Here's a quick taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines from the E3 showfloor that I experienced. Sega had set up a portion of their booth to hold these big 6v6 aliens vs. marines matches, complete with huge television above each player to show off the match live. The trick here, is that the 6 aliens were being played by devs from Gearbox, while the 6 marines were played by members of the public and media. Our PR rep snuck me in, and I was ready to go full-out Ripley.
Observing the Enemy
Quick segue, but before the match I was able to sneak around to the dev side of the Aliens booth and watch them play a round. I was never a competitive player, but I've enjoyed playing Alien games in the past, almost always as the aliens. It wasn't a question of gameplay style, I just preferred to not be constantly scared out of my mind when an alien attacked me. I would rather be the one to make my opponents soil themselves in fear. It helped that aliens were always overpowered.
The trick to balancing an alien's strength is its two weaknesses: an alien had to be within melee distance to strike, and they had wonky as hell control schemes. Climbing on walls or the ceiling was typically a sure-fire way to get motion sickness. How Gearbox designed around these alien balance issues is rather simple and streamlined. Aliens retain their need for melee distance in combat, though they do have a leap strike to help with that. Oddly enough, regarding Aliens' second balance issue, Colonial Marines has a very non-complicated camera system -- the camera is always parallel to the ground, whether an alien is on the ceiling or wall.
An easily controlled alien with a leaping ability is quite a fearsome foe, but Gearbox's take on the Xenomorph was notable in one final regard. They were as slow as your typical marine -- maybe slower. A strafing marine could easily keep pace with an alien, so long as they accurately predicted its leap direction. The end product was a notably less scary alien, though surprisingly well balanced in regards to gameplay.
One final note here, at least a few of the devs were really, really good at this game.
Joining the Fight
Starting the match felt a lot like your typical console shooter, as you pick a loadout and are placed at a random spawn location. The loadouts included your standard FPS weapons, including a mid-long range rifle, a short-mid range rifle, a fully automatic shotgun and a pump shotgun. My weapon of choice initially was the auto-shotty, and I must say I chose wisely. The aliens also had a system of choosing a "loadout", or a different type of alien. I'm not really familiar with how it worked, but I'll have more to say on it later.
The match begun and proceeded as your typical random aliens vs. marines match should, expectedly. There were outlier aliens who would charge in without much thought, to be dispatched quickly with a shotgun or grenade, and there were outlier marines who would charge out alone to be picked off not by the alien they chased, but by the one behind them instead. It was during this time I was able to find a partner in crime with solid rifle aiming, who I was able to protect with my shotgun when aliens approached too closely. The marines steadily gained the lead.
It was three quarters of the way through the match that things began to turn. Rather than you standard aliens, large bull aliens were beginning to spawn. The larger, tankier aliens could charge across the room, often taking multiple point blank shotgun blasts with little to no effect. They were slow enough to dodge, but their greatest affect was disruption. Dodging these bull aliens opened your flank to the attacks of the smaller enemies. Everything was going terribly wrong.
I'll be the first to admit I spent much too long focusing on killing these humongous brutes, though they did relatively little damage themselves. My 4/1 kill to death ratio fell to 1/2 in these final minutes. The system itself was also at fault, in my opinion. I could not, for the life of me, tell my teammates apart. When the bull aliens began to amass, I continued to look for my assault rifle wielding companion amongst my teammates. They were all the same! There would be no miracle, back to back suicide run to finish this game.
As time ran out, we lost by a scant two points.
My feelings after the match were over were unbearably contradictory. I absolutely enjoyed my brief experience with Aliens: Colonial Marine's multiplayer, there was no doubt about that. Yet, it was in the same way one might enjoy an especially close match of Halo or Call of Duty. It was competitive, it was team-based and social, but it wasn't a unique experience -- something I often related to Aliens games in the past.
I reflect on my experiences with classic Aliens vs. Predator titles fondly, not because they were adequate in terms of FPS multiple mechanics, but because they were original in their aims and goals. Playing an alien meant relying on speed, trickery, and heavy reliance on shadows. Marines, contrastively, were near forced to travel as a team and to take extreme precautions not to fall into a trap or be flanked and annihilated. These aspects of gameplay were not missing from Gearbox's game, but hardly necessary or even encouraged.
My unmet expectations aside, Aliens: Colonial Marines was still a solid, fun and challenging experience. I'm excited to see more of the game, in whatever direction Gearbox plans to take it.
PS, no way those devs could have come back like that without hacking. You got lucky this time!