A couple of weeks back, Cold Iron Studios announced Aliens: Fireteam, a new co-operative third-person shooter set in the universe that so many other shooters have been inspired by. As a big Aliens fan, the announcement raised a mixture of excitement and a lingering bitter taste left behind by the terrible Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I sincerely hope that Aliens Fireteam will be great, but having watched footage of the game in action, I have reservations. The problem with making an Aliens game is that it isn’t as natural a fit for a shooter as it might first seem. It’s all too easy to look all the weapons and gadgets sported by the film’s Colonial Marines and go “heck yeah let’s go bug hunting.” But that isn’t the film Aliens is, and you can’t just whack the film’s iconography into a standard shooter template and expect it to work. Hence, I decided to fire off a few thoughts about the problems of making an Aliens game, and how solving them requires a more subtle understanding of the film.
The most common delineation of the Alien franchise is that Alien is a horror film, whereas Aliens is an action film. This is useful shorthand for comparison’s sake, but it also gives completely the wrong impression of the kind of film Aliens is. While it’s true that Aliens features more action and a grander Hollywood spectacle than its predecessor, the vast majority of its running time is given over to the same atmosphere and character building seen in Ridley Scott’s original.
Across the film’s two-and-a-half hours, there are only two major action sequences involving the Colonial Marines, both of which involve the Marines getting the absolute shit kicked out of them. Indeed, the crux of the film’s horror is that the toughest, baddest, meanest human military force in the galaxy doesn’t stand a chance against H.R. Giger’s phallic nightmare beast, and its only through a combination of ingenuity, prior experience and respect for the xenomorph’s ferocity that Ripley is able to survive a second time.
Because of this, any game that represent the Marines as being able stand toe-to-toe with a horde of xenomorphs is already doomed to failure, because all the tension of Aliens stems from the fact these creatures are unbelievably dangerous and borderline unstoppable. This, incidentally, is why Alien: Isolation works so well, because the entirety of its design is dedicated to reminding players what made the xenomorph so mind-meltingly scary when that film first debuted back in 1979.
“But Rick!” I hear you cry. “What about the 1999 and 2001 Aliens versus Predator games? They were linear shooters and they were both great.” True, but when those games were released, the sheer novelty of the concept (and ambition of essentially having three games packed into one) was enough to drive them forward. Also, of the three playable campaigns, the Marine campaign was notably more difficult and leaned hard into the horror elements of the first two Alien films. Both are tooth and nail fights for survival.
Indeed, this hints at one of the core ingredients of making a great Aliens game. Aliens may be framed as an action film, but more specifically it’s a siege movie. After the initial recon of Hadley’s Hope and the first attack by the xenomorphs, the remainder of the film sees the Marines battening down the hatches. They’re sealing doors, setting up security turrets and examining blueprints for potential access points the aliens could utilise. Above all, they’re trying to figure out a way to escape and stay alive long enough to do so.
A great Aliens game, therefore, must incorporate these elements and place them at the forefront of the design. As an example, the broader premise might resemble something like this. Instead of levels that players progress through linearly, you’re instead given the task of reconning and then securing a facility that’s gone dark. Once this is done, you then must hold it for long enough for you to be able to complete overarching objective, whether that’s rescue, demolition, or something else, and ultimately escape.
This structure achieves two things. First, it gives the game a much broader suite of mechanics to adopt from the film, from using things like blowtorches to seal doors and turrets to establish a defensive perimeter, to using the facility’s computer system to bring up blueprints, and access the power grid, door locking mechanisms, etc. There are other elements from the film you could potentially add in too, like using the APC as a mobile defence base, and incorporating the xenomorph’s tendency to capture rather than kill its prey, forcing players to choose whether to attempt to rescue or abandon captive squadmates.
Second, it puts the emphasis of your activity squarely on the defensive. Now, you’re not wading through hordes of xenomorphs like a smartgun-wielding DoomGuy. Instead, you’re desperately scrambling to stay alive against an enemy that’s superior to you in every way. What’s needed, essentially, is a reverse-FPS, with you falling back to different defensive points over the course of a mission. Whenever the xenomorphs appear in force, the only direction players should be moving in is backwards.
If this sounds like I could have summarised this with the words “Tower defence”, I don’t entirely disagree. However, my point here is not “Aliens would be best served as a tower defence game.” The point is that any game based on Aliens, or indeed any film or book or whatever, should build itself around the core themes and ideas of the film, rather than trying to stretch them across an existing template.
If you look at other tie-ins, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, both those games build all of their systems around the title character, rather than forcing them into a platformer or a kart-racer or whatever. To make a great Aliens game, therefore, you need to build it from the xenomorph out. That’s what Isolation did, and the result was one of the best horror games of all time. And that’s what Fireteam or any other Aliens game must do to be truly representative of the film our medium owes so much to.