At PAX East this year, Sega was eager to show off its Gearbox Software developed FPS title, Aliens: Colonial Marines. With a massive replica of Hadley’s Hope and a full sized power loader being attacked by a voracious xenomorph, the display was easily one of the most impressive of the entire convention. But not to be outdone by the attractive scenery, within the construct of the space colony were two rooms, one to showcase the single-player campaign and another to go up against a team of Gearbox Software developers in the title's multiplayer component. Yes, Sega and Gearbox Software came prepared to show off as much as they could of it's highly anticipated shooter. And fortunately, it did not disappoint.
Unlike any number of Alien titles developed over the years, Colonial Marines is being treated as a canonical sequel to the film Aliens. Assuming the role of Corporal Christopher Winter, a Colonial Marine sent to investigate the U.S.S. Sulaco in search of Ellen Ripley, Corporal Dwayne Hicks, and the rest of the missing marines who were dispatched to LV-426, players are briefed on the mission, and with nothing more than a pulse rifle, a welding torch, and a motion sensor, prepare to board the Conestoga-class starship.
Gearbox Software's intention isn't necessarily to create a survival horror title, but Colonial Marines' atmosphere is unmistakable; there is no escaping its foreboding sense of panic. Without a proper HUD, the experience appears so much more engrossing, a quality that is hard to come by in an FPS. Winter embarks on his mission, greeted by a blood-soaked walkway connecting his shuttle to the Sulaco. The marine's first steps towards the starship are indeed tense-ridden as a sudden explosion launches a corpse into the glass surface of the corridor leaving destabilizing cracks and streaks of blood in its wake. Winter stumbles from the impact, bracing himself by placing his hand on the ground. The marine recoils and brings his hand to his face, horrified by the sight of his bloodied palm. For a moment he stares at the red mess on his hand before readying his pulse rifle and continuing down the still-cracking walkway, surrounded only by the empty void of space.
Things aren't any better aboard the Sulaco as dozens of wounded marines lay on the ground writhing in agony. Soon after, Winter enters the 'hive' section of the starship, a portion that has been completely overtaken by the xenomorph menace – the walls now organic and coated by a green substance, the ceilings dripping with a gummy ooze. Gearbox Software's attention to detail does not end there as within moments of entering the alien-infested quarters, Winter sees his fellow marines, glued to the walls, dead, and with gaping holes in their chests. In the distance he can hear the panic-stricken screams of yet another comrade. Whether or not an infant xenomorph is incubating somewhere in his chest cavity is of little concern as Winter reaches for his welding torch and attempts to free the hapless soldier. In that instant, an alien slithers into view from above the pair of marines. Winter, clearly unhinged by the encounter, does not hesitate communicate his fear to the player. Along with the 'oh, Gods' and 'God nos' that he softly speaks under his breath, Winter becomes so terrified that he screams, 'I don't want to die!' as he fires wildly into the faintly-lit room.
The combat mechanics, while solid and straightforward, aren't the main attraction however. Much to the surprise of myself and many an onlooker, the alien's behavior seemed wholly different from what one would expect, opting to play a game of cat-and-mouse rather than confront Winter head-on. Once again, the lack of a HUD ups such an encounter as players really have no idea where the creature is going to pop out from next.
The demo ends in what Gearbox Software is referring to as 'Gauntlet Runs', set-piece moments where the action is dialed up to extreme levels and droves of aliens rush at the player. Armed with a min-cannon with a handy lock-on feature, Winter proceeds to blast away at swarms of xenomorphs as they come at him from every conceivable angle. These moments Gearbox Software assures, vary throughout the course of Colonial Marines as players come across a number of high-powered weapons to dispose of the seemingly insurmountable waves of aliens.
In contrast to the cinematic pacing of the single-player campaign, Colonial Marines' multiplayer mode is all about intense action. Playing as a xenomorph has never felt so dynamic as Gearbox Software has pulled back the camera to a third-person perspective, allowing for a greater appreciation of the creature. In the past, the first-person perspective for the alien race felt slightly out of place. Now, the players feels a whole lot more connected the the fast-moving nightmare on all fours. The xenomorph itself is also quite the fun little character to play as: they can cling to walls and ceilings, scurry through tight spaces such as vents, and can even evolve on the battlefield. One evolved form of the xenomorph that I had the pleasure of being completely wrecked by was known as the Crusher, an enormous tank-like xenomorph that can take its fare share of damage and can demolish and entire squad of marines before it is felled.
Gearbox Software has developed an FPS that is slicked by the corrosive blood of the xenomorph and the unparalleled jumpiness wrought by the cutthroat alien race. It’s one thing to create a standalone title to a licensed franchise but when you are developing a canonical sequel to a longstanding franchise (one with such a large fanbase) , you better know what you are doing. And by the looks of it, Sega and Gearbox Software are poised to release the greatest Alien game since Aliens vs. Predator 2.