E3 2011 – Gearbox Loves Aliens, But Is That Enough to Make Colonial Marines Good?

Gearbox’s demo of Aliens: Colonial Marines was probably the nerdiest thing to be seen at E3 this year.

Enclosed in a dark gray circular bunker instead of the more standard booth, it had three colonial marines standing out front and a lineup that would take at least an hour to get through. Later, I would spot a few of the marines circulating the show floor and getting pictures with a replica Retro Lancer near the Gears of War hands-on area, making a goofy “kill!” face like the rest of us. One of the marines got into a long discussion with someone in the line about the exact parts used to build his smart gun (the hip-mounted MG42 carried by characters Vasquez and Drake in the film) and their accuracy in comparison to the film props.

Inside wasn’t much better. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford was on-hand to run us through the demo, and he was nearly giddy as he explained what we were about to see.

“I’ve been ripping off Aliens for most of my career,” Pitchford joked.

It’s true, games Pitchford has worked on like Duke Nukem and Half-Life borrow liberally from the Alien universe. So does just about every video game ever made. StarCraft didn’t just lift the Aliens designs for its Terran dropships — it may as well have lifted the actual sound bytes from the movie for its pilots’ dialog, it sounds so similar.

Here’s the thing, though — nerdy is good. Pitchford is seriously nerdy for Aliens, that much was clear after the first five minutes in the demo room. Gearbox as a whole seemed to have a collective nerdgasm during the demo as the game’s players yelled out lines from the film in conjunction with the action on the screen. And this had to have been their twentieth run through the demo. It seemed like they were excited about what they were making.

In checking out Colonial Marines, which required at least an hour and a half out of my E3 Day 3 that I could have spent eating lunch or consuming caffeine, it was easy to nerd out along with Pitchford and his team. At least on the surface, Colonial Marines looks like the Aliens game we’ve all been waiting for since, well, Aliens. You can tell there’s love in what’s being created, and as Pitchford explained, Gearbox is working closely with 20th Century Fox and even with Alien director Ridley Scott to create a true sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 film. This could be what we fans have been pining for since (spoiler) Ripley woke up to find Hicks and Newt dead and all hope for the remaining Alien franchise drowned in a cryotube along with them.

There’s a lot of hope to be had. The game sounds to be a canonical entry into the Alien series and concerns events directly related to Cameron’s film. It’s also about being a bad-ass, Pitchford said, which is why it’s all about Cameron’s colonial marines — “real tough hombres,” as Weyland-Yutani Special Projects Director Carter J. Burke put it. This game concerns the rescue team the Colonial Marine Corps would have dispatched to LV-426 (the planet from the movie) to find the Sulaco and its crew of marines. Hicks tells the team in Aliens that it would be about 17 days before a rescue party could be expected to show up; you are a part of that rescue team.

Pitchford also made a lot of promises about where Colonial Marines would be headed as far as story. The Gearbox team had met with Scott and seen his original concept art and storyboards for Alien. With that insider knowledge, Pitchford said, Colonial Marines is set up to go to new places on LV-426, revisit the derelict spacecraft discovered by the Nostromo crew in Alien that kicked off the entire infestation, and possibly reveal more about the backstory of the entire franchise.

Awesome, awesome, awesome.

But how does it play? That’s the real question, isn’t it, and the E3 demo seems promising at the same time it was being vaguely worrisome.

As a massive Aliens nerd myself, I’m more than excited for Colonial Marines, I’m already emotionally invested in it being good. It’s been a fairly long time since there was much greatness to be found in the franchise, and Pitchford’s level of knowledge and enthusiasm for the project are refreshing, but the game in action as we saw it on the show floor seems like it could go either way.

The demo started in the cryotubes, where marines lay in suspended animation for their trip to LV-426. A short blast of images suggests a disaster, the crash of their ship, the USS Sephora, and a situation that leaves the marines stranded on the planet. When the demo actually started to pick up, the player was on LV-426 investigating the colony, Hadley’s Hope. The whole place had suffered massive damage, both from attacks by the aliens (often referred to by the generic term “xenomorph” used once in Aliens) and the massive destruction wrought by the explosion of the nearby atmosphere processor at the end of the film. Notably, the game immediately started with marines moving around in a squad, checking out the Operations area from the film — passing all those glass tubes filled with facehugger specimens, moving through the area with emergency lighting where Burke bought it and Vasquez welded the door shut, and into the main room where the marines and Ripley made their stand before retreating through the air ducts to the landing platform.

Lighting is a big deal in the Alien franchise, and Pitchford said Gearbox has designed an engine that “prioritizes light and shadow” to maintain the dark look and feel of Aliens. Lighting in the demo did look pretty solid, with the blood red emergency lights counteracted by pools of bright white and deep shadows creeping in on the edges. As the player moved into Operations — which was missing its entire front wall from the atmosphere processor explosion, and actually looked out on a clear plain that reached all the way to the destroyed processor’s hulk in the distance — things started to go belly up.

