In 1979 Ridley Scott made a sci-fi horror film called Alien (it was originally going to be called Star Beast - imagine that). Rather unexpectedly, this film turned out to be one of the most important films ever made. Alien's success all but guaranteed that it would spawn a slew of sequels, some of which proved better than others. Although the quality of the films lessens with each new incarnation, the crux of it is still compelling stuff: In space, no one can hear you scream.
Making such bold statements about the quality of a film (or series of films) would usually be met with derision, but in this instance there won't be too many dissenting voices. Alien and it's sequel, the equally superb - and yet completely different - Aliens (this time directed by James Cameron), both hold a special place in the hearts of nearly everyone who has ever seen them.
For the three or four of you who've never watched the films, here is the plot in a nutshell:
Ellen Ripley and her crew discover a beacon on a planetoid whilst flying through space on their freighter the Nostromo. They run into a vicious Alien species, one of which gets aboard their ship (via a facehugger and the chest of one the crew members). After exploding into life - in one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history - the Alien promptly kills everyone aboard, with the exception of Ripley, who blows up the ship as she makes good her escape. Cue the credits.
In the sequel; after floating in deep space for decades, Ripley is rescued. Turns out that whilst she was in cryo-sleep (with the only other survivor of the first encounter - Jones the cat) a whole colony of people - terraformers - were sent out to the planet now known as LV-426 to set up Hadley's Hope. Surprise surprise, they've lost contact with the colonists. Off Ripley goes, back to LV-426, to investigate, but this time she takes with her a squad of triple-hard marines with big guns and smart one-liners. They turn up all full of beans but it's not long before the Aliens show up and kill everyone except Ripley, a 12 year old survivor called Newt, half an android that looks suspiciously like Lance Henrikson and one acid-scorched marine. Against the odds this motley crew manages to get away, blowing everything up as they make good their escape. Cue the credits.
As you all know, there are more films, but for our purposes here that's all we really need to know. Gearbox's Alien: Colonial Marines picks up the story from that point. You're a colonial marine that, along with the rest of your unit, has been tasked with finding out what happened to your fellow soldiers on LV-426. That's right: This is the sequel to Aliens that we've all been waiting for.
Gearbox's game was due to be released some time ago, but it clashed with the release of Rebellion's slightly-better-than-average Alien Vs Predator. That being so, Colonial Marines was put back until early 2012. Publisher SEGA didn't want either game to take anything away from the other and so spaced out the releases accordingly. It was probably best that they did, because even though there are significant differences between the two titles, they also share some common ground.
Alien: Colonial Marines is, to put it simply, a squad-based shooter. You will take charge of a team of four marines, taking control of each soldier at different times in the game. When controlling one character, players will delegate responsibility to the rest of the team. You'll need to stay alert - your Xenomorph opponents will do everything they can to get around your defences. Crafty Aliens will attempt to outflank you at every opportunity, working as a unit to expose your weakest points. Cleverly, if they're outnumbered, the acid bleeding beasties will retreat rather than allow themselves to become cannon fodder. Like in the films, these are more than just mindless creatures. The different enemy types featured in the game look like they will provide a variety of different challenges for gamers to overcome, and even with new breeds of aliens appearing in the game, it doesn't look like Gearbox are straying very far from the source material.
It'll also mean a heavier focus on what really was the best part of Alien vs Predator. While the campaign interwove three storylines and let you play as both alien species, it was only the third narrative, following a squad of marines, that reached the level of quality expected. On the harder settings it was a tense and exciting experience, and though it wasn't enough to rescue the overall package from mediocrity, it does give a tantalising peek as to the experience we're expecting next year.
So what have Gearbox been doing with the extra time afforded to them by the earlier release of AvP? Well, they've been tweaking the graphics that's for sure. They've made a real effort with the lighting effects and it shows; the ambiance of the movie is captured perfectly. This game looks entirely reminiscent of the films and there is plenty of homage in there.
They've also been working hard on the multiplayer; as well as the single-player campaign there will be split-screen co-op and four player multiplayer. The gameplay trailers reveal what looks to be a visceral and challenging experience. It also looks like the kind of experience that would be enhanced by teaming up with some friends and playing late at night with the hardest settings on.
There are enough recent decent movie tie-ins to prove that games with close links to Hollywood blockbusters needn't be drab, yawn inspiring affairs (though often they are). Gearbox has quite a responsibility resting on their collective shoulders - they're working without a safety net with some sacred material - but we can be cautiously optimistic that they're on the right track. Listening to Gearbox President Randy Pitchford's commentary during the E3 preview it is clear as day that the company likes and respects the story that they're working with, with Pitchford openly admitting that "I've been stealing from Aliens my entire career.... It's been a big influence on all science-fiction".
20th Centrury Fox also know the worth of keeping the quality high when publishing a game from such a revered cannon of work. This isn't the first time that a company has tried to work this story (or certainly one similar to it) into a game; Fox Interactive was working with the now defunct Check-Six Games on trying to bring Aliens: Colonial Marines to life way back in 2002. Not much is known about why that game never saw the light of day, but perhaps the gameplay experience didn't live up to the franchises reputation? Ultimately, with little or no information on the subject publicly available, we'll never know for sure.
One thing that is for sure is the series is now in capable hands. Gearbox has a good pedigree and recent games Borderlands and Brothers in Arms both reviewed very well. Borderlands in particular was a very interesting title, with solid gameplay accompanying a distinctive and aesthetically pleasing visual style. Lets hope that they build on their solid reputation and previous good work and make a worth movie tie-in with Aliens: Colonial Marines. If there was ever a better time to do so then we can't think of it. This is an opportunity for Gearbox to really put itself on the map. All it needs to do is deliver a game worthy of the series. If only it were that simple.
The stakes are high for this game. Developer Gearbox are playing with fire; but if it can handle the heat and deliver a top quality game, one worthy to carry on the story started by Ridley Scott over thirty years ago, then Alien: Colonial Marines could be the best thing to happen in 2012.