Aliens: Colonial Marines is more than a game. It's a sequel, believe it or not, to the movies themselves. 20th Century Fox apparently feel so seriously about the game that it's considered canonical in the grand Aliens saga. That's quite the compliment.
Fortunately, as that time draws nearer, opportunities to actually play the game are becoming a reality. My first chance came with hands-on at SEGA's E3 booth in LA. Initially disappointed that it was to be multiplayer only, my interest was piqued again very quickly when I learned that I, along with other members of the press, would be playing against the developers; specifically, we'd be marines, and Gearbox be playing as Aliens.
While you can't play as the Aliens in any form of single player game, you can play them in multiplayer. With no firearms, their suite of abilities shouldn't be cast aside as immaterial. Quite the opposite in fact, as their penchant for wall crawling, high speed movement, and ability to kill you the moment they touch you make them quite the formidable opponent.
I found out just how formidable very quickly. While the balance was a bit off (the guys that made it, up against a bunch of newbies), that the aliens represent a clear and present danger was obvious.
Just watching them move around the environment is enough to turn any Aliens fan into a quivering mess, let alone when one lunges for you. And if they get close enough to lunge, you're pretty much dead.
This hardcore challenge forces players to group up and communicate, complete with a tail-point charlie walking backwards behind the column of marines to cover their asses. Basically, if you're solo, you're toast. A team of smart marines that eats, sleeps, and breathes as one will be almost impossible for an Alien to approach successfully.
The Aliens can counter this, however, with the ability to mutate into other forms of Alien. Exactly how this will work isn't super clear, however the developer I talked to suggested a combination of experience-based unlocks and level-based "mutation points" will get the job done if you're an Alien in search of new abilities. As to exactly what mutations will be on offer, details - again - were thin on the ground. One that was described to me, and then used to waste me in the face, was some sort of giant Alien killing machine. Think: giant organic tank with acidic blood and you're most of the way there.
Marines aren't totally useless, however, with the famous proximity sensor available at the press of a button. Like the torch in the original version of Doom 3, however, its use is instead of (rather than as well as) your weapon, so use of it is something you should consider and be careful about. As an aside, Gearbox confirmed to me that the scanner will be a feature of the Wii U version, where it will not only appear on your Gamepad's screen, but you'll be able to swing the Gamepad around the room to detect Aliens via a simple form of Augmented Reality. Nice.
One thing that shone through the entire experience was, well, its Aliens-ness. The game feels, looks, and sounds like it should; like the movies you know and love. Aliens are genuinely terrifying, and even the reassuringly iconic sound of the pulse rifle was unable to settle my nerves once i saw the tail of an Alien skittering up the side of a building.
This experience has gone a long way to reassuring me that Gearbox are on the right track. Aliens is an amazing franchise, and one that - after some recent, questionable movies - is in need of some love. Based on what I've seen, I'm reasonably comfortable that SEGA and Gearbox are going to deliver exactly that when Colonial Marines comes out next year.By Alan Bell