We might as well start this one off with a controversial opinion; while appreciating the Alien franchise, and the universe built by H.R. Giger has been part of the foundation of my life as a cinema-loving adult, I actually dislike what James Cameron did with the platform built by Giger and Ridley Scott in the otherwise much-beloved Aliens.
While expertly crafted, and lovingly realised, I found it simply overexposed the titular aliens in such a way, that the towering Xenomorph, heralded as one of the most terrifying on-screen characters ever, that it almost immediately became stale. It's haunting, ghostly and otherworldly qualities erased, as quick as our stereotypical marines entered their den on LV-426.
The Xenomorph is supposed to be almost ethereal, a creature so pure in its horror, that it should be beyond destruction, or Darwinian analysis. Yet, it is so quickly reduced to nothing but a basic sentience with the mindset of any other predator.
Alien: Isolation understood this about the universe it interpreted, and maintained this otherworldliness, and it remains one of my favourite horror games for that very reason. Aliens: Fireteam Elite from Cold Iron Studios does the very obvious, and I'm not exaggerating when I say, that after literally 30 seconds of gameplay, you'll have gunned down at least 30 Xenomorphs, who blindly rush towards you in droves, abandoning all its predatory sense as they are herded in the direction of your gun muzzle.
This is the experience Aliens: Fireteam Elite offers, and while it, in moments, does attempt to capture the franchise's iconic low-fi mood and atmosphere and even does it well, you will, in broad strokes, spend most of your time gunning down hordes upon hordes of Xeno's. Dozens upon dozens until you are as numb as the marines themselves must be after years of service in the darkness of space.
Structurally, it resembles other cooperative games of late, with a set base of operations offering up slight customisation of your character, your abilities and your role. From here, you roll out on missions, packaged into separate campaigns each consisting of a few missions stringing together a narrative. You are able to freely stroll around its limited physical space, but it's mostly a lobby, letting you invite other players to form your three-man firing squad.
And before we hit the deck of the Katanga Refinery, let's talk classes. There are four currently in Aliens: Fireteam Elite, the Gunner, the Demolisher, the Technician and the Doc, each has two distinct abilities, and stringing these together to create explosions, bottlenecks, increased firing capability or support, is crucial. Too many cooperative games have so fluid class systems, that each and every player can essentially perform all tasks to some satisfaction, so it is a relief to see a proper class-based system implemented here.
Additionally, you won't run out of things to tweak in a hurry. There are four weapon types, consisting of several models in each, and these can be further customised with attachments, challenge cards and even weapon skins, skins that can't be purchased through microtransactions, mind you, because the game has none.
So there you are, your three man squad, exploring the Katanga over 20 years after the initial events of James Cameron's Aliens, and as stated above, it quickly becomes second nature to fire at anything remotely moving, removing much of the inherent fear that even the marines felt, as they explored LV-426. As canon fodder rushes you from every direction, you may use your class-based abilities, such as Overclock, Micro Rockets or even a trusty Sentry Gun, that all lend each situation a tad more flair. There's a cover system that makes little sense, seeing as 95% of enemies always rush towards you in melee range, and there's of course classes within the Xeno horde too.
The Spitter hurls acid at you, the Drone appears from nowhere, takes a chunk of your health only to skulk back in the vents, and the Prowler is stealthy, preferring attacks from behind. There's more than just these, obviously, and each requires a particular tactical understanding. Particularly the Warrior does emit some of the terror that I spoke of earlier, seeing as it stands on its hindlegs, and appears to be almost indestructible at first, so there are glimmers of actual horror here. But these moments are both few and far between, and they lose their edge quickly too.
See, Aliens: Fireteam Elite doesn't offer much in the way of versatility, and shows you the entirety of its objective tool belt within the first couple of missions. Waiting for an elevator to evacuate you and your squad, turning on a generator gradually, either rebooting or shutting down machinery to enable progress inwards, it's all familiar, and it never has a proper narrative dimension. It's built for replayability, that's for sure, so it seems Cold Iron has restrained themselves to really boring objectives, that rarely go beyond "go to this portion of the station", or "defend this position". You're there on Katanga to investigate, but there isn't much actual investigating to do, you are more a glorified exterminator, removing percentage after percentage of an inconvenience, rather than something truly sinister.
It's a tad clunky to control too, and it lacks the physicality of some of the best zombie games, like Left 4 Dead 2, which it seems to draw inspiration from. It's not broken, and there can be moments in co-op where you are letting your Pulse Rifle rip, and stand beside your squad mates in awe of your own destructive capabilities. But most of the time, the Xeno's will rush you so quickly, that even a hint of a front line is erased in seconds, and you'll spend the remaining time running around like headless chickens, dodging physical blows from waves upon waves on Xeno's.
It's a shame, because Cold Iron has, in a visual and audio sense, crafted something rather exquisite. Sure, Aliens: Fireteam Elite doesn't look particular next-gen, but there's thick atmosphere to be found here, and while Katanga doesn't offer much in the way of proper visual variety, there are clever ways which the studio changes things up, such as a red alarm lighting appearing across the station, imprinting a new layer onto the otherwise grey backdrop. The music is frankly fantastic too, echoing both the original Alien, and Aliens, and doing so extremely well. Combine that with all the sound design you love from those movies, like the electric pulse of the rifles, and the iconic old-school computer beeps and boops.
With the promise of free seasons going forward, as well as a free next-gen upgrade, there might be a good, long life ahead for Aliens: Fireteam Elite. It's clear that the team at Cold Iron really does love Aliens, so maybe it'll turn around in time. But for now, the actual part of playing the game is simply too repetitive, and it lacks any kind of tension, any kind of build-up, due to the fact that the game simply does not know how to entertain the player, apart from just dropping more Xeno's on you.
And with games like GTFO, we know that it is possible to design cooperative shooters that maintain tension, and fear, as you move through areas filled with enemies, that will take your head off if you're not calendar, and perfectly in-sync. That's not what Aliens: Fireteam Elite is, but there are moments of brilliance which make you really wish it was.