Aliens: Colonial Marines Hands-on Preview -- A Love Letter Blockbuster in the MakingBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Apr 04, 2012
The year 2012 is a big one for Ridley Scott's Alien franchise, and not just because the acclaimed director is finally returning to his sci-fi roots with the (supposedly) Xenomorph-free prequel story Prometheus. Gearbox Software is also getting in on the action, with plans to at last release Aliens: Colonial Marines for Sega in the fall.
The game got its first big reveal in a 2008 Game Informer cover story, but little was heard after that until E3 2011. Colonial Marines made a public eyes-on debut at the annual trade show, though many were left feeling underwhelmed by the heavily scripted presentation. The same did not hold true at a recent press event in Dallas, TX where Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford walked members of the press through an early portion of the game's campaign before inviting them to take a hands-on crack at the marines vs. Xenomorphs multiplayer.
In his opening address, Pitchford made a point of noting the level of cooperation that Gearbox has had from 20th Century Fox. Both the developer and the movie studio are looking at Colonial Marines as a direct sequel to James Cameron's Aliens. Fans will be visiting familiar locations and picking up on plot points that relate to both Aliens and Alien 3.
The story will pick up 17 weeks after the U.S.S. Sulaco was reported destroyed over Fury 161, the site of the events of Alien 3. In a twist that no one can quite explain, the ship is spotted, whole and adrift, orbiting the planet LV-426, the same colony world seen in Aliens.
The sequence that Pitchford walks us through picks up just as the playable protagonist, Winter, is sent over to the Sulaco for the first time. Friendly forces have already established a beachhead, and now Winter is being sent over to help them clear out.
As he walks along a glass-windowed boarding tube leading from the marine ship to the Sulaco, an explosion rocks the target ship and cracks start to appear in the glass lining the walkway. Winter quickly makes his way to the end of the tunnel, ending up in a dimly lit decompression chamber. Both the tunnel and the chamber are marked by sprays of blood. Things are not looking good for our Colonial Marines.
As soon as the airlock finishes cycling, Winter finds himself in a small room lit by flourescent fixtures, only a handful of which seem to be working. One of them dangles slowly back and forth, throwing shadows in all directions as it swings. Pitchford says that this is one example of the game's use of deferred rendering, which he pegs as next-generation technology.
The engine was created specifically for Aliens: Colonial Marines, he tells us. Essentially, "deferred rendering" means that lighting effects are occurring in real time. The scene is built from top to bottom before lighting effects are applied. The result is a more accurate casting of shadows, and the slowly twisting flourescent bulb highlights this more realistic, dynamic approach to lighting.
Winter proceeds through the chamber and on into a spacious hangar, the same location where Ripley took on the alien queen in Aliens. Moving through the room, we spy a pair of human legs on the floor. This is all that remains of Bishop, who was mangled in the Cameron movie's climactic battle. Other Colonial Marines are here as well, working in a sort of makeshift infirmary. It's up to Winter to proceed forward in search of the Sulaco's flight recorder.
The next room offers yet another nod to the films, with Winter coming across a set of recently ejected cryotubes. As fans of the films have probably realized by now, this ties back to the beginning of Alien 3, the brief sequence which sees Ripley sent hurtling down to the surface of Fury 161 from her roost aboard the Sulaco.
Winter, after using a hand torch to cut through a sealed doorway -- a sequence which sees the player holding down a face button as the camera drops out to a third-person perspective -- finally gets his first taste of Xenomorph action in the next room. The walls of this new location show all of the H.R. Giger-influenced signs of an alien infestation. A few dead crewmembers can be seen woven into cocoon-like embraces along the wall; one even reaches out for help, an expression of abject terror on his face.
Deeper into the room, Winter comes across a living marine who is only partially stuck in the wall. As he starts to cut his fellow soldier out, a new type of Xenomorph attacks: the stalker. While not as solidly built as a standard Xeno, the stalker excels at slipping through the shadows. Winter pulls out his motion detector -- it's not a HUD element, but rather a tool that you can use with the press of a button -- and tracks the fast-moving aggressor around the room.
This plays out like a pure Aliens moment. The stalker moves with the same grace and agility that the movies have convinced us Xenos are capable of. It's a blur as it dives through the shadows, as Winter chases his sights along just behind it. The chase continues for a few moments until, in a burst, the stalker leaps out of the shadows and knocks Winter to the ground. A brief scripted button-mashing sequence occurs, followed by a last-minute pistol kill.
Pitchford makes a point of mentioning that what we're seeing here isn't about challenge, it's about setting a scene. Introducing players to the universe. Winter and his newly freed companion make their way through another series of rooms, coming across exploded eggs and occasionally gunning down attacking Xenos.
The attackers come from all directions, slipping in through vents, half-opened doors and cracks in the walls and ceilings. They move with liquid grace through the shadows, with the AI making smart use of the Xenomorphs' speed and natural camouflage for hit and run attacks. We also see some cool death animations here; not only do the downed aliens spew out their acidic blood as they die, they also writhe and twitch in their death throes.
Winter and his companion retrieve the flight recorder before heading back to the main hangar. They spot a pair of Load Lifter exosuits on the way back, but it's not time to hop into one of these unfortunately. There's another alien-killing surprise in store, however.
