Announced before we even knew about Prometheus, Aliens: Colonial Marines has been a long time coming, and there’s still a little way to go yet. It’s been tossed and turned, going from a squad based coop affair into something more directed, and hopefully more tense because of it. Gearbox are tasked with not only taking on the challenge of making you feel simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, but also adding to the Aliens canon. Having seen the opening moments when you investigate the Sulaco, there’s some hope that they might pull it off yet.
It starts out promising, or as promising as anything in the murky world of Wayland-Yutani corporate interests and dark slimy shadows that might not just be a trick of the light gets. You’ve arrived to investigate the Sulaco, the warship from Aliens, to find out just what the hell went on down there on LV-426. Your first task, then, is to wander the long umbilical connecting your ship to theirs. Through some stupid fluke of engineering it’s made out of glass, which makes the body that comes sailing through space at you more of a threat than it should have been.
Glass fractures, the whole thing starts to undulate like its queasy, and you’re left frantically reporting down the comms that Yes Sir, it’s actually all alright, just a corpse, nothing to worry about. Dramatic irony seeps out of the pores, the game ladling on foreshadowing like there’s nothing else in the pan. It doesn’t stop when you get to the ship, either, as there’s nothing but half killed marines, more corpses and xenomorph gloop everywhere you look.
It looks right, with dynamic lighting playing a big part, each flickering lamp swinging on a half connected cable lending a sense of living to the inanimate, throwing shadows that almost seem like they’re not empty. And then you find the requisite guy-in-a-wall, and start to cut him out.
“If the aliens get close to you they can kill you in two or three hits.” Important, then, not to let them get too close. That’s why you’ve got a Pulse Rifle, and why it’s got a few grenades strapped to the underside. The only problem is that as you’re cutting this guy free one of them is crawling down the wall towards you, and gets right up in your face before introducing you to both sets of mouths.
While it’s an excellent way to introduce you to your first xeno, and the enjoyable frustration of knowing that it was coming and having no way to convey that to your character sells the moment, it’s worrying how fast you go from the start to Alien. So much of that powerful foreshadowing in both films, and especially the first, was in not seeing them, just the traces and the evidence they leave behind. Seeing the devastation that comes from the Alien, without actually encountering it, forced the dread deep in your belly.
The worry is that some of the power of the Alien is lost if they just become fodder for your guns. Sure they can swarm you, but they can also stalk you. “What the xeno is is really both things. You can’t go completely one way or completely another.” It’s the start of an explanation I feel Burleson has had to defend the game with more than once. “Later on they can come from anywhere.” It’s the problem with only being able to show the early levels; without a chance to show how things escalate in terms of AI, we can only extrapolate from what we’ve seen. And what was shown was restrained by its place in the game, far more bombast than tactics.
After that initial wall-based introduction to the shiny black head of your adversary, they start to swarm, forcing you to retreat through the ship and back to the docking bay, where a giant dropship slumbers in the half light. They’re a horde now, rather than just a small group, and luckily you’ve gained some allies, too.
“They’re not going to just run down the hallway at you. They have a lot of variety in the fact that they use the environment against you.” Swarm and stalk, although they’re doing far more of the former here, turning the upper side of that dropship into a torrent of glistening carapace. No vents for them to come out of the walls, no close ceilings for them to skitter across. They’re bound to the ground, which makes the fact that you’ve picked up a smart gun, and its picking the targets for you, all rather convenient.
On picking it up, an overlay slips over the screen highlighting the aliens as they come at you, and it’s impressive how it suddenly made it clear that, before this point, there had been no HUD in the game. The ammo readout is on the side of your rifle, and the Motion Sensor is an in-world item, something you have to switch to and hold up before you can see it. It aids the feeling of being alone against these predators, with nothing but you and your gun against them and their acid reflux.
“They use space intelligently. They stick to dark spots. Our lighting engine is all dynamic and they have a sense of where the light is.” The volume of the xenos only increases, and soon enough you abandon the defense to head back through that slightly battered umbilical, because clearly the Sulaco is a lost cause. You’ve still got the guy you cut free from the wall with you, and he’s first. Wounded and all that.
Only you’ve seen an Alien film, so you know what’s coming next. You know that his face has been hugged, and he’s got a little baby alien ready to come out of the oven. By which I mean bite its way clear of his rib cage and burst out of his chest. And that happens. At which point everything explodes.
“When you come across new situations the conditions change; when situations become worse you definitely have this escalation all the time.” The only problem with that is that things have escalated pretty quickly and pretty far, in just the fifteen minutes on display. Where to go from here? It’s a good problem to have, though; where do you go from everything exploding and aliens swarming every which way? I’m pretty sure the only way is down, through the stratosphere. Onto the surface of LV-426.
And we all know what’s down there.
The Aliens Colonial Marines PC release date is February 12 2013.See our guide to everything we know aboutAliens: Colonial Marines, check prices forAliens Colonial Marines downloadat Green Man Gaming and followPCGamesN on Twitterfor updates.