Gearbox Software—has been terrible business. The game was announced via a cover feature in Game Informer magazine in February 2008. It will finally be released in February 2013. That’s not exactly within the proper business cycle. Based on a preview of a beta build of the game at the New York Comic Con last week, it’s hard to say one way or another if the game was worth the wait.
Sega and Gearbox had two samples of the game on hand, a playable version of its xenomorphs versus Marines competitive multiplayer mode and a guided, unplayable look at the early campaign. Of the two, the campaign looked the most promising. Take note: The next passage includes some story spoilers for both the movies and the game, so if you’ve never experienced the Alien series, skip it.
Picking up just weeks after James Cameron’s Aliens, Gearbox’s canonical sequel sees a full battalion of 400 Colonial Marines sent to the ill-fated planet LV 426 to investigate the disappearance of Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Sulacco. Weyland Yutani, the sinister corporation vying to get their hands on the vicious alien species hidden in a derelict spacecraft on the planet’s surface, has covered up the destruction of the LV 426 colony and the deaths of the series’ protagonists, so the Marines are just doing due diligence to find out what happened to the crew. When they arrive at LV 426 though, Weyland Yutani’s private military is already there cleaning up, and they assault the marines looking to keep things quiet. The first level of the game—played second, strangely, during the demo—puts you in control of Marines fighting humans and trying to evacuate from the derelict Sulacco.
Gearbox’s president Randy Pitchford was explaining during the demo that his team decided that the game needed more complex, thoughtful enemies than just the berserker aliens in their game, and the WY forces (seen briefly at the end of Alien 3) were a perfect choice. In the demo shown, they didn’t seem particularly threatening though. While they certainly had mean firepower—the demo player almost died—they didn’t have very cunning AI, they just burst into the room and blasted away in the open. There were moments when both human forces were fending off aliens, but it was very brief, so it’s impossible to tell if those dynamics will be more seriously explored.
The following level demoed was a concentrated dose of fan service, with a fairly steady, atmospheric tour of LV 426’s surface, revisiting many scenes from the film. The Marines’ ground vehicle Ripley crashed outside, the post-meltdown atmospheric reactor, and the medical bay where Ripley and Newt were attacked by larval alien face huggers were all stops on the Old School Express. It was only at the end of the demo that the action picked back up with aliens popping out and trying to snack on the player character.
The game looked good, albeit not as good as these Sega-provided screenshots make it look. Running on beefy PCs, Gearbox’s proprietary engine (a heavily modified version of the Unreal Engine 3 according to Pitchford) rendered a world as dark, wet, and mean as the one in Cameron’s movie. The character models, human and otherwise, looked nice with smooth animation, but at least in the campaign the aliens moved a bit too slowly in some moments. Gearbox stressed, though, that the game is in beta, meaning the content’s all in place but still being polished. Janky-looking effects, like garish, solid-colored blood spatters from humans and aliens, certainly demonstrate that the game’s delay from fall 2012 was wise.
The competitive multiplayer justified the delay as well. While the inclusion of competitive multiplayer is expected—not only as a modern necessity as a feature, but also as a tradition in Aliens video games like Aliens vs. Predator—my session made it seem like an after thought. Three types of alien were available for play, two swift soldier classes and a beefy bull-like alien that the player could upgrade to based on performance. Controlling the soldiers aliens was frustrating because it often simply didn’t work. Pulling the controller’s trigger should make you stick to a wall to sneak up on unwitting marines, but it didn’t always work. The bull class, meanwhile, was too slow to be useful, lumbering around and only killing the most oblivious opponent. It was hard not to feel like Gearbox would have been better served not making the multiplayer component at all, instead focusing on the campaign. Another multiplayer mode was on hand but I didn’t get a chance to try it to see if it fared better.
Aliens looks like a solid piece of fiction in a rich, established sci-fi universe, but it did not look or feel like a game that’s been in production for five years. The campaign looks promising, but without getting actual hands on time with it, it’s still too early to say it looks good. Here’s hoping Gearbox makes the most of these next few months.