When you listen to the developers of Aliens: Colonial Marines, it's obvious that they are both proud to work on the license and have big plans for it. That's a good starting point as Aliens has been the inspiration of so many great video games, and the film itself is, of course, revered in its own right. There is a lot of responsibility resting on the shoulders of Randy Pitchford and his company.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an official sequel to James Cameron's film. It takes place 11 months after Alien 3, and you play as a group of new marines sent out to find out what happened to USS Sulaco, Ripley, Hicks and the other marines on LV-426. It's pure fan service and they have even managed to get Syd Mead on board, the original designer of Sulaco and the base on LV-426 to help with things that weren't present in the film, but that will be there in the video game. It's hard to question the effort made to create something authentic.
The same effort has been made on the technical side. The game runs on Epic's Unreal 3 Engine, but Gearbox have created their own renderer in order to get the right lighting for the game. "Lighting is such a vital part of the Alien franchise, that it has to be just perfect", producer Brian Burleson told us during the presentation.
It is clear from the first moment of the demo that the work Gearbox have done on the engine pays off. The contrast between shadows and lighted areas is impressive, and it reminds us of when we first saw id Software's Doom 3 and how it rocked our world. The environments look spectacular, as if taken straight out of the movie. In one scene, the player flees across something that looks like a loading area chased by a massive xenomorph, which uses its massive forehead as its primary weapon. The marine runs towards what looks like a garage door, already secured by other marines, the light from inside almost blinding in comparison to that of LV-426's surface.
There is a lot going on in the demo. An alien pops out through an air vent and grabs a marine before diving back in. There is full panic as the red dots on the motion detectors light up and the aliens start pouring out of the ventilation drums. Doors are sealed shut, while the giant alien from the chase scene tries to ram its way through steel doors and walls.
There are a lot of details that are taken straight from the film. There is, as mentioned, the motion scanner, and since there is no heads up display, you have to hold up the scanner as if it were a gun. Your assault rifle has a nice ammunition display, but if you're using the shotgun you're going to have count the shells yourself.
We also see examples of automated turrets that hurls bullets at advancing xenomorphs at the end of a hallway, while the ammunition depletes at a rate that is far from healthy. And there is the yellow loader suit, designed to move containers, that Ripley made use of in the movie, which makes an appearance. The beats are all in place, but crammed in to such a short space of time, it's overwhelming.
We're only seeing a short ten minute demo, and perhaps it has been made specifically for Gamescom. Hopefully that's the case, because these few minutes were just overly packed with references from the movie. You almost got a sense that they used up all the material in one quick go.
Almost every time the player and his AI controlled squad mates enter a new room, they are attacked by a new pack of aliens, to an extent that terrible sense of expectation and fear is never really established. The action seems a bit forced.
The hope is that what we experienced is due to this being a controlled demo, that is meant to sum up the game in a very limited amount of time, and that the final game will provide us with breaks between the scenes that remind us of the movie.
From a visual perspective the style of the movie has been perfectly emulated, and while the animations of the xenomorphs themselves are a bit clunky, there is still time for that to be fixed. On the plus side we should also mention the drop-in/drop-out co-operative mode, something the developers were keen to show us.
While we are not completely enthusiastic by what we've seen of Aliens: Colonial Marines - more due to sensory exhaustion than anything - we leave the presentation feeling cautiously optimistic. Gearbox have gotten a lot of things right - a whole bunch of things. The game offers slow, tense gameplay that relies as much on what's not happening as what actually happens - it's the kind of gameplay you expect from an Aliens game - and it's not perfectly suited for press demos where you only have a short window to get your game across to hordes of journalists. And since the developers seem to have gotten what makes Aliens great, we're willing to overlook some of the glaring disappointments found in the gameplay as they may be blamed on the circumstances of the demo.
In many ways, Aliens: Colonial Marines, is the exception to the rule that says that all licensed games are awful. And while we're not completely convinced, we're hopeful that this will turn out well. It wouldn't be surprising, with so many things hitting the spot, if Gearbox managed to ironed out that last few crinkles in time for the release next year.