Hands On With Aliens: Colonial Marines «

“This is the sequel to Aliens that we’ve all be waiting for, that I’ve been waiting to play since I saw that film so many years ago,” says Gearbox President Randy Pitchford.

Moments ago I saw a brief campaign mission from Aliens: Colonial Marines, the first time I’ve seen it in action since the proof-of-concept E3 demo almost a year ago. And while Gearbox has done an amazing job of capturing the look of the classic films, going so far as to to have a camera filter in place to replicate the film stock Aliens director James Cameron used in the 1986 classic, and bringing Syd Mead in to help replicate his movie sets, the make-or-break point for me will be Gearbox’s ability to tell a good story, something that is (debatably) not one of the studio’s strong suits.

17 Days

Story details are, of course, hard to come by, but I couldn’t help but ask about the MacGuffin. The last time we saw the U.S.S. Sulaco it was automatically putting Hicks, Ripley, Bishop, and Newt in an escape pod at the beginning of Alien 3 (and we know how well that turned out). So how does the Sulaco make its way back to planet LV-426? Where do these extra Marines come from? Remember when Ripley asked, “How long after we’re declared overdue can we expect a rescue?”

What’s worse: burned by alien acid blood, or fire?

“’17 days? We’re not going to last 17 hours, man!’ We liked that. That gave us something,” explains Pitchford shortly after the demo was over. “That means more Colonial Marines can enter this situation. What we know is that the Sulaco is no longer in orbit around Fury (the prison planet from Alien 3) and it’s back around LV-426 (the planet from Aliens). You know the atmosphere processor blew, but aliens have infested the Sulaco — something happened. And since we have a battalion force of Marines, we can have an endless stream of redshirts, but we also want to build a close-knit squad around the player character.”

Producer Brian Burleson’s resume includes Aliens: Infestation, which shares a lot of similarities in terms of plot devices with Colonial Marines.

This squad wasn’t shown during the demo of Colonial Marines, save for the player character, Corporal Winter, but if you’ve seen the recently revealed box art, you’ve been introduced to a few of them. When pressed for more details about this squad of Marines and how they’ll perform, I got some vague replies from Gearbox, but dots can be connected when we consider that Producer Brian Burleson’s resume includes last year’s Nintendo DS game, Aliens: Infestation, which shares a lot of similarities in terms of plot devices. In Infestation, you swap between different Marines as part of a squad that board the Sulaco, revisit LV-426, and even the derelict spacecraft — all details Pitchford confirmed back at E3 2011 as being locations in Colonial Marines.

“You have four main characters,” explains Burleson. “Actually, there’s a bunch of main characters, but the ones you spend a lot of time with are O’Neal, Bella, Winter, and Cruz. Those Marines actually have some importance to the storyline, and you’ll pick up more Marines along the way and experience their lifecycle… of sorts.”

How Could They Cut the Power?

Another mystery will be how new alien types will be introduced, such as the Stalkers that appeared in the demo of Colonial Marines. Watching them move around, jump off walls, and hide behind pillars reminded me of that first Spider Splicer encountered at the beginning of BioShock. This is a contrast to the Soldier variety (the traditional xenomorphs from Aliens) that will attack you directly in greater numbers. Even though Gearbox could create a dozen different alien variants, they’ll still need to scare us, and that won’t happen if the same alien pops out at the same spot every time. If that happens, Colonial Marines could easily become Alien Shooting Range. I asked Burleson how they intend to prevent that.

Somebody forgot their legs in the hanger bay.

“Actually, the environments are pretty dynamic,” says Burleson. “Depending where you’re at or what you’ve been doing, xenos will pop in and out. They don’t necessarily want to die, and they are smart, and they will get out of the scene as you’re trying to blow away their friends. They avoid the spots where their friends have died, so their pathing changes depending on where you killed one of them. So yeah, your experience changes depending on where you shoot the xenos, and also when you bring your friends in, it changes that experience. But if it’s important for the narrative, there will be some consistency, but in most of the environments this will be dynamic.”

Is This a Standup Fight, or Another Bughunt?

Colonial Marines will include drop-in/drop-out campaign co-op for up to four players, as well as a handful of objective-based multiplayer modes. For the sake of this event it was limited to Team Deathmatch between Marines (the press) and aliens (Gearbox), so I got a good taste of how the pulse rifles, shotguns, and pistols handle.

It won’t do your homework for you, but yes, you can use the smart gun in Colonial Marines.

Gearbox has a long history of building multiplayer shooters, and that experience shows here. All of the guns felt varied — the M41-A pulse rifle has an appropriate amount of kick, and the shotgun delivers some powerful shots up close. Also, every weapon comes with a primary and secondary fire option; for example, the pulse rifle’s alternate fire launches explosive grenades. With player-controlled aliens running around the room seeking us out, it had a very frantic Left 4 Dead vibe — we’re a small group of survivors trying to fend off a constant stream of aliens coming out of the floors and ceilings, or simply running right through us.

