To say that Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford is extremely proud of Aliens: Colonial Marines would be an understatement of staggering proportions. Like most red-blooded males, he's a rabid fan of the seminal (and for our money, superior) Sci-Fi epic... and Colonial Marines is nothing less than a full sequel to the film. That's right: Gearbox has collaborated with 20th Century Fox to secure every storyboard, design sketch and discarded screenplay segment to create a genuine part of the Aliens canon. It's a reminder of how important our medium has become, and to demonstrate how thrilled he is about the upcoming shooter, Pitchford excitedly talked us through a level behind the closed doors of a replica drop pod.
Before starting the demo, Pitchford explained that the games industry has been “stealing” from Aliens for dozens of years, and that even he has pinched the best bits of the classic Sci-Fi romp throughout his career at 3D Realms and Gearbox. Half Life's headcrabs are essentially Facehuggers. Countless games use corrupted, cramped industrial environments as settings and chelicerate, animalistic xenomorphs as adversaries. Halo's art style is unashamedly lifted directly from Aliens (which Bungie freely admits), and don't forget that our beloved Sergeant Johnson is a loving ripoff homage to Sergeant Apone. Oh, and one of their achievements is a quote from the film. It's therefore high time that gaming gave something back to the movie that started it all... so Aliens: Colonial Marines is gearing up to give it the direct sequel it deserves.
Gearbox couldn't be more thrilled about the project. And after seeing the demo, neither could we.
The level starts with a Colonial Marine capital ship, the USS Sephoria, gliding silently into orbit around the infamous planet LV426. All is deathly quiet on board the cruiser, but as the vessel nears its destination, lights flicker into life and cryogenic pods start their boot-up sequence. It's business as usual, then – until a massive impact forces the ship to crash directly into the atmosphere. We're in for some chop! After a huge explosion, a few squads of marines are able to pull themselves out of their pods and descend into the heart of Hadley's Hope.
Pitchford chimed in to inform us that Aliens: Colonial Marines boasts a unique rendering engine that prioritises real-time lighting effects and incredibly detailed shadows. He reckons that it “raises the bar” set by the likes of Dead Space 2 and other recent horror games, and within seconds of being hoisted out of the wreckage, the flames cast flickering, realistic shadows around the pitch black walls. Darkness is key for an Aliens game to work effectively, and the new engine is more than capable of creating a truly dynamic and threatening atmosphere.
Back to the action, and the player's squad manages to reach the operations centre of Hadley's Hope. The once-functional room (perfectly designed using original design sketches and film footage) was ripped open by the Atmospheric Processor explosion triggered by Ripley near the end of Aliens; revealing the blighted familiar landscape and the hulking cracked shell of the processor itself. The deep level of authenticity, Pitchford merrily explained, is partly due to assistance from legendary designer Sid Mead. He essentially “designed the future,” and is the man behind the original Hadley's Hope, the Sulaco and even Tron's Light Cycles. His collaboration is yet another clear statement of how seriously Gearbox are taking their responsibility to the franchise.
The squad spots a ship over in the distance, but before they can reach it, the all-too-familiar blip of the portable motion tracker starts ticking ominously. Players will be able to wield the clunky device in one hand while clumsily holding their rifle in the other, and though it's an invaluable tool in the right hands, the solid sea of red dots indicated that the whole area was swarming with unknown hostiles. “It's all red!” screamed a marine... seconds before a Xenomorph burst through the ceiling, gutted him and hoisted the leatherneck into the crawlspace.
The aliens descended on the squad from all sides like a pack of wild dogs. Both 'classic' and quadrupedal 'runner' aliens used advanced AI behaviours and their vicious talons to move freely around the ceilings and walls; flanking panicking soldiers before viciously dispatching them. Our anonymous hero managed to down a few with precise blasts from his assault rifle that ripped through their carapaces like so much tissue paper, and after the player character beat an alien to death with his rifle butt in a blatantly scripted QTE, the squad sprints into the desolate wastes to reach the dropship they spotted earlier.
No suck luck, obviously. It was time for us to meet a new type of Xenomorph: the 'Crusher.' As an ferocious bull-like adversary sporting an impenetrable armoured crest, this enormous foe smashed through walls and cover to gore the few marines who stood and fought. Desperately sliding under a closing blast door to the apparent safety of a machine shop, the marine met up with a few reinforcements that were about to receive a powerful new ally.
Aliens: Colonial Marines will boast seamless drop-in co-op for up to four players... both locally and online. To demonstrate how simple the procedure was, Pitchford invited a member of the dev team to join in. After accepting the invite with a single press, she leapt into the body of a marine and demonstrated the successful procedure with a few stylish teabags. Classy.
This respite was sadly short-lived, as the increasingly urgent whine of the motion tracker indicated that another wave of Xenomorphs was headed in their direction. However, the odds were now stacked in the Marines' favour since the room was packed full of deployable sentry guns that fans will remember from a classic action sequence in the movie.
"They mostly come through tunnels, mostly," quipped Pitchford, as the team hurriedly scrambled to set up defence turrets in a dingy maintenance walkway. As the motion tracker reached a fever pitch, over two dozen Xenos ripped through the vents and walls; piling straight into the withering gunfire of the deployed drone guns without heed for their own safety. Their sheer numbers were gradually able to push the squad back, who relied on setting up flanking manoeuvres of their own to whittle down the Aliens' numbers from the side. Unfortunately another wave found their way under the floor of the machine shop, and the squad was forced to fall back once again. These "last stand" situations will apparently provide tense and chaotic changes of pace that will demand tight teamwork and overlapping fields of fire to overcome.
Finally, the squad rendezvoused with another set of reinforcements in a cavernous vehicle bay. Several inactive APCs (yeah, the awesome flat ones) provided some fun fan service, but our eyes were immediately drawn to the bright yellow weaponised Power Loaders standing on the other side of the room. The second Gearbox rep leapt into the armoured exoskeleton, which singlehandedly beat back an entire phalanx of incoming foes with its arm-mounted flamethrower and minigun. The marines had, at long last, managed to catch a break.
And then the Queen arrived, bursting through the wall and tearing the Power Loader asunder with terrifying ease. Stomping over to the player, the gigantic, glistening alien lifted the marine up to stare straight into her leering face... and as you'd expect, the demo ended.
There's no doubt that the demo was scripted down to the millisecond, and that Gearbox will have their work cut out delivering a uniformly tight and varied experience. But for now, all we know is that it's going to be an unbearably long few months for Aliens fans... and that Colonial Marines will almost certainly be worth every minute of it.