The last time a game based on Aliens was released for computers and consoles, we got the absolutely disastrous Aliens: Colonial Marines from Gearbox and Sega. A buggy, derivative, just plain awful FPS, Colonial Marines was thought to be the death knell for the franchise – and was even thought to have had a negative effect on the sales of the sublime Alien: Isolation, which launched a year later to well-deserved critical acclaim, but performed underwhelmingly from a commercial perspective. So it was a surprise when Aliens: Fireteam Elite was announced in 2020c- and expectations were generally low given that it was being made by a small, largely untested team, with Focus Home Interactive on publishing duties. Though Focus have had some critical successes with the odd game here and there, most of the games they publish are variable in quality. Yet Aliens: Fireteam Elite – having been developed by Cold Iron Studios, with this being their first game – seems to have been in safe hands all along.
A third-person, wave-based co-op shooter in the vein of games such as Left 4 Dead, Aliens: Fireteam Elite sees players in teams of three Marines that can be one of a number of specialists. Though the game launched with four character types available from the beginning, the developers added a fifth player class – the shield-bearing, defensive Phalanx character, which is surely a reference to the best Aliens tie-in novel – in a free content update. The four classes – Gunner, Demolisher, Technician and Doc – all offer slightly varied styles of play and feel sufficiently different in action that it’s worth exploring each one to find the class that suits you best.
If other players aren’t available or can’t be matched with, you’re able to hear into battle accompanied by AI companions, in the form of ‘Synthetics’ (which is what androids are known as in Aliens lore); a neat touch that feels knowingly meta.
There’s plenty of cosmetic customisation available for your character, weapons and gear, with the separation of the specialist character types providing different options for differentiating characters from a visual standpoint as well.
Missions are split into bite-size chunks that take 20-30 minutes to complete, with three missions in each campaign. Once a mission is complete, it can be replayed at the difficulty level selected or lower and this also unlocks the next mission in the sequence (albeit only at the previous stage’s difficulty level or lower). Campaign cards can be collected and used to modify the action (in often interesting ways), which will increase the experience available for completing the mission –many of these will increase the challenge in very specific ways, such as requiring players to empty a full clip of ammo before reloading or removing class-specific power ups for the entirety of the next mission. The risk vs reward dynamic of the campaign cards helps to keep things interesting, even though you’ll find yourself playing the same stages over and over again.
There’s a number of different Alien (or Xenomorph) types, from the familiar such as Runners – the most basic, ‘cannon fodder’ Xenomorph – and imposing Warriors, to the less so: defensicey, expectorating Spitters and explosively acidic Bursters, for example. There’s twenty different types of enemy; not all of them Xenomorphs. Once the first campaign has been conquered, Synthetics and other, non-Xenomorph, extraterrestrials do make an appearance – along with some much bigger, scarier and tougher Xenomorphs.
The action is fast-paced and exciting, with plenty to shoot at – the Xenomorphs themselves being ridiculously nimble, agile creatures that can come from the ceilings, walls and floors in huge, relentless swarms – and a decent amount of collectables to find, which can unlock rare items and cosmetics. The visuals are well done and evoke the atmosphere of the classic movies; though they’re not drop dead gorgeous in terms of detail or smoothness, they get the job done admirably. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a game that’s not been made on a AAA-budget, but it didn’t need to be – and it does what it sets out to do really well. The atmosphere, thanks not just to the visuals but also Austin Wintory’s score, perfectly evokes the ambience of the films, in particular James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens.
It’s let down a little by repetition, an underwhelming ending to the final campaign and the sometimes-obvious budget constraints; as an example of the corners that have been cut, when talking to characters in the game’s spaceship hub area, they have a voiceover but their mouths don’t move at all – which is a little jarring, especially as the camera cuts to a dialogue screen that focuses on their moving, breathing model when you talk to them. Still, that doesn’t affect the gameplay – and the developers, Cold Iron Studios, have made sure that Fireteam Elite plays well; they’ve definitely focused their attention on the most important areas. That said, the Xbox One X version does struggle with its framerate on occasion, but the Series X version is beautifully smooth (I can’t comment on other formats, but I can only assume that there’s the same situation across PS4 and PS5 versions).
Despite the fact that the game launched without a Quickplay matchmaking option – which caused no end of issues in finding multiplayer games to jump into – Cold Iron Studios were clearly listening to fan feedback and have now fixed this glaring oversight. Though a game with such a strong focus on multiplayer should never have launched without this option, it’s to the credit of the relatively small team behind the game that they’ve been able to implement this, as well as providing more (free!) content since the game launched at the end of August. According to the developers, a year’s worth of free content is planned – with the only microtransactions/DLC that will need to be paid for being cosmetic in nature – all extra campaign and other gameplay-based content being made available at no extra cost. It’s a smart move from publishers Focus Home Interactive; the last thing a mid-budget, fairly low profile game like this needs – especially when you consider that the ‘true’ spiritual sequel to Left 4 Dead (Back 4 Blood, which is made by the creators of Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock Studios) launches in October. Hopefully the great use of the Aliens license and the simple, exciting, pick-up-and-play gameplay keeps the player base of Fireteam Elite engaged even in the face of the incoming competition, however.
Though unfair comparisons have been made to the – much more narrative focused, single player, survival horror game – Alien: Isolation, where that game was a perfect recreation of the first film’s tone and atmosphere, so too does Aliens: Fireteam Elite succeed in its goal of providing the same sort of gung-ho, squad-based action that the film sequel provided.
With its much lower budget and more single-minded focus in terms of its gameplay, it certainly feels like a bit of an underdog – but it’s clear that the team behind the game have poured their hearts and souls into the title. Cold Iron Studios have even shown a deep knowledge of the Aliens universe’s lore, with a number of clever references to not just the game’s official prequel novel – which leads directly into the beginning of Aliens: Fireteam Elite – but also to other books in the Titan Books series that began in 2014 with Alien: Out of the Shadows. One fairly prominent character – one of your superior officers in the game’s hub area – is even revealed to be one of the main characters from Young Adult novel Alien: Echo; it’s fantastic to see them make an appearance in Fireteam Elite. Similarly, the game’s campaigns take place across environments which have ties not just to Aliens, but to the much maligned prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant too; in my opinion, the game does a much better job at tying all of the lore together than the films do.
Though a little rough around the edges, it’s a great experience for Aliens fans that erases the bad memories left by Aliens: Colonial Marines. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a game that may not have the biggest budget or scope, but it does what it sets out to do: providing an authentic-feeling, action-packed Aliens experience, that both long-term and more casual fans should get an awful lot of enjoyment from.
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