Aliens: Colonial Marines, the video game sequel to James Cameron’s ship that launched a thousand space-marines-versus-monsters adventures, has a solid premise: Seventeen days after Lt. Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo disappear from the alien-infested planet LV-426, the 400-strong US Colonial Marine battalion aboard the spaceship Sephoro set out to investigate. When they arrive to rescue their comrades, they find the private military of the Weiland-Yutani corporation on site trying to cover up their attempt to secure aliens as biological weapons. The forces clash and subsequently crash to the planet below, where you control a marine stuck in a desolate place under familiar, dangerous, bitey circumstances.
The set up is strong, and developer Gearbox Software’s pedigree in games about shooting stuff is equally brawny, but when Digital Trends last spent time with Aliens: Colonial Marines, we came away concerned. It looked like Aliens and sounded like Aliens—right down to early game set pieces yanked right out of the movie with weapons like the pulse rifle firing off perfectly muted shots—but something didn’t feel right. The aliens themselves, so vicious in the movies that only one could decimate entire ship crews and prison colonies, didn’t seem very threatening. The action looked slow during Gearbox’s guided demo.
As is so often the case with video games, playing is a whole lot different than watching.
Sitting down with Gearbox for a twenty-minute session of Colonial Marines, those first impressions washed away. The game doesn’t just look and sound like Aliens. It feels like Aliens. The playable portion picked up very close to where the guided demo from October ended, with you and a few marines trying to secure the command center of the Hadley’s Hope colony. The colony’s seen better days. Not only is it still ruined from when the colonists and Sulacco marines tried to stop the aliens from turning it into a vile hive, but the walls are now blown out from the terraforming reactor exploding at the end of the movie. You’re trying to get the power running, but are also setting up motion detectors in the area to let you know when the locals are coming.
Then they come. In the previous demo, the aliens were right in the open, just waltzing up to the person playing and waiting to be shot. When I played, though, they were fast and hard to follow, even after tapping the left bumper on an Xbox controller to use a motion tracker to nail their position. (The motion tracker adds great tension since you can’t fire while it’s out.) I knew the vicinity of where the aliens were, but there were times when I’d turn and only see a spiked tail darting away on the ceiling. And these were just the basic scrub enemies.
I had access to the full range of twelve guns in the game, a range of upgradable pistols, shotguns, and pulse rifles alongside some special weapons like Ripley’s duct taped flamethrower-rifle combo, but gravitated towards the shotgun for this first fight. This tactic wasn’t wholly sound since the enemies do in fact have acid for blood. The splash damage from the aliens wiped out my armor quickly. Back in the command center’s main room, I found that using secondary weapons like a taser to stun aliens and then shooting them from a distance was more efficient, at least until a few of them flanked me. All told, it was a tense fight.
After that was a trip into the bowels of the colony and it was here that Colonial Marines became excellent. Just one marine accompanied me into a section of the hive not featured in the movie. The game is quiet and dark through this portion, almost silent save the soft clicks of your motion tracker. A slightly different type of alien lived down here. Travelling in pairs, one will try to distract you while the other attacks from behind. I actually saw one hiding in a corner but it didn’t move. A Gearbox producer actually told me this was a glitch, but when I got closer, the alien sprung from the wall on top of me, forcing me to jab the ‘X’ button to get it off. Meanwhile my AI partner was in a tense fight with this alien’s cohort. He managed to fight it off, but I was told that was a rare occurrence, that if I didn’t rush to help him he would have been incapacitated, killed, or worse still, dragged off into the hive to be impregnated with a new alien. When asked if saving taken marines was a big part of the game, Gearbox replied with a coy, “Maybe.”
Demanding frantic skirmishes and anxiety-fueled scrambles through the dark are the core ingredients of Aliens, but they’re nothing without unpredictability, and this promised dynamism gives me great hope for the finished game. It’s not just the potential for partners to die or be taken by the aliens that’s random and unpredictable either. Ammo and health drops are randomly placed in the environment each time you play so you can’t rely on planned boosts when you turn the game back on. Uncertain circumstances fuels doubt about your survival and that’s key for nailing the tone of the series. After five years of development, Aliens: Colonial Marines is shaping up nicely.