Suddenly, the player’s motion tracker started to light up. Pulling it up required a separate function, slinging the gun momentarily to check it, and just as in the film, it showed aliens in the room without them being visible on the screen. Then: black hands shoot down through the ceiling, a marine is grabbed, and he disappears. Aliens flood the room and pulse rifles start lighting them up; one attacks the player at close range, grabbing hold of his shotgun, and a quick blast (“Eat this!”) sends it exploding all over the room.

The remaining marines take to the field outside Operations, where we see another new alien, which Pitchford calls a “Crusher.” This huge bull alien (if you remember the toys from the film) charges around on all fours and looks a fair amount like a triceratops, with a big head crest and the ability to smash prey against walls — which it does, slamming a marine against metal just as the player charges by. Up ahead, more of the squad are closing the door to a garage and calling for the marines to get inside. Slipping through the door just before it closes saves the player’s life; the door takes a beating, denting inward from the alien’s incredible force.

We got only a brief taste of the AI in that fleeting moment of combat, but Pitchford said making the xenomorphs believable and capable is a primary focus for the team. Meanwhile, in the next room which is more or less filled with remaining marines, we get to see co-op in action, kind of. Grabbing another controller, a second Gearboxer drops into the game instantly — part of the drop-in, drop-out co-op play Colonial Marines will support for up to four players.

With the xenos on their way, the marines are preparing their defenses. The player loads up on additional weaponry, slinging the shotgun in favor of the film’s iconic M41A Pulse Rifle, and checking out things like the marines’ autoturrets, which are getting set up in the tunnels that lead to the garage. Pitchford made a big deal about all these weapons, but we’ve seen them in licensed Aliens games before, as recently as in Rebellion’s Alien vs. Predator. We’re also privy to a room where the marines are getting set with things like armored personnel carriers and power loaders, the big yellow mechs one of which Ripley used to fight the queen in Aliens. Again, nothing we haven’t seen before. Meanwhile, motion trackers are going nuts and the Gearbox players are hamming things up for our (their?) benefit — “They’re in the room!” “They can’t be in the room!” “They cut the power!” “How could they cut the power, man, they’re animals!”

The player double-times it over to one of the tunnels to help out with defense, but that plan doesn’t last. The turret makes short work of aliens in the cramped, darkened tunnel, but it isn’t more than a few seconds before xenos are tearing open vent panels and snatching marines through the walls. Heading back to the main room, there’s fighting going on all over the place with the player letting loose a few pulse rifle rounds as we see more marines disappearing through floors and ceilings.

Then, with a crash, a wall gives way — revealing a huge queen alien. The player attempts to open fire, but things go to hell almost instantly, with the queen closing in, snatching the player in its huge arms, and firing its interior set of jaws like a missile into his skull. Fade to black.

Final Thoughts
I like the concept of Aliens: Colonial Marines. I like Randy Pitchford and I like Gearbox, and I like that they seem to be giving the game a hell of a lot of strict attention. But how it’ll actually play worries me.

For one, the demo I saw (which seems unlikely to be what’s actually in the game) was littered with plenty of moments of marines getting snagged and disappearing through walls. All these moments, however, just like the crusher taking out the marine while the player ran to safety, felt heavily scripted. That seems unfortunate, as having marines around simply to get disappeared in ways the player might not even see — while a big part of the film — detracts from our ever caring about those marines. They’re fodder, they exist for those pre-scripted moments, and without some effective storytelling, they’ll just be faceless polygons that represent pretend danger around the player.

The high number of other characters and players around is a fundamental departure for any Alien game, all of which have relied on darkness and leaving players alone to ratchet up the tension. Rebellion’s AvP game works pretty well in its marine campaign with exactly this mandate; xenos might not be as frightening there as in the films, but they are frequently a fast and overwhelming force that the player has to deal with almost always on his or her own. With all the marines running around, Colonial Marines gave off a much more Starship Troopers vibe, which is bad.

And then there are the numerous story considerations: How did Hadley’s Hope survive that massive explosion (apparently they really should have nuked the site from orbit, as it was the only way to be sure)? How does the rescue team happen on the Sulaco (which was, apparently, on a return flight with Ripley and co. on board at the outset of Alien 3)? Why are there facehuggers in the EEV — oh, wait, that was a question for the abysmal Alien 3 script. Ignore that last one.

The one final thing that bugged me: alien blood. Xenomorphs carry around molecular acid for blood, which eats through metal as well as people. We got treated to a close-range shotgun-to-the-alien-face moment during the demo (with Pitchford paraphrasing a quote, “That’s what we like to call a ‘close encounter’”), but the splash of greenish blood didn’t seem dangerous at all. That, to say the least, is troubling.

It’s still early in development for Colonial Marines — the game won’t even be out until next spring and it’s even being built for Nintendo’s new Wii U — but the best I can muster at this point is a state of cautious optimism. This is one of my favorite franchises in the world Gearbox is messing with, and they better be taking it f–king seriously.

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