A siege unfolds in the hangar as the other marines pack up their gear and get their injured comrades ready for travel. Winter grabs a smart gun off of a nearby crate to aid in the defense. The smart gun is one of the game's heavier weapons, an auto-targeting chaingun with it's own HUD overlay.
Aliens spew in from all sides during this sequence, pouring in from the hangar rafters and beneath the floor. The smart gun's rapid rate of fire makes quick work of single foes, but they're coming in such large numbers and from so many different angles that the tension ratchets up significantly. Winter survives, of course, but we've gotten our first taste here of one of the game's more common scenarios.
There's still one final bit of campaign to show off, however. Winter and his team, after fending off the alien attackers, make their way back to the boarding tube. Rougly midway down the tunnel a lone marine is visible. He's facing away from the group, but it's clear that something is amiss. He's writhing in apparent pain, clutching at his chest and letting out strangled shouts of fear.
It doesn't take a die-hard fan of the Alien series to recognize what's about to happen: we're going to encounter a chest-burster. Before the grisly event can occur, the doomed man pulls out a grenade and sets it off. Obviously not an intelligent thing to do in a boarding tube where the only things separating Winter from the dead of space are thin panes of glasses and support beams.
The explosion tears the boarding tube loose and Winter is nearly pulled out. He hangs on though, grabbing a piece of the former wall just in the nick of time. A sequence ensues that Pitchford refers to as a sort of "first-person Uncharted." Winter makes his way along the now destroyed boarding tube, climbing back toward the Sulaco one handhold at a time. It's a tense moment, this first-person climbing sequence, and there are apparently others to be found later on in the game as well.
Aliens vs. Colonial Marines
In addition to the story-driven single player campaign -- which on its own supports drop-in/drop-out co-op for up to four players -- Aliens: Colonial Marines also features a robust multiplayer mode that pits teams of Colonial Marines against teams of Xenomorphs. While the preview event's hands-on session focused only on team deathmatch, you can expect to see multiple objective-based modes in the finished game.
Only the Colonial Marines were playable, and with a limited assortment of loadout options. Looking at the selection screen, it's clear enough that you'll have a fair assortment of customization options available. Weapons and weapon attachments, perk-like buffs... all of the trappings that shooter fans have come to expect in these post-Modern Warfare days.
The controls draw heavy inspiration from Call of Duty. With the exception of the motion sensor, which is mapped to the left bumper on an Xbox 360 controller, and no prone position, the button commands are an exact match for Infinity Ward's popular FPS. Of the available loadouts, none was more effective than the shotgun-toting class.
The thing about the Xenos is that they really need to get in close in order to engage the enemy. They move and attack quickly, and a group of them working in concert is nothing short of deadly. They don't take a lot of punishment though, so blasting away with your shotgun as they close the distance is an effective countermeasure.
The shotgun is also useful for when you're flanked, since the aliens are able to not only crawl on walls and ceilings, but also slip through various holes and crevices that their human opponents cannot. Very frequently I found myself spinning around to meet an attack coming from behind me where, moments before, the coast had been clear.
I did get to take a peek at the Gearbox reps who got to take control of the alien team. Transitioning from the floor to another surface appears to be as simple as pointing the crosshairs at your desired destination and hitting the jump button. The two classes in use at the preview were Soldier and Stalker. While the two look very similar to one another at a glance, the soldier is built more for frontal assaults and power attacks while the Stalker is more stealth-oriented.
A third class, the Crusher, also appeared each match when a timer ran out. Gearbox is still balancing how this super-class will be accessed in the final game, but for the purposes of the preview session, one member of the alien team would make his way over to a specially marked wall. Once the distance was closed, an X button prompt popped up along with on-screen text that read "Evolve."
At this point, the alien in question transformed into a hulking alien creature, more than twice the size of its teammates. Heavily armored in the front and capable of deadly melee strikes and charges, the Crusher added an additional wrinkle to each match. Balancing the super-class out on the Colonial Marines side is a smart gun spawn point. It's situated near the Xeno spawn room and tough to get to as a result, but the auto-targeting is useful for cutting through enemy lines, especially when you've got a solid team watching your flanks.
Completing a match earns you two forms of currency, one for purchasing upgrades on the human side and one for purchasing them on the aliens' side. We didn't get to see how this works or the full extent of the upgrade trees, but it seems you'll also unlock some gear by completing challenges as well. This can be anything from killing a certain alien class a specific number of times to hitting a kills milestone with a particular weapon.
Post-match pop-ups alert you to any completed challenges and unlocks; for example, one of the completed challenges after a match awarded me with an underbarrel flamethrower for my pulse rifle.
Those who were hanging onto doubts after reading impressions of 2011's E3 demo session can rest a little easier now. Gearbox is bringing its A-game to this title, no question. Pitchford made it clear during the presentation that the goal is to service fans of the Alien series ahead of anyone else, and that certainly seems to be the case.
There's still a ways to go before the fall 2012 release and a lot of balancing work to be done, but Aliens: Colonial Marines certainly seems to be shaping up as one of the year's blockbuster holiday titles.