Put your eyes on the motion tracker or the iron sights on your gun — if you remember the flashlight from Doom 3, you get the idea.

Even though the weapons do feel great, the biggest thing that will keep Colonial Marines feeling distinct will be the use of the motion tracker. Using it, I can track all of the aliens running around the level, giving me a chance to find a safe spot to deliver a couple of shots before I’m eventually overrun or burnt to death via acid blood. As opposed to previous Alien games, where the motion tracker is a ever-present piece of the HUD, in Colonial Marines your weapon must be holstered when the tracker is equipped. You either have your eyes on the motion tracker or the iron sights on your gun — if you remember the flashlight from Doom 3, you get the idea.

I got some time to observe the alien team massacre some Marines to get an idea how that will control. From their viewpoint (in third person) xenomorph players can see outlines of the humans anywhere in the level, making it pretty easy to plan and coordinate attacks (and explaining why I couldn’t seem to hide). Also, there were different classes for the aliens, like Soldier and Lurker, but the difference between the two wasn’t really apparent — they both looked like they played the same and Gearbox wasn’t giving out too many specifics on the differences between them. But one alien type, the Crusher (which seemed to be rewarded to certain players during the course of the map) reminded me of the Tank from Left 4 Dead — large, powerful, and plowing through groups of huddled Marines.

As is becoming almost painfully standard in multiplayer shooters, you must earn XP to unlock weapons. We’re told Gearbox is working on other objective-based multiplayer modes, but no specifics were given, only that there will be more to multiplayer than deathmatch modes (a horde mode would be awesome, just sayin’). This was glossed over because some of these features are still being ironed out and they don’t want to show everything off just yet. But we do know that like Mass Effect 3, the multiplayer component will somehow carry over into the single-player campaign. Will it affect the ending? We’ll see.

PC Love Letter for Aliens?

A few weeks ago, Gearbox posted a “love letter to PC gamers” detailing all the PC-specific features that will make Borderlands 2 a friendlier place for mouse and keyboard players. I asked Pitchford if this policy extended to Colonial Marines, and if so, what can we expect to see for the PC version.

Believe it or not, these are pretty good odds… for the aliens.

“Figuring out (the Xbox 360 and PS3) takes some energy away from the PC platform,” says Pitchford. “But some of that stuff is automatic now. We’ve got all of our libraries to do that interface stuff, so now we can reinvest into following through with the PC version. And we’re PC gamers, we know what we want there. We’ve always used the PC as our development platform, so from a rendering point of view, every game we’ve launched this generation, the PC version has been the highest-fidelity version with the best materials and the best graphics.”

“But we’ve kind of forgotten that, as PC gamers, we’re OK with smaller fonts, and we want a lot of options for graphic settings. But in terms of keyboard configuration and stuff like that, that’s fair. We used to do a lot better, so we’re doing better for the future.”

So When’s it Really Coming Out?

The elephant in the room, of course, is the fact that any game called “Aliens: Colonial Marines” has had a hell of a time making its way to store shelves, going all the way back to 2001 with the similarly titled game for PlayStation 2. Now that it’s missed the original Spring 2012 target, I asked Pitchford if we can still expect to see Colonial Marines around October of this year.

“I think the last guidance was Fall, and Fall’s getting kind of crowded.”

“I think the last guidance was Fall, and Fall’s getting kind of crowded,” replies Pitchford. “I always keep it tentative until we have a hard date. I’m almost certain that within the next five, four, even three months we’ll be definitive on the date, and that’ll be it.”

When asked if Gearbox might be stretching itself too thin by trying to release two quality games in the same season, Pitchford was quick to point out that there are different teams on both Borderlands 2 and Colonial Marines — though he noted that the two teams share and collaborate on technology to speed both efforts.

“Dude, you’re blocking my light. Get out of the way!”

“For example, let’s say I have to build an infrastructure that allows me to remap keyboard keys for the PC. That effort causes a certain amount of energy and time, and if I’m going do that effort, and if there’s two games, I can do it twice or I can do a shared part once. And then all I have to do twice is the unique UI. That’s actually more efficient. And that’s just one example. There’s countless examples of that and we have multiple games in development, and all of them get better, and become more efficient when we can share certain infrastructure related things.”

I personally can’t imagine Colonial Marines making it out this year — as Pitchford points out, Fall is already looking pretty crowded, and Gearbox itself has given Borderlands 2 a hard date of September 18th. And considering Colonial Marines is in a “pre-pre-alpha state” today, I’d imagine Colonial Marines might more realistically come out in March of 2013, well clear of the holiday competition from the Halos and Call of Duties. And if it gets just a few more months of polish out of the deal, so be it.


looking for something?