Gearbox Software’s ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES Hands-on NYCC Preview

The makers of BORDERLANDS 2 came to the New York Comic Con to show off ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES, and Alex was there to get his hands bloody. So was Lance Henriksen.

Even the bathroom was infested.

We were attending an after-party for Aliens: Colonial Marines at the New York Comic Con, walking around a fancy event space that had been done up to look like a lab straight out of Aliens. Facehuggers were everywhere and the lighting was dim and ominous, even with free drinks and food being slung everywhere. After a little boozing and shmoozing we all sat down for a presentation of the game.

We were first introduced to Gearbox Software’s president, the likable Randy Pitchford, a man no one would ever accuse of hating the sound of his own voice. He explained at length what a dream come true it was to work on this iconic series, especially since they were given unparalleled access to the original materials in their research for it. Pitchford even feels that their initial talks for the game, in which they met with Ridley Scott and got him to literally dust off scripts and art for the project, might have kickstarted Scott’s thoughts of going back to the world with Prometheus.

Their meetings with Scott ensured one thing that will be of extreme interest to fans of the series - this game is actually canon. That’s right, this is the real deal, a genuine, 100% approved direct sequel to Aliens. All it took was a throwaway line from the movie to provide the seed for the plot. If you remember in the film, there's a part where the Marines were stranded on the surface after their ride was destroyed, and Hicks (Michael Biehn) informs the survivors that they can expect a rescue after 17 days of being overdue. (Prompting, of course, the famous line from Bill Paxton's Hudson: “Seventeen days? Hey man, I don't wanna rain on your parade, but we're not gonna last seventeen hours!") And that’s where we pick up. 17 days later more Marines are sent in to see what happened on the moon colony. Spoiler - things don’t end well for them.

You might be wondering how any kind of story could come of this, since the last time you saw the moon (Acheron LV-426) it was engulfed in a nuclear explosion from the atmospheric reactor. But it’s apparently survived relatively intact, and you can bet that there are going to be lots of friendly faces to greet you. Grinning ones, at least.

Soon we were treated to a demo of the actual game, which takes place a little bit into it as you’re walking along the destroyed surface of the moon. You’ve just crashlanded after some issues with your ship (more on that later) and are walking around in a lightning storm which sets the mood quite nicely. As you walk around checking out the environments and noting that Bishop, Lance Henriksen’s character, is a part of your team you soon come across the Colony itself, Hadley's Hope, now looking even more destroyed from the outside but surprisingly intact inside. As you walk in you notice a destroyed ATV sitting there half-covered in rubble, the same one that Ridley drove so crazily.

The demo sees you going into a familiar medical laboratory, which is no less moody but seems to be deserted. Bishop makes a command center and communicates with you over headsets, because what shooter is complete without someone constantly talking in your ear? You’re given instructions to place motion sensors at five points in the area. After putting down all five by going to preplanned locations and holding down the X button for a bit one of them goes dead. It’s not a good sign, and as you go to fix it all your motion trackers go nuts, and the Xenomorphs first show up.

It's hard to watch someone else play through an atmospheric single player game (single player here, although they were quick to point out that this game is fully playable in four player co-op). When demoing a game the guy in charge usually takes things very slow, stopping to admire the view and details that you'll likely just rush by in a game where you're under constant attack. The atmosphere and scares also just don’t work for an audience. But the one thing that’s obvious is that this proprietary engine that Gearbox built specifically for this game is beautiful, and they really focused on the spooky lighting effects to give it somewhat of a Dead Space feel. It’s a lot more colorful than Dead Space ever was, though, with rooms full of red or blue light changing the environment nicely, even if the alien attacks did get more and more predictable.

The second section of the game we were shown threatened to kill any goodwill. This part actually took place just before the crash, as your ship is under attack by Weyland-Yutani soldiers. If you remember the film the Weyland-Yutani corporation are the guys who are trying to harvest those aliens for their own nefarious purposes, and they've basically started a war with the military at this point over the remains of this colony. This means that you won't just fight aliens in this game, you'll fight humans as well. They’re masked to dehumanize them and they take ridiculous amounts of damage before going down - it was hard not to laugh out loud as one soldier got shot point blank with a shotgun and didn’t react, even though bright red blood splattered out everywhere around the wound. A couple of more shots put him down for good. Their long-ranged weaponry completely changes the feel of a game from action-horror to straight up action, although of course Xenos soon show up to attack both parties. A few familiar scenes took place during the attack, such as enemy forces slowly cutting a door open as your team readies for the attack.

It’s just a beta, but this game is coming out in February and it doesn’t look like it does anything different than any shooter you’ve already played. Sure, the alien sections might offer some genuine scares and thrills but you’re walking around from waypoint to waypoint holding down the X button to cut open doors when you’re told and shooting anything that pops up. The Xenomorphs look great but despite seeing their corpses laying around the environment, half-melted into the ground thanks to their acid blood, it looks more like you’re shooting them with a yellow paintball gun than blowing their parts off.

