Aliens: Colonial Marines, a first-person shooter in development at Gearbox, is more than a game. It's a sequel, believe it or not, but not to one of the previous Aliens-themed games you might already be aware of. Instead, it's a sequel to the Aliens movies themselves. 20th Century Fox feel so serious about the game, apparently, that it's considered canonical in the grand Aliens saga. That's quite the complement but, as announced recently, we're going to have to wait a little longer (it's coming out next year, instead of Christmas) to find out.
Fortunately, as that time (believe it or not) still draws ever nearer with each passing day, opportunities to actually play the game (rather than just watch it) are becoming a reality. My first chance came this week, with hands on at SEGA's E3 booth in LA. Initially disappointed that it was to be multiplayer only, my interest was piqued again very quickly when I learned that I, along with other members of the press, would be playing against Gearbox themselves; specifically, we'd be marines, and they'd be playing as Aliens.
While you can't play as the Aliens in any form of single player game, something that's sure to cause a slight "aww" amongst any readers familiar with Rebellion's excellent Aliens vs. Predator titles, you can play them in multiplayer. With no firearms, their suite of abilities shouldn't be cast aside as immaterial. Quite the opposite, in fact, as their penchant for wall crawling, high speed movement, and ability to kill you the moment they touch you makes them quite the formidable opponent.
I found out just how formidable very quickly. While the balance was a bit off (the guys that made it, up against a bunch of newbies), that the aliens represent a clear and present danger was nonetheless very obvious. Just watching them move around the environment is enough to turn any Aliens fan into a quivering mess, let alone when one lunges for you. And if they get close enough to lunge, you're pretty much dead.
This hardcore challenge forces players to group up and communicate, complete with a tail-point charlie walking backwards behind the column of marines to cover their asses. Basically, if you're solo, you're toast. A team of smart Marines that eats, sleeps, and breathes as one will be almost impossible for an Alien to approach successfully.
The Aliens can counter this, however, with the ability to mutate into other forms of Alien. Exactly how this will work isn't super clear, however the developer I talked to suggested a combination of experience-based unlocks and level-based "mutation points" will get the job done if you're an Alien in search of new abilities. As to exactly what mutations will be on offer, details - again - were thin on the ground. One that was described to me, and then used to waste me in the face, was some sort of giant Alien killing machine. Think: giant organic tank with acidic blood and you're most of the way there.
Marines aren't totally useless, however, with the famous Alien proximity sensor available at the press of a button. Like the torch in the original version of Doom 3, however, it's use is instead of (rather than as well as) your weapon, so use of it is something you should consider and be careful about. As an aside, Gearbox confirmed to me that the scanner will be a feature of the Wii U version, where it will not only appear on your Gamepad's screen, but you'll be able to swing the Gamepad around the room to detect Aliens via a simple form of Augmented Reality. Nice.
One thing that shone through the entire experience was, well, its Aliens-ness. The game feels, looks, and sounds like it should; like the movies you know and love. Aliens are genuinely terrifying, and even the reassuringly iconic sound of the pulse rifle was unable to settle my nerves once i saw the tail of an Alien skittering up the side of a building.
Basically, this experience has gone a long way to reassuring me that Gearbox are on the right track. Aliens is an amazing franchise, and one that - after some recent, questionable movies - is in need of some love. Based on what I've seen, I'm reasonably comfortable that SEGA and Gearbox are going to deliver exactly that.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: It's very, very Aliens
The Bad: Knowing their are Aliens out there, somewhere
The Ugly: If they get close, you're toast