Aliens: Colonial Marines preview: the Aliens game you've been waiting for?
Gearbox's spiritual sequel offers a faithful return, but that may not be enough.
Were you ever lucky enough to run through the blue-lit corridors of the Trocadero's Alien War? Based in the bowels of Shaftesbury Avenue's ever-devolving entertainment complex, it was a staged tour of terror that set up shop in London for three short years, and it was pantomime of the highest order.
Film props were imaginatively placed around a little steel warren patrolled by over-eager marines and a lanky chap in an alien suit, a ghost house set in the tatty remains of a movie set. The rough edges were rounded out by its brilliant sense of theatre, though, and it's a sense of theatre that Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marine could do well to learn from.
Things start off promisingly. You're in the boots of colonial marine Corporal Christopher Winter - though really you're occupying the fantasies you've had ever since you first watched James Cameron's gung-ho addition to the Aliens saga - exploring the remnants of Ripley, Hicks and company's heroic stand on LV-426.
The story's set some 17 weeks after the film, with the Sulaco that was thought destroyed mysteriously re-emerging in orbit over the colonised and freshly nuked planet. Gearbox has done a masterful job of recreating that world of cold space and wet metal, the assets seemingly stripped straight from a much-loved and well-worn VHS.
Syd Mead's been involved in some small capacity, which is quite a big draw - Mead's the man responsible for bringing Phil Dick's noirish vision of a future LA to life in Blade Runner, as well as authoring the look of Tron. He also designed Short Circuit's Johnny Five, which probably eclipses all that.
And, of course, he helped design the steel-blue look of Aliens, a space he's returned to in order to flesh out the little nooks and crannies behind Cameron's camera. It's part of a slavish attention to detail that extends to the mimicry of the rare film stock that Cameron shot on, notable for its excessive noise and grain.
Beneath the faux film filter it's a handsome enough game, but it's that otherworldly feeling of returning to a space half-remembered that makes Aliens: Colonial Marines so initially thrilling. There are some famous cameos - Lance Henriksen takes a break from such Hollywood roles as 'passing motorist' in Diablo Cody's Jennifer's Body to reprise his role as Bishop - though it's the medical bays and command posts of Hadley's Hope that are the real returning stars.
It's another ghost house, and it's one that's haunted by flickers of the film that it borrows so freely from. There are little traces of Hicks and his marines scattered around, whether that's in blast damage on office walls or the murmured acknowledgement from your own comrades of the soldiers whose footsteps you're following in.
And so Aliens: Colonial Marines, when you're first investigating the hollows of Hadley's Hope with motion tracker in hand, is wonderfully tense. It's a trip through one of sci-fi cinema's most cherished locations, lovingly realised and dripping with all the slow-burning atmosphere of its inspiration. It is, in short, everything you'd hope for from an adaptation. But it soon falls apart.
There's no drama when you encounter the aliens, and absolutely no suspense. A hands-off demonstration of one of the first clashes between the marines and the xenomorphs doesn't benefit from any staging or theatrics: you enter a room and there they are, clinging softly to the walls. It's got all the clumsy horror of walking in on someone having a dump.
The aliens, to their credit, are a nimble threat. They look like men in body tights awkwardly shifting around - a touch of authenticity that might be a step too far for some, but one that in practice actually works rather well. Less authentic is the introduction of new classes: there are lurkers that linger in the shadows and are quick to strike, soldiers that excel close-up and spitters that are more of a ranged threat.
It's a novel way to introduce a little variety to the combat, though right now that's lost in some murky gunplay. The weapons, as with everything else in Aliens: Colonial Marines, are exactingly replicated. The pulse rifle chitters and splurts as it should, the shotgun deals out a meaty thwomp and the smart gun turns you into a walking turret.
The skittishness of the aliens, though, makes for fights that are erratic and ungainly, and it doesn't help that right now they don't seem particularly smart, darting across the scenery without any semblance of intelligence. Your AI partner's similarly thwarted, providing an obstruction rather than an aid as they mindlessly stroll into crossfire.
And while Gearbox has crafted an incredible set for you to play on, it's currently short on ideas on how to use it well. The short campaign excerpt available to play involved a series of fetch quests in a small, confined space, having you running around the same stage again and again with a great sense of place but little of your own purpose. What you've got right now is an Aliens game that's great until the aliens show up - which could be something of a problem.
When Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced five years ago, it was to come from the Gearbox that brought us Brothers in Arms with its clean and engaging team-play. When the game finally broke cover, it was to come from the Gearbox that brought us the snappy, overstated shooting of Borderlands.
There are glimpses of both here, whether that's in the muted team dynamics of your fellow marines or in the XP system that spams you with rewards throughout the campaign and multiplayer, but unfortunately this often feels more like the Gearbox that gave us the archaic Duke Nukem Forever. Aliens: Colonial Marines is an elaborate stage, constructed from props borrowed from the films, but right now it's going to need a little more to help round off its own rough edges.