Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t scary yet, and that’s what scares me
As I played through the newly-revealed Escape mode in Aliens: Colonial Marines, I noticed a new xenomorph I hadn't seen before. This alien had a crowned head, similar to a queen, but the overall build was much smaller. Along the sides of this monster's head were bright green, elongated sacs that swelled and shrank with the pumping of acidic blood. It clambered down a cliff face and I prepared to blast it with my shotgun. I like to keep one handy, in case of close encounters. Escape mode is much like Left 4 Dead. Four marines charge through a level while enemy players control the xenos. Marines choose weapon loadouts while xenos choose species type, such as the Spitter. When Marines reach checkpoints they typically have to hold position until a door can be opened or elevator lowered. If the xenomorphs kill the marines, they win. If marines make it to the exit, they win. My Escape match lasted roughly 20 minutes, and I was able to check out some of the new enemies for myself. But the new alien never charged. It moved to and clung to the walls of Hadley's Hope, the colony on LV-426 where Ripley and the unfortunate Nostromo crew first discovered the horrific xenomorphs. The alien turned to me, and suddenly a bolt of bubbling green shot toward the screen. This alien could deal long-range damage, and was a pain in the neck for me and my squad of ultimate badasses. I pulled John Mulkey, senior design director of Aliens: Colonial Marines, aside to ask him about this new foe. “We call 'em the Spitter,” he told me. Mulkey explained that an equal need for gameplay and Aliens authenticity drove the team's approach in creating the game. “There's all the boring side of game mechanics, of what we want to try to accomplish, but then it also goes into the perspective of what we want to try and accomplish on the aesthetics side of it,” Mulkey said.“It's really a collaborative effort,” Mulkey told the Penny Arcade Report. “We talk about it from a perspective of what we want from game play, and then the visual guys doing the concept art start working with that to come up with a visual style that'll reach all of those goals of game play mechanics.” In other words, part of the reason the Spitter has a crown and bright green sacs of acid is so you can identify it in a swarm of bugs. The other part is because it looks cool. “Then all of the modeling guys will go in and work their magic. You know it's very much a collaborative thing that goes back and forth, back and forth, until we end up with something we're happy with.” Mulkey said the team is striving for balance in other areas of the game as well, though he couldn't speak on other multiplayer game modes. Likewise, Mulkey couldn't say much regarding plot details, but he could say the game takes place after Alien 3, and that “if we do our jobs right, Alien 3 is gonna be a cooler movie.” Beyond the look of the world, the team has analyzed the look of the Aliens film. “Our art director, he's crazy and ridiculous, but he's the guy who can tell you exactly what film stock was used, what kind of lights were used to create the James Cameron vision of what the film looked like, and we've done things with our renderer in-engine to recreate that,” Mulkey told the Penny Arcade Report. “There's things we've done that will emulate that film stock look, and some of the ways the lights work, that kind of stuff. We're really trying to present that experience to the player.” Even the sound has been scrutinized. Mulkey explained that, surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles for the team was to reproduce the iconic pulse rifle sound. “When you're doing it in a film, that's easier to control when the firing bursts are done, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “In the game, you can start and stop the firing any time you want. What it ends up doing is, you start getting this really repetitive duh-duh-duh! Duh-duh-duh! Duh-duh-duh! Ugh, it's horrible.” They were able to tweak the sound effect to work well in the game, but it was a time consuming process.
The real deal vs. very good fanfic
In the interest of disclosure, I will note that I'm a huge Alien universe fan. I've bought every video collection, I own all the Kenner action figures, and I have a chestburster tattooed on my neck. Mulkey says the game is every bit for people like me as it is for non-Aliens fans, and that the team has been very careful not to fall in love with their own work. The problem is that the content I've seen and the demos I've played don't match the tones of the existing movies. The original film was a somber, Lovecraftian horror film while James Cameron's vision was a kick-ass action movie, but even it touched on the staples and psychology of motherhood, rape, and male terror of the feminine. The movies stood out to many due to their sub-text, and I'm not excited to trade that in exchange for one-lines lifted from the movies and scripted action. Having the game feature a male protagonist was a disappointment for many fans and, while the newly announced female models in the multiplayer is nice, this does seem to be a very bro-heavy take on a complex series that is known for its women heroes and characters. In an interesting twist, the multiplayer may bring some of that horror back into the game, as players can use the environment to confuse and startle human players. When players take on the role of the xenomorphs, Mulkey notices a change. “They'll start playing initially as a shooter, like as a dude, and they'll start to go 'Okay, this isn't going to work, me just running into all of the bullets, so how about I start working using the walls, getting up on the ceiling, setting up ambushes, working together to kind of goad somebody out and then take 'em down, separate the pack of marines, that kind of stuff.'” “They start acting like the aliens from the films,” Mulkey said. “It's kind of cool.” He's right, it is kind of cool, but kind of cool may not cut it. Hopefully the final game will be able to tap into some of the primal fear and deeper themes of the movies, and the team at Gearbox knows that there's more to Aliens than scary monsters and big guns.