At the beginning of the 2012, I had the pleasure of visiting Gearbox Software in Dallas to check out Aliens: Colonial Marines which, at the time, was slated for a third-quarter release window. The game may have been pushed back to 2013 since then, but that hasn’t stopped me from counting down the months to its release. As an avid Aliens fan, the concept of an officially sanctioned and canonised videogame sequel to Aliens—one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time—ticks all the right geeky boxes. Only if it’s done right, of course. (For more information, read my preview in the current issue of PC & Tech Authority.)
What I saw at the beginning of the year—the opening sequence of the game and hands-on with multiplayer (for a depressingly short 15 minutes)—was enough to prove that the IP was definitely in the right hands. So when the opportunity came around to jump back into the combat boots of a Colonial Marine last week, I was all too eager to take the game for a spin again.
Alas, there wasn’t an opportunity to play multiplayer again, but there were two sections on offer: the first, a hands-off revisit to the opening level; the second, hands-on with the fourth level of the campaign. Sam Sadeghi, the international marketing manager for SEGA, had graciously flown around the globe to demo the game, and he was in control of the first playable level.
Instead of jumping straight into the level as they did in Dallas, we actually got to see what appeared to be the opening cutscene. The game kicks off aboard the Sephora—reportedly the sister ship to the Sulaco from the Aliens film—where Cruz, an Aaron Eckhart-looking officer is getting his Colonial Marines to hustle with dialogue that fits neatly into the lexicon of Aliens chat that fans know and love. Right from the outset, Aliens: Colonial Marines injects mystery into the storyline, strongly hinting that it’s going to answer questions from the films that you may not have even thought to ask.
According to Cruz, the Sulaco flew to Fury 161—the planet where the events of Alien 3 unfold—but has inexplicably returned to orbit above LV-426 (the planet where all the action takes place in Aliens). The Sephora docks with the Sulaco, and the player takes on the role of United States Colonial Marines Corporal Christopher Winter. As would be expected from an Unreal Engine 3-powered game (especially one with a new renderer), the game is pretty; not as good looking as Battlefield 3 or Crysis 3, but it holds its own, and the demo was most definitely (and most refreshingly) being played on PC.
The Xeno-turd hits the fan almost straight away, but not before some geeky exploration through familiar environments: the lower half of an android on the flight deck, and some ejected cryo pods, to name two instances. Unlike the demo earlier in the year, a HUD has been added to Colonial Marines, which is partially disappointing given how the clean look of the original demo necessitated the use of Aliens staples such as the Motion Tracker and bullet counter on the side of the Pulse Rifle. Thankfully, the HUD is relatively discrete and, better still, makes sense in terms of the narrative given that Colonial Marines have an eyepiece attached to their helmets (which produce the HUD for character, as well as player).
All the expected HUD entries are there—ammo, health (separated into three bars) and armour. The health bars will regenerate as long as they’re not fully extinguished, and armour can be collected in parts and comes in handy when the Xenomorph acid blood starts flying around. Collecting a helmet, for instance, will only provide minimal armour, while collecting a vest offers greater protection and, thus, fills the armour meter more than the helmet.
After exploring deeper into the ship, Winter comes across a room that’s covered in familiar Xenomorph muck, while a few dead Colonial Marines are stuck to the walls with holes in their chest. One hapless Marine calls out for help, but before he can be cut down, a Xenomorph attacks. Interestingly, in the demo I saw at the beginning of 2012, the Xenomorph that attacks is a new type—the fast-moving hit-and-run Lurker—but it has been placed by a regular drone. This was one of many improvements to the initial level that has clearly been tightened up in the months that have passed between showings.
After besting the Xeno, Winter cuts the stuck Colonial Marine down with his multipurpose blowtorch. Once again, unlike the demo earlier this year, a change had been made: the game no longer snaps to third-person view when cutting, welding or performing interactive tasks, which keeps the player right in the game and doesn’t let them rotate the camera to see what might be approaching from behind. Another smart move by Gearbox.
Before leaving the room, Winter noted that there was a camera and tripod set up to watch the room. Curious. With the help of the saved Colonial Marine, Winters defies orders to return to the Sephora and hunts down the Sulaco’s flight log. As they move further into the ship, they encounter more and more resistance; eventually blasting their way back to the flight deck where other Colonial Marines are fighting waves of Xenomorphs. At this stage I notice a flashing icon at the bottom of the HUD whose purpose is to encourage the player to pull up the Motion Tracker to pre-empt where the bugs will come from.