For years, playing a game based on the Alien movies was an easy way to get hurt. You went in hopeful, taking it at face value, only to find the life had been hugged out of it. Then, you spent the rest of the time wishing something exciting would burst forth and get the blood pumping. But it never did. Whatever genre played host to this resilient licence, it didn’t seem to matter—the licence would tear its way free and slip back into the dark. And the gaps between each release felt like a happy hypersleep.
To date, the franchise has given us two very good games, both inspired by a specific film—Aliens: Infestation, on the Nintendo DS, and Alien: Isolation, which came out on consoles in 2014. Note the subtitles, isolation and infestation: such are the prevailing themes of the movies—the inability to make contact, and the terror of too much of it. The first was a side-scrolling shooter, which used permadeath to drive home the expendability (as seen through corporate eyes) of its grunts. The second was a true survival horror, in which we played Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, who laced herself into the same cream Converse, and the same fate, as her mother: to do battle with a creature of bottomless malevolence. Now we have Aliens: Fireteam Elite, a third-person co-op shooter wherein you play a Colonial Marine, clomping into combat against hordes of the things.
One problem with the game is the title. “Aliens: Fireteam” would have sufficed; when you add “elite,” you end up sounding like Burke, in Aliens, trying to convince Ripley, (and to console himself): “There’s nothing they can’t handle.” And anyway, what’s so elite about them? The game is designed for three players, but if you can’t field two others you end up with Working Joes—powder-blue androids with rubber skin, whose pupils give off a sharp glow, like a torch beaming through a keyhole. As it turns out, the A.I that governs the Joes in-game is rather more dependable than, say, that which smouldered inside Ash, in the first movie—fortunately, they don’t get twitchy. In fact, playing solo, I was able to hang back and let them go to work clearing out a hive. There’s nothing they can’t handle. Humans, as ever, are expendable.
The plot, from what I could work out, sees your squad departing from the Endeavor (an undelicious name, compared to those, plucked from the works of Conrad, that christened the ships of the films—the Sulaco and the Nostromo, and, in Aliens: Infestation, the Sephora) to rescue a scientist from an outpost. Fair enough. You have to admire the purity of the premise, and, early on, the signs are promising: punched-steel walkways, low ceilings, motion-trackers crowded with ghostly-white blobs. What’s more, the Pulse Rifles sound as they damn well should: like industrial-size hard drives deep in brain-racking thought. Naturally, there are auto-firing turrets to deploy, with ammunition readouts that drain away with dismaying haste. The early hours are so obviously good fun they make you wonder why it has taken so long for a game like this to arrive. The panoply of obsessions that attend the sci-fi shooter have finally found their way back into the fiction that bred them, and, if they border on the humdrum here, it’s only because so many other developers have beaten Aliens: Fireteam Elite at its own game.
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The developer is Cold Iron Studios, whose eye for detail is unerring (note, in the hangar of the Endeavour, the dropship, painted in olive drab, with a canon peeking out of the nose cone), but whose marshalling of tone is given to waver. I wonder if, as part of the deal, 20th Century Studios demanded that obeisance be paid to Prometheus. How else to account for the levels set in the ruins of the extraterrestrial race—those boring, sculptural brutes who appear to be hewn from alabaster—from Ridley Scott’s later movie? It could be that Cold Iron needed to squeeze in some standard shooting; we clash with other Working Joes (I can’t recall why), grinding through arenas of waist-high cover, shaded by dense verdure. Later, in dank blue corridors, we are ranged against an array of lumbering crossbreeds—former soldiers transformed into milk-white ravagers, and scuttling crab-like monstrosities the size of dogs.
If you squint, you could be playing Outriders—with less satisfying shooting, granted, but with a superior world grafted onto the action. There are very few bum notes in Cold Iron’s vision. I could have done without the various mutations of the alien; giving the beast a phosphorescent dome, for example, does little to illuminate H.R. Giger’s singular vision. And the acid that sprays from them when shot should, ideally, be a real threat; instead, it fizzles—from garish green to burnt black—on the floor, failing to make much of an impression. It made me think less of unfathomable malice made flesh and more of a highly effective drain cleaner. But these are quibbles. The strangest decision of all is the camera. Why in all the known worlds wouldn’t you go for a first-person view? Maybe the memory of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the disastrous bug hunt of 2013 (in which the bugs required no hunting to encounter), still causes those at Cold Iron to wake in a cold sweat.
Even so, Alien: Isolation, which was set aboard a vast space station, proved that first person could make even the cavernous feel cramped; its developer, Creative Assembly, boxed us into a lone body, chopping off the periphery, and every glance felt like a risk. Aliens: Fireteam Elite gives us too wide a view of our surroundings, so much so that I would often forget to use the radar. In too much space, no one will hear any screams. As consolation, there are some good jump scares; or, rather, there is one good jump scare that loops back around and lashes at your nerves time and again: you will get jumped by a vent-dwelling prowler, pinning you to the floor and swiping at you wildly. It’s a decent trick, not so much cheap as inexpensive. The same could be said of Aliens: Fireteam Elite as a whole. Its objectives rarely stray beyond holding off waves of horrors as the timer ticks down, or fetching doodads to slot into low-ebbing power drives. There is nothing here that will annihilate your sleep, just an uncreative assembly of cherished images, and nothing new to glean from one of cinema’s most celebrated monsters. For better and for worse, you only need to know one thing: where they are.
Developer: Cold Iron Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Available on: Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: August 24, 2021
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