You probably know Aliens: Colonial Marines as a chance for games journos to bust out the quips from James Cameron's genre-defying 1986 movie. You might also have heard it's a canonical sequel to that movie, and that its six-year dev cycle has been long enough for the darker voices in your head to start whispering: "Duke Nukem Forever." So now the Texas studio is finally dishing out precious hands-on time with Colonial Marines, what have we learned about those six years? Is it less of an Alien and more of a dinosaur?
Not even a little bit. Somewhere deep within Gearbox the coders have produced a very contemporary-looking bespoke engine, with some bleeding edge graphical tech in the form of a deferred lighting system. While you're walking around the Sulaco, the surface of LV-426 or anywhere else Colonial Marines will take you, the engine's rendering the out-of-frame part of that level before you arrive. When you do rock up to that pre-rendered area, all the cogs and pistons inside your Xbox 360 can focus solely on lighting in real-time. Cue tons of scary silhouettes dancing across walls, realistic light beams and a metric ton of atmosphere.
And that atmosphere is something we got to sample first-hand in the form of Colonial Marines' 8v8, first to 50 kills team deathmatch in a claustrophobic space station level oddly reminiscent of Rebellion's 1999 Alien vs Predator. Pitting marines against aliens, the gameplay's asymmetrical. The Xeno's viewpoint is third-person, which both aids quick progression through ventilation shafts, across ceilings and any other sneaky routes on the way to your soldier-buffet, and shows off some fairly ropey and hopefully placeholder Xenomorph movement animations. Your vision's augmented (again, like AvP) so you can see friends and enemies from afar in a kind of x-ray tint.
Life's much simpler as a marine. Poking out reassuringly in front of you is an iconic pulse rifle, complete with authentic high-pitched burst fire. You also have a motion tracker which uses the original skin-crawling beep sounds from the 1986 movie. It's far from a simple nod to the film, though - constant flipping back and forth between weapon and tracker is vital. It only takes a few dozen sneak attacks from behind to realise that.
What's really striking about the action, as we trade kills with the Gearbox devs playing as Xenos, is how the game's mechanics brutally guide both teams into behaving like their movie counterparts. Marines really do need to watch those corners, stick together, and anything else you might imagine Apone saying. Shotguns really do come in handy for close encounters - along with a brand new weapon we're given the option to use in the weapon loadout screen after each death. It falls somewhere between a pulse rifle and the super-powerful S.M.A.R.T. gun (which comes with an auto-aim function and can only be picked up from hard to reach locations in each level like a Quake railgun). It's the first taste we get for the level of creative licensing Gearbox is allowing itself with this game. So far, so safe.
Large and in charge
Our second taste of Gearbox's expansion of the Aliens universe is a little more controversial - and a lot smashier. It's a new alien type called the Charger, which introduces itself by filling the screen with its triceratops-like form, then pounding it into a pulp of failure and humiliation - much like L4D's Tank. He spawns every two minutes, turning the tide of what's otherwise a really close battle - there's never more than three kills in it as both teams race to 50. The other new alien type we're treated to (read: callously mutilated by) is the Lurker, a much closer relative than the Charger to the Xenos we're used to from the movies. His angle is stealth - moving quickly and silently before closing in for the melee kill.