One of the biggest hurdles Gearbox faces is that Aliens is pretty much the prototype for first person shooters. As the developers themselves noted they’ve cribbed pretty heavily from the film throughout their entire careers, sometimes blatantly stealing lines from the film and sticking a Hudson character anywhere they can. It’s the situation where the original’s been emulated so many times that the actual thing feels derivative when it comes back.

The story doesn’t help. Bringing us back to locations from the movie and throwing familiar objects everywhere (apparently Bishop’s legs are lying around somewhere) is pure fan service, and not the kind of thing you want to see in the continuing the story of such a classic. But there were countless throwbacks even in just the demo. Audio logs offer some backstory and one had an appearance by Newt, everyone’s favorite orphan. One of the areas you’ll explore is the place where Burke let the facehugger loose on Ripley before Hudson helped her kill it- it’s still laying there, dead. Anyone who’s watched the Director’s Cut of Aliens will remember the deleted scene with the sentry guns, and you’ll find them sitting in a hallway with spent shells all over the floor, the bullet counters still blinking “00”. You’ll explore the Sulaco, the abandoned ship from the film. Even the soundtrack is even reminiscent of James Horner's memorable score, with that military snare drum interspersed with sounds of clanging metal. It makes you wonder why, if they wanted to just recreate Aliens, they didn’t do just that.

After the demo the developers came up to chat about the game along with Lance Henriksen, who seemed to genuinely enjoy being there and talking about the experience. It was apparently easy for Henriksen to get right back into character, and one of the writers at Gearbox laughed about how he adlibbed his very first line, which takes place as the characters are emerging from cryo. After a quick greeting he quipped “Don’t ask to see the knife trick.” Which is cute, but the kind of meta joke that pulls you right out of things.

Henriksen also mentioned that the budget of Aliens was about 15 million dollars, which made Pitchford remark that this project has cost two to three times that. Wow. Looking at character models of Bishop Henriksen remarked how he’s going to live forever as long as they keep making these games, and that he’s actually playing two characters here- Weyland and Bishop. One of the team pointed out that it was actually three, since Bishop’s legs are still there.

Henriksen isn’t the only familiar voice in the game as they’ve managed to get Michael Biehn to reprise his role of Hicks, although how that fits in the story hasn't been revealed yet. Derek Phillips (Billy Riggins from Fright Night Lights) will play a soldier as well.

After some more gushing about the project the multiplayer demo stations were set up and ready to go, and actually offered a little more hope for the game. Playable Team Deathmatch stations were set up offering four on four matches (retail will support six on six) of Marines vs. Xenos. Essentially it’s the versus mode of Left 4 Dead, where the aliens can see through walls, climb on the ceilings, and squeeze through vents. They're fairly easy to kill even though they’re very fast. Marines get all the guns and goodies you'd expect, from pulse rifles to shotguns. Their most useful gadget is the motion tracker, which is activated with the Left Bumper on the Xbox 360 pad. (Note- we were playing PC builds on giant Alienware desktops, with 360 controllers attached.) The one problem with the motion tracker is that you put down your gun to use it, which gives you a Doom 3-ish dilemma of whether it’s better to see what’s coming or be ready for it when it does. Marines can find flamethrowers and smartguns (that massive, servo-stabilized gun that Vasquez toted) around the map for added firepower. If your team is smart they’ll soon realize that they need to stick together to stay alive, and that it’s incredibly easy to mop up the aliens when they’ve got all sides covered.

Of course, this is where the evolutions come in. The Xenomorphs have their own power-ups as well, two forms that they can “evolve” into. The only one we were shown was the Crusher, a massive, bull-like Alien. With its armored head and massive body (it's easily four times as big as the humans) it can come barreling into packs of humans and take them all out. The other evolution will be revealed closer to the game's release- I'm just pulling for an Alien Queen.

It’s actually a helluva lot of fun. The maps will all be based on levels from the campaign and everything that you earn, such as new weapons and upgrades, will be available to your character in either mode. Both sides play significantly different and it requires communication with your teammates if you want to win.

Along with Team Deathmatch we were shown another mode called Escape where the Marines have to reach an evac point while the Xenos do their best to stop them, again giving off shades of Left 4 Dead. Other, objective-based multiplayer modes haven't been announced yet.

Despite the enjoyable multiplayer it was hard not to come off disappointed with the presentation. After the dismal failure (critical, not commercial) of 2010’s Aliens Vs. Predator most held on hope that Gearbox, creators of such fine shooters as Brothers in Arms and Borderlands, would be the ones to give us the Aliens experience that we’ve been hoping for for so many years. Perhaps co-op will help us overlook the standard shooter tropes and perhaps later levels will offer new and unique challenges but from what we were shown, it’s just another shooter.