Brian Burleson, senior producer over at Gearbox Software, starts the day by throwing a dolls head on the table. "Do you guys know what this is?" he asks. We do, the assembled crowd are all fans. "That's Newt's doll," someone says. Next he asks us what Ripley's cat is called. I had this one; "Jones. Same as my cat."
We all know our stuff, we're all big fans of the franchise. I get the impression that we're shown the prop and asked the questions because Gearbox want us to know that they're making this game for us, for fans. They know that we know, and they want us to know that they know. "You gotta be really thorough, and you've got to do it right," we're told. Hammer. Nail. Head.
In such a popular IP, and one with so many fans, it's important - no, essential - to get the little things right. Gearbox understand this, and they're pulling out all the stops to make this a game that will resonate with fans.
Aliens: Colonial Marines recently got a definitive release date. Whilst we can rejoice in that fact, we must still temper our joy, as the game is not going to be released until February 12, 2013. Still ages, then.
That said, there's still a plethora of reasons we should still be excited about ACM. The most obvious, aside from subject matter, is that it already looks good, and Gearbox has a considerable period of time left to add spit and polish to an already promising title.
At the recent event in London, we took another look at the game; more specifically at a section close to the beginning. It was a segment designed to really set the tone that Gearbox are trying to establish in ACM. Xenomorphs. Marines. Gratuitous violence. Death.
"The universe, its very lush, but also has so much room to grow. There's so much you can do with it, and not in a corny way, not like AVP corny," says Burleson, before quickly pointing out he does like the film, even if it is a little on silly side. But there's nothing corny about the opening we're witnessing. Action starts with a marine heading over to the U.S.S. Sulaco (the ship that took Ripley, Burke and the first squad of marines to LV-426). He's on a mission, the details of which are fed to him via his headset: Retrieve a flight-box from the bridge of the abandoned ship.
Our man heads over the umbilical that links the space ships. I'm not even playing, but the fragility of the chord connecting the two vessels has me nervous.
Once across the bridge, the ship is entered. It's not long before we see one of the most iconic images of the Alien franchise; a hole in the floor with an acidic yellow outline. We know what this means, and something turns in our gut as the internal alert shifts to DEFCON 4. Nerves jangle.
The marines we see/talk to en route to our objective obviously didn't watch Aliens, because if they had, they'd have been more concerned than they were. Despite the beating they'd just received at the hands of the Xenos, they still didn't realise just how much trouble they were in. If they knew what we knew, they be much more like this.
We watched as our marine walked through a room that had just seen a messy firefight. Injured men laid on the floor as medics desperately tried and save their lives. The soldier spots half a Synthetic on the ground. "Which half?" asks the voice in our ear. "Well he ain't talking" comes the retort. A wry smile forms.
We walk through a series of corridors. Claustrophobic. Each showing the signs of a chaotic struggle, each environment becoming more and more Xenofied. It's not long before we enter a larger room, the walls of which drip with Giger. Spent Facehuggers are scattered on the floor, and marines hang limp, holes where hearts once were.
We find a comrade still alive, and he is dutifully cut down, but not before we encounter an Alien. Immediately I am impressed with the AI on display. The Xeno backs away from the encounter, preferring to try and flank instead of a suicidal head-on assault. Later, Burleson explains how their Aliens use misdirection to spring traps. We share a moment. "They're like those sneaky raptors" I say. "Clever girls" he replies, conjuring the spirit of the late, great Bob Peck's final words in Jurassic Park. Obviously an influence.
After dispatching the immediate threat, the marine is cut loose from his bonds. Together the soldiers move on, and after recovering the flight-box from the bridge, they arrive at the large hanger we visited at the start. Cue an epic set piece, a battle with Xenos streaming in from a variety of different directions. Luckily for everyone concerned, there is a weapon upgrade on hand.
Our marine picks up an large machine gun with a targeting computer and starts raining down pain on the dozens of Aliens crawling out of the vents and over a large shuttle parked in the hanger. The scene inspires me to ask about the environments in the game. "Even at the beginning of the game, there's definitely Xenocentric environments."
"The environments themselves have a big impact on gameplay. Xenos like to hide in corners, they like to crawl through grates, they like to go under the floor, over the ceiling... We're not just making environments because they're pretty, we're making them because they're meaningful to gameplay"
Time is ticking for our marines, but the threat is pushed back, and our two soldiers head back out into the umbilical, and safety. Or not, as the case may be.
I thought it was coming, and I wasn't disappointed. We all knew that marine was doomed as soon as we saw him hanging from the wall, a Facehugger lying limp on the floor at his feet. Sure enough, halfway across the glass umbilical, our comrade drops to his knees, his ribcage heaving outwards. The inevitable Alien springs forth from his chest. His final act is to detonate a grenade, destroying the umbilical and the Xenomorph, and sending us desperately scrambling towards the relative safety of the Sulaco.
It was a breathless set piece. Not unpredictable, but satisfying nonetheless.
Sure, there was a lot of scripted events in the short demo we saw, but it didn't matter. It was genuine. It was Aliens. It was the start of the sequel that we've been waiting for all these years. In terms of tone, Gearbox nailed it, and their game made one hell of a first impression.
That said, we didn't get to play it, so although it looks the part, and sounds the part, we all know that the proof is in the pudding. And for that, we're going to have to wait a little while longer. But the signs are all positive.
One thing that many gamers are looking forward to is the chance to play the game as a co-op experience. Gearbox is renowned for their prowess at creating exciting multiplayer action, and so the co-op for Colonial Marines is likely to be solid at the very least.
"Everyone asks how you make a scary co-op game?" says Burleson when telling us about the tone of the co-op campaign. "The answer is you play it like you want to be scared." That means turning the lights down low, and putting the difficulty settings up. It promises to be a visceral, brutal experience, and we can't wait.
Aliens: Colonial Marines looks like the real deal and retains the distinctive flavour of the film it follows on from. But it is very cinematic, and so much of the game's success will be determined by how well Gearbox tell the story they want to tell.
If they get it right, then we're looking at a bonafide crossover sequel. And not the kind that we already see from time to time, where a game gets wedged into the timeline of a popular IP, so as to squeeze out some extra juice from its cresting popularity; but an actual continuation of an unfinished strand of the Aliens story. Something that we, the fans, have been crying out for. For years.
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