When I was over at Heatwave earlier in the year, checking out Gods & Heroes, a huge bug cropped up during Scrum. The team stopped gabbing. The silence of clever people racking their brains filled the room. From the back came a lone grunt, followed by "nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." That's how pervasive Aliens is, especially in games. The movie was fundamentally different from its subtle, stealthy predecessor Alien, owing more to Robert Heinlein's book "Starship Troopers" or Night of the Living Dead, than Giger's disturbingly sexual xenomorph. "It's the game I've been ripping off my whole career" says the effusive and ubiquitous Randy Pitchford of Gearbox, demoing Aliens: Colonial Marines, "we put facehuggers in Duke Nukem 3D and working on the Half-Life series with its head-crabs and when we helped Microsoft bring Halo to PC, there's the dropships and the sergeant is basically Apone. Yet we've never had a sincere, true sequel to it in videogame form".
Apart from Rebellion's amazing first attempt at Aliens versus Predator, I have to add.
Colonial Marines has been built with an entirely new engine - Pitchford describes it as an attempt to raise the bar with dynamic lighting and real-time shadows. "We love the dark corridors of games like Dead Space and we want to push it to a whole new level... Aliens is a team sport with the highest stakes. Squad-based tactics with survival horror, and it's all canon." Up to four players can play together and drop in and out during the campaign, and you take the part of the elite Marines, with their huge arsenal of ludicrous weaponry.
The game takes place after the events of Aliens, but brings us back to LV-426, exploring the wreckage of the colony Hadley's Hope, finding the derelict spaceship where the crew of the Nostromo first encountered the alien eggs in Alien, and boarding the abandoned Sulaco. Our demo however starts with the marines waking from deep sleep into an evacuation scenario, there's a crash... and three of them wake up on the planet, separated from the main team. Just another glorious day in the corps. A bit of mildly witty dialogue and they're off, into the station.
The tension music builds as they walk through the damaged operations centre of Hadley's Hope and we get a chance to look out over the colony. It's a total wreck, with the familiar shell of the atmospheric processor that blew up at the end of Aliens squatting in the middle, like a popped blister the size of Nebraska. "Here we're going to discover what happened to Hudson, Burke and all those guys who were left behind; but we're also going to uncover new secrets."
As we turn away from the window, that familiar, traumatising beeping starts up, getting faster. Yep, the motion tracker’s back. One of your teammates is dragged upwards, horrifyingly, as the aliens swarm everywhere, out of the ceiling, the floor, the panelling, the goddamn walls. Though they're fast, they're not as fluid and relentless as they were in the movies or AvP, but this is still early in development.
The protagonist kills a few with short, controlled bursts, then beats off an alien with his machine gun's butt (not bad for a human) and runs for it, following his remaining squaddie out of the window and into the piles of wreckage from the explosion. There we encounter an entirely new type of alien - larger than AvP's Praetorians, a great battering ram of an alien, with a huge wedge-shaped armoured head. Predictably, your small arms fire just bounces off this huge carapace.
It starts smashing through the wreckage after our fleeing soldiers and, thankfully for us, is distracted by one of our NPC squadmates, who it flattens before we can even shout "get away from her, you bitch". Dodging past it, we run into a blockhouse and slide under the door just as it's shutting. The giant Alien slams into the door, but can't quite batter it down. Inside is temporary calm, in a hanger with a large number of marines getting into defensive positions in the hope of help arriving. The tracker shows the monster Alien retreating. I feel safer already.
The acting sergeant orders us to support a grunt named Bronson, who’s defending the lower passageway. We descend beneath the hanger and set up a sentry gun, just as aliens start pouring up the corridor. We hear shooting up above as well, and the enemies just keep coming. After a minute of bloody confusion in this express elevator to hell, Bronson is dragged away and we're ordered back upstairs, leaving the sentry behind. In the hanger, it's chaos; everyone's being overrun. We just got our asses kicked. We choose to flee, heading for the APC at the back of the base. The lights go out and Pitchford moans "what the hell, they cut the power, man."
In the back room, it’s last stand time. so they're getting a cargo exoskeleton ready, attaching flamethrowers to it, setting up sentries and checking their nukes, knives and sharp sticks. It won’t make any difference; we’re all gonna die. Aliens pour in from all directions and despite the the flying lead, they overwhelm the troopers; the exoskeleton staggers down with aliens all over it, just as the tank Alien burst through the wall. It pauses, pensively crushing a marine in one of its four arms, then lollops over to us, grabs us and screams triumph in our face.
Game over, man. Until Spring 2012, that is.
(And, yes, I filled that preview with Aliens quotes. Can you spot them all?)