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Aliens: Colonial Marines hands-on - an action-packed hour in Hadley's Hope

Ed goes bug-hunting on the surface of LV-426

The precise depth of Gearbox's appreciation for the Aliens universe didn't really impress itself on me till last month, when Mike Channell, formerly of this parish, approached me with eyes a-glow to declare that he'd found Newt's tricycle while exploring the Aliens: Colonial Marines version of Hadley's Hope. For those who aren't up on their James Cameronese, Newt is glimpsed riding that tricycle for a handful of seconds early on in the Aliens Director's Cut. Such mind-bending detailing reflects the commitment of a developer that's been labouring away at the license since 2006, and riffing devotedly on classic Aliens tropes for its entire career.

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But then, you already knew that Aliens: Colonial Marines was going to be a rich exercise in lore-mining thanks to our hands-off look, with its orgasmic references to bevels and LED readouts. You already knew about Randy Pitchford's fascination with the UNSC armoured personnel carrier and its prodigious bonnet-mounted cannon, yet to be seen in action (wink, wink). You already knew about things like how hard it is to make an Alien's back legs work without sparking a kangaroo-esque farce, and Xenomorphs not showing up on infra-red, and Gearbox's sworn intent to "make sense" of things the films leave hanging.

What you don't know about - what you're waiting to read about, just as soon as I've finished telling you what you already know - is whether the game's enormous, brilliantly rendered props cupboard coheres into a smart campaign. A campaign, that is, which stands comparison not just with Aliens itself, but with rival early 2013 shooters like Metro: Last Light and Bioshock Infinite.

When I first laid eyes the game in May, there was room for worry on this count. The trick to Aliens the movie, after all, is its half-hour build-up - the slow piecing-together of the precise nature of the threat, the insidious shaving-away of nerve endings before the carnage finally erupts. The ingredients of such a setup are all there in Colonial Marines, but the segment we were shown derailed too swiftly, throwing its raw materials at the player in a Gatling gun frenzy.

Thankfully, hands-on time reveals a shooter that knows when to hold back, allowing the sweat to accumulate along the player's spine. It all starts on the surface of planet LV-426, following a frantic couple of hours aboard the hulk of the USS Sulaco.

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First things first: this isn't just a game of tight spaces and blind corners. Cleansed by a partial terraforming process and nuclear fire, the planet is a spectacular sight, all crumpled spars of purple-black rock and irradiated atmospheric hues. Pieces of wreckage - some bearing the Weyland-Yutani logo - litter the landscape, carefully blocking off sideroutes and thus funnelling your group of marines towards the hunched-over buildings of Hadley's Hope itself.

On arrival, you're ordered to rewire the door, and there's a moment of pure film nerd joy when Hudson's hacking gear appears in your hand, all cables and chunky keypads. Then you're inside, staring down a long, long corridor filled with makeshift barricades, melted sections of walkway, heaps of dangerously unidentifiable garbage, and shadows. Far too many shadows for comfort. The audio disappears, on cue. Time for the motion trackers.

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