The Alien saga is one of science fiction’s most-mined franchises, a true pop culture landmark. With its iconic action sequences, James Cameron’s Aliens is arguably the most popular film of the series and certainly a natural choice for a first-person shooter spinoff. In fact, there’s been Alien games almost as long as there have been consoles. And finding homages to facehuggers, power loaders, and the evil Weyland-Yutani sprinkled throughout other popular franchises such as Half-Life, isn’t hard. In Spring 2012, Sega and developer Gearbox Software are bringing the latest incarnation to Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC with Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I was surprised to find that Randy Pitchford, Gearbox’s CEO and one of the driving forces behind the (in)famous resurrection of Duke Nukem Forever, was personally delivering the PAX presentation for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Pitchford was heavily involved in the controversial promotion of DNF prior to its release and developed an immature fratboy reputation. I was pleasantly surprised to find this perception to be mostly inaccurate. Over the course of his PAX presentation, it became increasingly clear that Pitchford was a man with an unbridled enthusiasm and passion for his work; he came across as a highly approachable, occasionally overexcited, and generally unapologetic fanboy of the franchises he works on. Despite his approachability, I managed to resist the urge to ask him what went wrong with Duke Nukem Forever and instead focused on the game at hand.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is being hyped as the true, direct sequel to the movie, Aliens (“Not that there’s anything wrong with Alien 3, but it seemed to be more of a sequel to the first movie.”) Pitchford made it quite clear that Gearbox has been given complete authority by 20th Century Fox to create a true sequel in video game form that will become part of the Alien canon. Accordingly, game plotting began with a visit to Ridley Scott, who dusted off a number of old storyboards and helped plant the seeds for the storyline of Colonial Marines. After being given a little more information establishing where the game is situated in relation to the movies, PAX audiences were shown the first extended gameplay sequence (about 15-20 minutes) released anywhere, to this point.
In Colonial Marines, a brand new squad of military men are sent on a search and rescue mission to find Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, Corporal Dwayne Hicks, and the other missing marines who traveled to LV-426, the xenomorph-infested planet from the second film. The story was written by Battlestar Galactica scribes Bradley Thompson and David Weddle. Set pieces include the U.S.S. Sulaco, the alien derelict ship from the first film, and a host of new locations based on unused Aliens original concept art.
Gearbox created a brand new graphics engine focused specifically on dynamic shadows and lighting for Aliens: Colonial Marines — a decision that I first thought was intended to hearken back to the days of the first Aliens vs. Predator game, released in 1999, which focused (extremely successfully) on atmosphere and mood. Aliens vs. Predator produced some of my favorite and most terrifying gaming memories — a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by any readers who can still recall playing as the Marine, armed only with a Pulse Rifle and motion detector, advancing through pitch black corridors, staring agonizingly at the radar screen and dreading the appearance of every white blip suddenly speeding your way. Graphically, the engine that Gearbox has created is quite attractive and stands up well to the aesthetics of its peers. However, the footage on display at PAX strays from the solitary, intense, 1-on-1 feel of the original AvP and seems to instead focus more on squad-based gameplay and taking on swarms of aliens at once. Given the specialization of the engine, though, I would think (and hope) that later stages of the game will eventually revisit the more nervewracking elements of its predecessors.
In regard to the gameplay and game environment, I found the speed of the aliens to be somewhat underwhelming, and the splash damage of alien blood is, as of now, virtually non-existent. In fact, the game as a whole could (in keeping with the franchise to which it’s dedicated) do with a considerably larger overall dose of blood and gore. Furthermore, the environment feels a bit too clean and shiny. With that said, many of these issues are factors that may well be ironed out throughout the remainder of the development and testing process and are not, as of yet, any real cause for concern.
Some aspects of the game that I appreciated include the constant introduction of new, different types of aliens as the game progresses, and the attention to detail in the levels. Revisiting some of the locations made famous by Cameron’s movie and seeing familiar tech maps and weaponry lying around the control center tables and floors brought a smile to my face. I can honestly say that Aliens: Colonial Marines is in the hands of people who are deeply familiar with and passionate about the franchise. Whether this will result in a great game remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a good place to start.
Check out the most recent Aliens: Colonial Marines trailer.
Pritpaul Bains is an avid gamer and an alum of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. This was his first time at PAX.