The Aliens franchise has captured a powerful fan base, cross-sectioning sci-fi and horror aficionados. Even the most die-hard fan has to admit some series missteps, though, so a lot of hope is riding with Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines. A look at the game from PAX East 2012 should assuage most fears, and even create a little hope that we'll get a decent new Aliens story out of the game to boot.
To be clear, though, the franchise is split between two eras: the moody, quiet horror of the original film, and the more bombastic action of Aliens onward. Colonial Marines, unsurprisingly, falls into the latter camp. The hands-off single-player demo was over-the-top spectacle almost from the start. We watched as a Gearbox employee explored a derelict ship, and found the one member of his crew without a gaping wound in his chest. Some fairly obvious foreshadowing later, and that particular crew member gained his very own abdomen hole.
If this sounds extremely referential, that's for a reason. Colonial Marines banks on its legacy as often as possible, from showing the lockers of familiar character names to making sure we get a prominent look at the loadlifters in a storage area. Even the dialogue carried the heightened machismo of the marines' dialogue in Aliens. It would be cheesy if it weren't so clearly tongue-in-cheek.
Gearbox teased that the game is being accepted as canon, which seems believable enough save for two marines easily dispatching a dozen or so xenomorphs. Didn't we see only a few pick off several more marines in the films? In any event, the tone and visual style of the franchise is carried through to a T.
The demo didn't include any time with the single-player, but Gearbox did give us a chance to try out the multiplayer. The xenomorph team was fielded by Gearbox staff, while the human marines were played by fans and press. The developers offered the advice to stay together, because the xenomorphs rely quite a bit on surprising and picking off stranded marines.
The game doesn't give a great indication of fellow marine locations, though, so it's easy to remain stranded -- especially after a respawn. I could find fellow players through the use of equipment, but that left me vulnerable to attack. The xenomorphs have more powerful detection tools for opponents, giving an obvious tactical advantage. The aliens can also choose among several types, like one with armor plating in the front but much more sensitive skin in the back. We were wiped out handily.
This would seem to indicate an imbalance in the game, but more likely it's to compensate for the fact that the aliens are fairly vulnerable when taking on two or more marines at once. Our demo didn't include mics to talk among ourselves, but in practice a team with good communication should be able to stand their ground. This would force the xenomorphs to coordinate too -- in theory, the two should play off each other well, as the aliens' mobility butts heads with marines' superior firepower. Whether the multiplayer mode holds the interest of Aliens fans will be the real test of the game's longevity.