Aliens: Colonial Marines preview

When the doors opened for PAX East 2012's “media hour” (when the show isn't yet open for general attendees) we had our pick of any game on display. There were no lines, no crowds, and dozens of awesome games that we wanted to check out, but we made a beeline straight for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Not Borderlands 2, TERA, Max Payne 3, Spec-Ops or anything else.

We weren't quite sure what to expect from the demo, but things didn't look good when we were shuffled into a small room with a dozen other members of the press. Ordinarily this is the first hint that you just waited in line to watch a canned pre-rendered video presented by an overly-enthusiastic public relations person. So imagine our surprise when Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford strode into the room and started talking about the project.

“This demo will be played live,” he said. “It's not the beginning of the game, but it sets up a little bit of the situation and gets you in the mood.” He was not incorrect.

As the demo opens we're put into the shoes of Colonel Christopher Winter, face to face with a superior officer in an immaculate white and silver room covered in buttons, flashing screens and other whizzbang gadgetry that adorns the walls of fictional space ships. As this briefing ends, the screen pans to an airlock just a few feet to the right that is covered in smears of blood. Not puddles or pools. Smears. Though it often leaves much to the imagination, Aliens is not a game that deals in subtlety.

The airlock connects this ship to the U.S.S. Sulaco via a long glass tube which offers a gorgeous view of both ships and the stars, but all that fragile glass is just begging to be cracked open. Things are looking pretty terrible as Winter moves onto the ship. There are half a dozen soldiers lying dead or wounded in a hanger with two others frantically trying to keep them alive.

Half of another soldier lies on the ground not far away. “Which half,” asks the commanding officer over the radio. “Well, he ain't sayin' much,” replies our apparently smart-aleck protagonist. “Then find the half that does,” quips the officer, commanding us to figure out what's going on here.

Much of this demo focuses on tense exploration. So far – 10 minutes in – there are no big gunfights to speak of, however the atmosphere is thick with the understanding that things wont always be this quiet.

It's at this point that Winter goes searching for what caused all the destruction, and finds what he's after fairly quickly. Moving into a new room, the walls are coated in xenos nests and slime. Soldiers are stuck to the walls and entombed in the ooze. Some are dead, but far creepier are the ones that are still alive, struggling and frantically begging to be freed.

While we're busy gawking at the horror that's plastered all over the walls, something slinks quickly into the shadows. Then a couple more follow. “This is our new breed of xenos,” Pitchford says, “the Stalker.”

Before he can finish that sentence, the player is tackled by a stalker, slobbering in his face as a quick-time event starts. He kicks the xeno off him, and fires from the ground, landing a headshot kill on the alien. “Oh, you got lucky with that one,” Pitchford quips.

The player then moves over to cut one of the still-living entombed soldiers out of the wall of slime. “Don't tell me your name,” Hicks says. “The way things are going right now...I don't want to know.” He pulls out a radar-like device and starts scanning the area.

“This is your motion-tracker,” Pitchford says. “You have no idea where these guys are coming from: ceiling, ducts.” We get an education on that topic shortly after as a xeno bursts through a window (which happens at least three times in this demo alone) and another creepily squeezes itself through the narrow one foot gap between a broken vertically sliding door and the floor.

This is where the action finally kicks in. What ensues is a prolonged, frantic gunfight with xenos crawling all over the ceiling, walls, and air ducts. It all builds up to a unique turret section in which the player is outfitted with a minigun and a tracking device that locks onto and tracks aliens, making their agility quite a bit less of a problem. It's almost cathartic finally being able to effortlessly gun down the menaces who were terrorizing you with incredible speed and agility only a few moments ago.

With the new nameless companion in-tow, Winter heads back to the airlock to get off the Sulaco, but half-way across that fragile bridge we mentioned earlier, the new companion (the one who had previously been captured by aliens...) doubles over in pain. “Get away from me...NOW!” he yells right before a chest-burster explodes from his innards and breaks the glass of the enclosure. The air rushes out from the Sulaco end out the tube, threatening to send Winter flying into space.

He grabs onto the side of the still-attached glass tube and starts climbing up the side, back to safety. “This is all interactive,” Pitchford says. “It's like a first-person Uncharted.” He's exaggerating a bit, of course, but fundamentally it's similar.

The demo is now over, and we're about to shuffle out when Pitchford drops a few more tidbits on us: Drop-in, Drop-out anytime co-op, moveable auto-sentry turrets, an all-new proprietary next-gen lighting system that helps improve tension and dynamic environments. And...something to do with the power loader, but he's not ready to say.

It's more than a little bit clear that Aliens is a game that wants to marry horror and action in the same package. There is plenty of action and shooting, but the real appeal of this game is its tense exploration and atmosphere.

It's also clear that Pitchford and Gearbox are huge fans of the original Alien property. Then again, they were reportedly big Duke Nukem fans, and that one didn't pan out too well.

Andrew Groen is an EVE Online historian who has turned its endless conflicts and bitter betrayals into a series of books that chart EVE Online's violent in-game history.