In the Aliens franchise, Xenomorphs have an uncanny knack for going unnoticed. You'll be strolling down a sombre Weyland-Yutani corridor, not a care in the world, and somehow you'll fail to notice that your physical surroundings have started to move. With any luck, you'll have just enough time to shout, "THEY'RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!" before one of the spiny chaps bites a hole in your stupid careless face. Game over, man. Game over.
You could argue that Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines has pulled off the exact same trick. True, we didn't exactly forget about the game; it just seemed so long since we'd heard anything that some of us thought it might be dead. Then, suddenly, the project reappears out of nowhere, bursting from the chest of E3 to take us all by surprise. We'd had hints (here and here that the game was on its way, of course, but no-one saw that Wii U announcement coming, did they?
The Wii U version wasn't on show at the Gearbox's E3 presentation room, but the game that we did see certainly provided plenty of food for thought. As an Aliens-themed FPS title Colonial Marines instantly recalls over a decade's worth of similar titles from various developers, but it's fair to say that the whiff of authenticity has never been stronger. Every sound effect - from the barking chatter of the pulse rifles to the squealing death-throes of your endless foes - seems to have been culled directly from James Cameron's 1986 epic, and there's a similar level of care on display with the game's appearance. There's something especially satisfying about the movement of the Xenomorphs themselves, crawling along the floors and walls with that hideous sense of something evil and unstoppable.
While this is a direct sequel to the events of Cameron's film, the setup in this demo feels so close to the inspiration that it may as well be an interactive retelling. So, here comes the USS Sulaco, ferrying a new bunch of grunts to the ill-fated colony on LV-426. We start with a quick glimpse of the crew in stasis, the manifest screen showing their names in cold green-on-black text; moments later, after the now-obligatory crash landing, we're among the marines themselves as they bitch and banter with each other. In contrast to the recent trend for giving FPS heroes a voice, it seems that we're playing a silent protagonist here - but there's certainly no shortage of chatter from the rest of the crew.
The E3 demo wastes no time in making direct reference to its inspiration. The marines are on the planet to investigate the events of the movie, and they soon find their way to the atmospheric processing station where things first went wrong for Hicks and co. True to form, there's just enough time for a spot of sightseeing - you can check out the tunnel that Bishop was sealed into - before our Xenomorph friends make their first appearance. The action is swift and brutal, with marines dying violently left, right and centre. It's not clear in the demo who can be saved and who is doomed to scripted death, but supposedly the game will use a mix of both. There'll always be at least one ally to hand, however, as drop in/drop out co-op play is available at all times, for a maximum of four participants. Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise given the success of Borderlands, but it's certainly excellent news all the same.
If there was one problem with Gearbox's first reveal, it was the sense it had tried to cram too much into a single 15-minute taster. Once the action kicked off there was very little in the way or respite or - more importantly - quieter moments where tension was allowed to build. Still, I guess that's to be expected for an E3 demonstration, and there was certainly a lot to like in the set-pieces we were shown. One particularly good moment found the player deploying sentry turrets at the end of a lengthy corridor, a la the Director's Cut of the film - and then desperately trying to hold back the tide of onrushing Xenos.
This last battle was lost when a creature burst through a vent next to the crucial turret, slaying the marine nearby. Gearbox says that dynamic enemy AI has been a major focus for the development team, and while it's clearly hard to gauge such things during a hands-off demo, there's obvious potential if they've taken the right cues from the likes of Dead Space. Needless to say, you've got the classic motion tracker to alert you to incoming threats, but since you can't use your weapon while you're looking at it, there's only so much help it can provide.
Only one moment in the demo threatened to spoil the fun: the revelation of a new Xenomorph type, a giant version the size of a truck that attacked by charging with its battering ram-like head. While the sequence in which it appeared was handled solidly, the whole thing felt distinctly odd and not at all in keeping with the established lore of the franchise. Indeed, it rather reminded of the toy range that came out in the early 90s, blending Giger's designs with zoo animals to create gimmicky-but-profitable oddities.
Still, there's no doubt that by the time the Queen made a quick cameo, annihilating the player at the end of the demo, Aliens: Colonial Marines had done a convincing job of winning the respect of its audience. The game looks and sounds the part, and as I've already said the attention to detail is spot on. The revelation of four-player co-op is distinctly pleasing, and given Gearbox's track record in the genre, I have faith that the gunplay will be as gratifying as it seems. It's been a while since we've had an Aliens game that's made the most of the license, but as long as this chap doesn't turn up as an unwarranted boss fight, Colonial Marines should prove to be worthy of its mantle.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in spring 2012.