A new game based on the Alien series always seems to spark a lot of interest, and Aliens: Fireteam is no exception. Many have expressed excitement and enthusiasm for this latest shooter inspired by the 1986 science fiction classic. I share in that excitement as I’m every bit as open to a fun shooter as everyone else, but at the same time can’t help but feel some disappointment. While it looks fun, Fireteam also looks like another missed opportunity to truly capture the spirit of James Cameron’s seminal classic.
Traits of Aliens Games –
Though there are many games based on the Alien series, most take inspiration not from the original, but from its first sequel. Aliens is a very unusual film in that it moved away from the gothic horror of the original, trading the haunted house in space with a more siege-based thriller in the style of Assault on Precinct 13 or Night of the Living Dead. The decision proved to be a smart one, with this first sequel proving just as big a critical and commercial success as the original, and garnering a lion’s share of awards and nominations, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Sigourney Weaver.
Aliens contains a number of elements that seem perfect for video games. Rather than blue-collar space truckers, most of the characters are Space Marines. Now the characters were heavily armed with a vast and diverse arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Last but not least, the characters now had to deal with not just one monster but legions of them, creating opportunities for a wide variety of dynamic and intense set-pieces.
Whether they be standalone games or part of the Aliens vs. Predator expanded Universe, Aliens based games seem to share several key traits. For one, the main character is always a Colonial Marine, the Space Marines seen in the Cameron film. These Marines are portrayed as tough, honorable, and eternally loyal to their compatriots. Playing such a character immediately creates a sense of confidence, one that is rarely challenged especially when you consider the second point.
Being soldiers, the player character always comes equipped with a variety of weapons to fight with. Along with the pulse rifle and the smart gun from Aliens, the player will also acquire weapons exclusive to their respective games, and even weapons from other films, such as Blaine’s gun from Predator. To tote around such an extensive arsenal creates a real sense of power, especially when the Alien finally makes its appearance.
In these games, the titular Alien is the most common enemy in the game, with the Warriors from the Cameron film being relatively easy to deal with. The player will often have to deal with multiple creatures at the same time, which mostly proves easy given the weapons available to the player. This seems to make sense, because at its core, isn’t Aliens about a bunch of tough heroes kicking monster butt? In brief, no. These games do capture many on the surface and superficial details of Aliens, but they miss several key points that made the film so impactful.
– And What The Film Did Differently
The most important thing to remember is the main character of Aliens was herself not a soldier. Ripley was a traumatized survivor who was brought in last minute as a consultant and spent much of the film’s first half trying to convince the Marines to take the threat seriously. By contrast, the soldiers in the original film, with a few exceptions, are overly confident in their abilities and dismissive of Ripley’s claims. Repeatedly she tries to alert them to the danger, only to be ignored amidst the soldiers’ boasting of their military prowess. When the monsters finally do attack, Ripley is one of the few people to keep a cool head, and it’s up to her to pick up the pieces of a broken and exhausted squad.
By contrast, the Marine leadership is shown not to be brave and level-headed, but naïve and prone to panic. Some soldiers even disobey direct orders, such as when Vasquez uses her smart gun in spite of Gorman’s orders to hold fire. Decisions like these endanger the rest of the cast and cause the heroes to suffer heavy losses. The dynamic of the Marines could be summed up perfectly in the character of Hudson, who spends the first half of the film assured of his own abilities. The moment things go wrong, he is reduced to a panicked, broken man. The only Marine who proves consistently helpful is Hicks, who spends most of the movie’s first half calmly listening to Ripley’s story. It is this soft, more empathetic character who emerges as a leader in the film’s second half.
There’s also the question of weapons. Shortly after their first encounter, the besieged Marines lose much of their firepower. All the characters are reduced to only a few partially loaded pulse rifles, their sidearms, and no spare magazines. Being so short on ammunition, the weapons become all the more precious to them. They must use the weapons cautiously and sparingly, or the ammunition will be gone when they need it most. Even some of the film’s most iconic weapons, namely the smart gun, are lost to the heroes in the film’s second half. Without their destructive firepower available, the heroes dread the next appearance by the monsters.
The creatures in Aliens may not be impervious to bullets, but they could hardly be called cannon fodder. The Marines only get three, maybe four onscreen kills during the first battle. By contrast, they lose six of their squad, or eight if you count the ensuing dropship crash, cutting their squad down to less than half. The creatures also show the ability to adapt. Initially not prepared for more heavily armed humans, the creatures start trying new methods to capture or kill the intruders. They prove so crafty, they even find a way into the facility that the heroes missed while barricading themselves in. Several Aliens are killed on camera, but the heroes have to work for each one, and most come with a heavy cost.
The Past and Future of Aliens Games
Thus far, no Aliens inspired game has shared these traits with the Cameron film. It would be unfair to say all of these games are bad. The Aliens vs. Predator games from 1999 and 2001 are still very good. The 2001 game especially attempts to create a real sense of atmosphere, with the player often going for levels at a time without fighting a single enemy. When the Aliens do show up however, it’s still too easy. The worst of these games is easily Aliens: Colonial Marines, which in spite of its title spent most of its time pitting the Marines against human operatives of Weyland Yutani as opposed to the monster.
When it comes to the best Alien based game, Alien: Isolation reigns supreme. Taking more inspiration from the first film, Isolation is a game based on avoidance rather than combat. The character was not a soldier, they didn’t have the necessary equipment to kill the monster, and at their most effective, the weapons available to them could only ward the creature off for a short time. This made for an all-around intense and horrifying experience. That is the key element for most of these games. In spite of having some action elements, Aliens is still at its core a horror film, and a good one. Some of these games (not Colonial Marines) may be fun, but they’re rarely frightening, unlike something like Dead Space, which sees the main character, a miner, face overwhelming and terrifying odds on mining spaceship.
To truly capture the spirit of James Cameron’s science fiction masterpiece, rather than try to emulate other shooters, creators of these games could try to experiment more. Rather than playing another gung ho soldier, the player could instead take on another role such as a colonist or scientist, with the soldiers instead taking on supporting roles. This would allow greater growth for the hero, with them slowly acquiring the skills they need to survive.
An arsenal like pulse rifles and smart guns could be available, but instead of being so generous with ammunition, it should be rarer, and thus more precious to the player. Most importantly of all, the Alien must represent a credible and escalating threat. The Aliens weren’t impervious to gunfire, but they did get smarter. Seeing that in a game, with the creatures strafing gunfire and changing tactics based on the player’s actions would make them more challenging, and more frightening.
The Authentic Aliens Experience
Aliens: Fireteam may be a perfectly fun and exciting action romp, and that’s okay, but it’s also not what Aliens was. Aliens is about a group of overconfident and unprepared soldiers who get in over their heads while fighting a more determined and deadly enemy, and so far there hasn’t been a game to truly capture that feeling. I don’t propose an Aliens game should just repeat Alien: Isolation but finding a way to capture that feeling of doom no matter how well armed the player is would be quite an achievement. Alien: Isolation gave us the most authentic Alien experience. As for the authentic Aliens experience, we’re still waiting.
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