Aliens: Fireteam is a co-op survival shooter where you create your own Colonial Marine, team up with two friends online (or bots if you're playing solo), and battle xenomorphs, rogue androids, and other Alien-themed enemies across four campaigns. Set 23 years after the movies, your created character is a member of a squad of marines sent to protect frontier colonies from xenomorph attacks, which have now become a regular occurrence. According to developer Cold Iron Studios, at this point in the timeline xenomorphs "are no longer secrets or myths", but people still fear them.
When Craig Zinkievich, head of Cold Iron, introduces me to Fireteam, he makes it clear that the game is inspired by Aliens, not Alien. And I can't help but think, perhaps cynically: "Haven't we done this already?" So many videogames have riffed on James Cameron's 1986 sequel, from Halo to StarCraft, that it's become a cliché. And after Alien: Isolation, which proved you could make a great Alien game without wisecracking marines mowing down hundreds of xenomorphs, Fireteam feels like a bit of a step backwards.
From how Cold Iron describes Fireteam's campaigns, Left 4 Dead seems to be a significant inspiration. There are 20 enemy types, including 11 different species of xenomorph, each with different abilities, behaviours, and weaknesses. Zinkievich talks about "an algorithm running behind the scenes" that changes things on the fly as you play, which recalls Left 4 Dead's AI director. And the "story-driven" campaigns are apparently being designed to be dynamic and unpredictable, encouraging repeat plays.
Zinkievich says a lot of work has gone into the xenomorphs' AI and how they move, describing the game as a "3D shooter experience." This means the xenos will be, in theory, extremely mobile, able to crawl along ceilings, scale walls, and skulk through air vents. This is something I like the sound of. You should never feel safe when a xenomorph is around, even if you're backed into a corner, and I hope Fireteam manages to get that feeling across.
The problem is, any shooter where you're required to kill large numbers of xenomorphs fundamentally cheapens them as a concept. This was one of the biggest problems with Gearbox's dismal Colonial Marines. That game turned Giger's 'perfect organism' into a disposable FPS enemy, where you eventually became completely numb to killing them. But to its credit, Fireteam may be a lot better in this regard. These xenomorphs, although coming at you in similarly vast numbers, seem a lot more dangerous.
In a hands-off demo (I haven't played it yet, unfortunately) I see a four-player squad fend off waves of xenomorphs, waiting for slow-moving elevator to arrive, and they really do seem relentless, crawling from every corner of the screen, overwhelming the marines. Players are frequently downed by the creatures, forcing allies to rush in and revive them, which again is very Left 4 Dead. Zinkievich also says that the xenos' deadly acid blood will be a major concern on higher difficulty settings, but I wasn't shown this in action.
In action, Fireteam looks fine. The third-person combat reminds me a lot of The Division, with deployable gadgets such as portable turrets to help you in battle. The guns have a nice punch to them, and the environments are big, giving the xenos plenty of space to move around and get the jump on you. But overall, I was a little underwhelmed. It looks like a perfectly serviceable shooter, but lacks a certain spark. It didn't excite me. But I didn't play it, so this is based purely on watching that brief hands-off demo. I'm hoping the experience comes across better when I'm actually fighting the xenos myself.
As I watch one squad member insta-kill a dozen drones in a row with a shotgun, bad memories of Gearbox's FPS come drifting back. This could be a better game, but I guess I've just been spoiled by Isolation. In that game, Creative Assembly made the xenomorph feel exciting again. It was scary, unknowable, and terrifyingly lethal. But to be fair, I've only seen a handful of the 11 promised xenomorph types in Fireteam. Hopefully some of the others are more intimidating and, more importantly, challenging to kill.
Between missions you'll hang out on a warship, the Endeavour, which will serve as a hub of sorts. Cold Iron says you can talk to characters here and find "lore items." While there will be some connections to the movies, novels, comics, and other Alien media, Zinkievich stresses that this is an original story. He says it's "not a tourism game", which honestly strikes me as a missed opportunity. I'd love to blast my way through the Nostromo, Hadley's Hope, and Fury 161. Instead, the game will feature all-new locations including, in the words of the developer, "ancient alien ruins and hidden corporate secrets."
Many of Cold Iron's developers have a background in MMOs, and Fireteam will have an RPG-style progression system. Your marine will level up, getting access to better gear, cosmetic items, and weapons that can be customised with around 80 different attachments. You'll also be able to apply modifiers called Challenge Cards to each run through a campaign to mix things up, and seamlessly switch between classes mid-game. Cold Iron didn't go into much depth about the classes, but their names—Gunner, Demolisher, Technician, Doc, and Recon—are pretty self explanatory.
Aliens: Fireteam has potential, but honestly, at this early stage the concept hasn't blown me away. There's so much that could be done with the Alien license, and a co-op shooter based on Aliens feels like the lowest hanging fruit. But I'm willing to be proven wrong, and I will definitely be playing the game when it's released on Steam this summer. Aliens is well-trodden ground for videogames at this point, so it remains to be seen whether Cold Iron can make its own mark on it. And hey, it can't be any worse than Colonial Marines... right?