One of the longest lines at PAX East was the one for the Aliens: Colonial Marines booth, which had one of the best experiences on the show floor. No, they weren’t offering free mohawks, but they were hosting a developer-led demonstration of the single-player campaign, followed by a hands-on preview of the multiplayer… against those same developers. Sadly, we didn’t get to play as the xenomorphs, but that didn’t detract from the experience at all. And it’s scarier being hunted down by killer aliens when you know they’re far smarter than AI could ever be.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Genre: First-Person Pants-Changer
Release Date: Fall 2012
ESRB Rating: Rating Pending
First up was a taste of the campaign, in which we got to watch a marine scope out the Sulaco for survivors. Hardcore fans should be excited to know that Ridley Scott was involved in the early conception of the game, which should give you an idea of how awesome the story is going to be. The plan for the single-player campaign is to visit a lot of Hadley’s Hope, including the Derelict.
The graphics are smooth and the lighting is suitably creepy, created with a brand new lighting engine. Everything is simulated in real time, and the game has a drop-in/drop-out option for cooperative play. “Drop-out” is an important term to use, considering the first partner shown in the demo had an alien gestating in him and he didn’t really last very long. (The implication here is that you won’t have many partners who last very long!)
There was no HUD here, and when we asked the Gearbox representatives afterwards, they explained that it’s not finished yet, but that there will be one when the game ships. But the lack of a HUD doesn’t seem to be a problem, as the bullet counter is visible on the actual gun, and your health is indicated by a reddening of the outside of the screen. There’s a smooth, easy reload animation for the gun, which has a grenade launcher for its secondary fire. You can also pick up and redeploy turrets, which is a great way to cover your back when slavering aliens are trying to rip you apart.
The aliens themselves are impressive. Smooth, scary, and often camouflaged by the shadows on the ship, they descended upon the protagonist in a fluid, terrifying manner. (I may have actually let out a small scream at one point… or several points.) There is no targeting assist on the regular guns, but there is one weapon that comes straight from the movie called the Smart Gun that can lock on to enemies and also has thermal detection. There are a few QTEs – one is for melee (yikes!), while the other we saw was while the marine was trying to climb back into the ship after the airlock had been blown out and the bridge between the two ships collapsed. As he was climbing, buttons prompted him to dodge flying objects. They referred to as being “like first person Uncharted,” which was strangely accurate.
After that, we got to watch the Gearbox guys play against another group of eager gamers in a multiplayer match, getting to see the developers’ strategies and watch them smugly destroy the other team. There were some graphical issues – the xenomorphs’ transition from the floor to the wall to the ceiling wasn’t very smooth, and the kill animations were a bit janky – but some of this is to be expected on a build this early. When it was our turn, I was ready to go. We didn’t have headsets, or we would have been hissing like aliens at the Gearbox guys the entire time. As it was, we put on our headphones, grabbed our controllers, and prepared to get eviscerated.
While there’s only one type of marine – squishy – there were multiple aliens you could choose from here. From the loading screen, you could respawn as either a Lurker or a Soldier. The Lurker is sneakier, while the Soldier is more powerful – though both are crap-your-pants scary and can kill you in a heartbeat. (For the Lurker, think of the xenomorph from Alien, while the Soldier is more akin to those from Aliens.) I didn’t even really notice if there was a screen indicating that you were wounded or not, because as soon as there was an alien close enough to actually touch me, I was dead. There was also one other option, the Crusher Alien, which was on the map and could be picked up from a creepy alien pod. The Crusher Alien plowed through the marines, leaving a wake of dead guys everywhere, and looked just like the Bull Alien from the 90’s toy line. More alien types for the multiplayer will be announced soon.
There will be more types of aliens when the game launches – I’m hoping you can spawn as a marine stuck to the wall and come out of his chest, or burst from a pod and attack a marine right in the face. I’m not sure how the facehugger will go from there, unless it’s a really fast gestation period, but a girl can dream, right?
The best strategy the marines can stick to is to stay together. When one of the guys wandered off in the game we were watching, the Gearbox guys descended upon them gleefully. So I encouraged everyone to keep together and watch each other’s backs. (This would have been much easier to do with a headset, but I shouted it loud enough that everyone got the jist.) Of course, we got destroyed, but it was a lot of fun to play anyway.
One of the coolest things about this game, which I had noticed in the single-player demo, is how seamlessly the aliens are camouflaged by the ship and the shadows within it. This is a really frightening thing when you know who is controlling them, because AI just isn’t as scary. If you weren’t looking at your radar, it was easy for an enemy to sneak up on you. And, of course, one of the most important things to do was to keep an eye on the ceiling at all times. I tried to stick with the group and watch the radar, but it’s hard not to panic when the radar goes from all clear to three aliens quickly converging on us. I often got there too late to save a teammate, but still had enough time to satisfyingly pump some rounds into an alien.
The gameplay is smooth, with a very typical control scheme. I sprinted around and spent a lot of time firing from the hip. There was no HUD, which was the same as the campaign preview. You could see your bullet counter on your gun, and really, in the end, that’s all you need to know here. That and the radar, which shows allies in blue and enemies in red, were all that was necessary to stay alive – or try to.
The only gripe I have is that alien blood does no damage to the marines or to the ship. If this game is supposed to be canon, as we were told, then there really needs to be some sort of acid-related effects going on when the aliens are damaged. I’m aware that graphically this might be impossible – a game that can spontaneously render acid damage to a ship wherever aliens are spouting their caustic blood?? – it is something that should have some kind of consequence. Even if it was just limited to certain death animations… anything. And if the ship is made out of acid-proof material, well, then you’re getting into the realm of unfairness, because this is supposed to come right after Aliens… you see where I’m going with this.
I didn’t feel too bad about our loss, considering we lost to guys who have been doing nothing but building and playing this game for untold months. I actually felt great after we were done… and I kind of wanted to go home and watch the Alien Anthology straight away. Aliens: Colonial Marines looks good and feels better, giving you a chance to enter into the series in a terrifying way. Personally, I can’t wait to play as the xenomorphs and rip some marines apart.