Aliens: Colonial Marines Preview

Aliens: Colonial Marines was on display at the recent E3 in Los Angeles, so we were able to see how it looked and played.

Since its inception in 1979, the Alien film series has inspired more games based on its premise than seemingly any other movie franchise outside the twin constellations of Star Wars and Star Trek. While the name has been attached to side-scrolling shooters on such disparate platforms as the Apple II and Sega Genesis and even a Pac-Man clone on the Atari 2600, the type of gameplay most associated with the series is that of the first-person shooter. Alien Trilogy on the PlayStation and Saturn, Alien Resurrection on the PlayStation, and Aliens Versus Predator for the Atari Jaguar and PC (with a PC sequel due next year) are all first-person shooters, so it should come as little surprise that the next game in the lineup, Aliens: Colonial Marines for the PlayStation 2, is taking the familiar path.

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While previous Alien games have either firmly followed events from the films or existed nebulously outside of the mythos, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a mix of both approaches, fitting snuggly into several gaping holes in the series' continuity. You play as one of a group of colonial marines sent to investigate the disappearance of the squad that accompanied Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character to the planet LV246 in the second Alien film. Aliens: Colonial Marines' developers created a thorough explanation of what happened on the USS Sulaco in the temporal space between the end of Aliens and the beginning of Alien3, but they've asked us to only describe those events in the vaguest of terms at this point, so as not to ruin any of the game's surprises. Suffice it to say, there are aliens involved, the Company is to blame, and--as in a spacefaring version of a Jim Thompson novel--nothing has gone as planned.

At the beginning of the game, your squad comes across the now-derelict Sulaco. A salvage vessel has docked to the ship, and its scavengers are stealing the Sulaco's military hardware and intelligence. Your commanding officer, Lt. Nakamuri, directs your ship's pilot to also dock to the Sulaco after the crew of the salvage vessel fails to answer hails, and your team is sent in to investigate. You quickly determine that all's not right, and you must work to get the ravaged ship's systems back on line, put out fires, and clean up toxic spills. After a massive battle ensues within the infrastructure of the two cojoined ships, it becomes apparent that aliens were present aboard the Sulaco and that the crew of the salvage vessel has become their host.

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While the plot is promising, the playable character choice seemed disappointing at first. Anyone who's played the PC version of Aliens Versus Predator will tell you that the colonial marine was the least interesting of the three playable character types in that game (an alien drone and the tank-like predator are hard acts to follow). However, your marine looks like he'll be much more fun to play in this Aliens title, since you won't have to fend off the creatures all by yourself. You'll command up to four marines at a time from a pool of 12. The soldiers all have their own personalities, skills, and abilities, and they'll react differently to stressful situations depending on their experience level and mood. If one of your marines is spooked, for example, he may not pay as much attention to his surroundings and could even panic and run in the middle of a battle. In a situation like this, to stop him you'll need to select the soldier and then shock him back into an active state by shouting motivational comments like, "Stay frosty, marine!"

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In gameplay, the soldiers surround you in one of several different formations that you can alter on the fly. Your task is to keep an eye on your marines and not let them get killed since they watch your back and provide cover in instances when you're attacked from all sides. Depending on how alert they are and what formation you've established, your marines might completely wipe out an offending creature before you've even noticed him. As you increase in rank throughout the course of the game, you gain control of a greater number of marines.

Unlike other PlayStation 2 first-person shooters like Half-Life and Red Faction where you play in one continuously loading world, Aliens: Colonial Marines is broken into levels and is mission-based. There are three main acts in the game, and each one is composed of roughly seven levels. The first act takes place on board the Sulaco, while Electronic Arts' press materials for the game hint that the final act will take place on the aliens' home planet (seen briefly in the Dark Horse Comics' Aliens series). As for a taste of the levels, in one, you must save members of your unit who've been caught by the aliens, while another stage's duties carry the enigmatic title "Rescue the Queen." If an alien nabs one of your squad members during a mission, you then receive the mid-mission goal of finding and rescuing him before a face-hugger impregnates him with alien spore. You'll of course need a reasonably sized arsenal at your disposal to do such things, and as a marine, you come fully equipped.

The game's weapons should be familiar to anyone who's watched one of the Alien films. There are flamethrowers, pulse rifles with grenade-launcher attachments, and the shoulder-mounted smart gun. As for the aliens themselves, the creators promise that, besides the now-standard creatures (face-hugger, chest-burster, soldier alien, and the queen and her praetorian guard), we'll see "more than two new types." Whether that means a new form of soldier (the creature in Alien3 ran on all fours because its host was a dog) or something more along the lines of the "newborn" from Alien Resurrection remains to be seen. (Note: Reading that last line out loud with a straight face will make you feel exactly like the comic shop owner on The Simpsons.)

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Aliens: Colonial Marines was on display at the recent E3 in Los Angeles, so we were able to see how it looked and played. The game environment is similar to that of the film series: dank, semidark hallways intermittently lit by flashing lights (essentially, the haunted house of the future). The hallways and doors are textured in an impressive metallic sheen that reflects slightly when lit by your flashlight. Mist hangs low in rooms that the aliens have begun converting into a hive, and the bodies of dead men are seen cocooned onto many of the walls. The marines--who keep their weapons raised at all times and seem to stay especially alert when moving around corners--are nicely modeled, and they wear great looking plastic facemasks attached to the front of their helmets. The lighting effects, while early in development, were very impressive. And while the atmosphere of the show floor was too loud to hear any of the game's music, its producer, Chris Miller, told us it's being created by the same person responsible for the excellent score in Aliens Versus Predator for the PC.

The control system for the E3 build of the game was set up in a similar fashion to that of Alien Resurrection (with L3 set to strafe and R3 controlling your weapon sight), but Miller was quick to say that the control scheme is far from finished. Miller said that the team is hyperaware of the complaints made about the controls in Alien Resurrection, and he explained that Aliens: Colonial Marines will undergo focus testing to ensure that the setup is the best that it can be.

Alien: Colonial Marines is being developed by the Santa Monica-based Check Six, a team made up largely of former Activision designers who worked on PC games such as Heavy Gear 2 and Interstate 76. The game is expected in time for the 2001 holiday season.

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It'll be eleven years, but it's FINALLY being released for the pc, Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2012, and it's looking like Gearbox software is going to do it the justice the Aliens series deserves.