Randy Pitchford must pinch himself every morning to make sure this isn’t all some sort of dream. When the CEO and President of Gearbox Software took the stage at the Aliens: Colonial Marines event on Friday, he had an aura of geeky excitement that felt apropos for the weekend of New York Comic-Con. It’s one thing to be able to make games with licenses that you grew up loving, it’s a whole other thing to be able to say that your company had a direct hand in supplementing the official canon of a franchise.
The guys at Gearbox often say that their products are labors of love, and it’s easy to see in their work. Not intent to make an Alien sequel in their own image, everything in Colonial Marines is seemingly crafted to create an atmosphere perfectly in line with the quadrilogy. From having to put your gun down to view your tracker, to the HUD that looks like it came straight out of the 80’s, the suspense of Aliens is made through the ambiance, and Colonial Marines nails it.
A presentation of the campaign mode landed us on the surface of LV-426. More importantly, it dragged me back 20+ years. Alien caused me to struggle with the conflicting urges of hiding at the back of my seat, and staring wide-eyed at the edge of it. Gearbox’s take on it caused those feelings to reemerge.
If you haven’t been keeping up, A:CM features you as Corporal Winter, one of four hundred marines dispatched to LV-426 seventeen weeks after the atmospheric processor explodes in Alien 3. Unfortunately, from Pitchford’s use of the term “Redshirts”, it’s safe to assume that most of your Marine backup isn’t going to make it through the voyage safely.
The excursion on the surface didn’t provide much action at first, to which Randy commented that the previous demonstrations of the game didn’t grant them time to show anything but action. He went on to say that Aliens is as much about the lead-up to the mayhem as it is the actual action, and I must say Gearbox managed to build the suspense perfectly. There’s a funny thing about knowing what your character is in for without the cast knowing it themselves. There’s a spine-tingling anticipation; you know it’s about to go down, but you don’t know where or when.
This game made me the feel like the black guy at the movies, when Winter is instructed to go to the morgue, I had to fight every urge to let out an audible “nuh-uh, nope, hell no…” Every time the characters walk past a jar with a face-hugger inside, or come across a picture-perfect recreation of one of the Aliens set pieces, you can’t help but have the urge to turn right around and go the hell home.
Once the Xenomorphs finally show up, you’re already so pent up with suspense that their appearance almost comes as a relief. Almost. Nothing like chasing down marines to get the acidic blood pumping.
A quick fade-away changes the scene to the Sulaco, where we quickly encounter the xenomorphs and a squad of Weyland-Yutani mercs, likely looking to capture and contain the aliens for their own purposes. A three-way conflict quickly occurs, and we’re treated to a hectic battle in which marines, mercs, and aliens are all trying to be the last ones standing. A few scripted events spelled the demise of some of Winter’s comrades, as the player controlling the demo shoved and shot his way to safety. There were a few nail-biters in there, especially any time a xeno died too close to the player, spurting acidic blood in its last moments.
After the two demos, we were granted a couple of hours to check out the game’s multiplayer functions, including Team Death Match and Escape Mode. TDM is about as you’d expect. One side plays the Xenomorphs, while the other controls the marines. The tactics are simple for each side; the Xenos want to use wall-crawling, vents, and the ability to see through walls to pick off unfortunate stragglers who don’t understand the importance of teamwork, while the marines are best off sticking together to avoid the inevitable ambush.
An extra step in the alien evolutionary process appears as a factor in multiplayer as well. Xenomorphs can evolve by standing under some viscous fluid, growing into something akin to an alien ram or bull. The bigger, bulkier aliens lose some mobility (and the ability to crawl through vents) in exchange for much greater survivability and a stronger upfront game.
Escape mode is an objective mode where the players have to find their way to a goal point, while enemy aliens attempt to pick them all off before they can get there. If this all sounds reminiscent of Left4Dead, that’s on purpose. Gearbox stated that they definitely looked to the game for inspiration, and it shows. There are a few checkpoints that will revive all dead marines, and the lack of random Xenomorph enemy NPCs make escape mode seem pretty easy for the marines. Who knows, maybe there’s something deeper to the Xenomorph tactics that I didn’t get to see in my brief play-through.
Either way, Aliens: Colonial Marines is shaping up to be the canonical treat that we were all promised. It’s exciting to see just how invested the Gearbox guys are, both as fans and as a development team. Look forward to the game when it hits on February 12th, 2013. Don’t worry about the suspense; if your chest gets tight, it’s probably not what you think it is. (In all seriousness, if your chest does get tight, go see a doctor.)