To say that video game adaptations of the Alien franchise are hit and miss is a bit of an understatement. On the one hand, we have genre-defining classics like Alien vs Predator (1999) and Alien: Isolation. Then there's Aliens: Colonial Marines, a release besmirched by industry lies.
Isolation succeeded by taking things back to the series roots, away from relentless Xenomorph swarms, where just one bug was enough to bring down an entire space station. Aliens: Fireteam Elite swings back to James Cameron, pitting armed to the teeth marines against hordes of Xenos in a squad-based Left 4 Dead-alike.
From Cold Iron Studios, a studio that comprises devs that previously worked on the likes of Neverwinter and Star Trek Online, this latest bug hunt is more about relentless action than stealth chills. It’s clear from the opening minutes of the first mission that atmospheric horror isn’t the focus here. As Xenomorph drones pop out of every vent and flood towards you in waves, you mow them down with blanket rifle fire. We are a long way from Sevastopol station.
The story is a simple variant on the franchise’s fiction. Responding to a colony distress signal, a platoon of marines aboard the USS Endeavor soon find out the pesky corpos at Weyland Yutani have been messing around with the galaxy's most perfect killing machine again. Before you can say "stay frosty", there's an outbreak and a planet full of acid bleeding monsters to kill. The campaign story is thin, but wandering around the Endeavour and chatting to your fellow marines will throw up some cool lore nuggets. Elsewhere the information on each item is interesting and funny, containing anecdotes about the history of science fiction cinema's coolest guns.
After creating your marine and taking on a quick briefing, you can jump straight into the first of three main campaigns (each split into three missions), choosing from five different classes, each with its own set of upgradeable perks and fully customisable loadouts. Missions are frantic sprints between button pushing objectives, fighting back thousands of Xenos as you unravel the mystery of what happened on LV-895.
Classes are well-balanced, and the perk grids leave a lot of space for tweaking. Ability upgrades can be shifted around the class grid and channelled to different perks. So, if you find yourself using one more than the other, you can buff to your preference.
As for the abilities themselves, the Gunner’s overclock and the Demolisher’s AOE stun are invaluable in a fight. Doc’s aid station and the Technician’s turret offer good support, while the environment scanning Recon class is available after finishing the main campaign. This final class doesn't quite warrant the wait to unlock it, but it’s drone ability is versatile.
Each class has a standard loadout but this can be changed to your liking. Gunner starts with that sweet M41A pulse rifle and a shotgun (for close encounters), but you’ll unlock more options for those slots in no time. There's also a suite of attachments to change the base stats of your weapons, as well as skins and decals.
Once you're deployed, abilities and guns have a satisfying kick. The series favourites are the best, particularly the smart gun, with its auto-targeting and high-pitched scream.
The enemies you exterminate are mostly made up of drone swarms, peppered with special enemy types: glowing Spitters lob acid, Warriors are brutes that charge at you, and Prowlers wait around corners and pounce on unaware marines. Later there are larger, tougher enemies like the giant Praetorian. Often the story will present an even tougher variant as a boss fight to finish off a mission. Thankfully, the Xenomorph behavior is relatively smooth, with none of the AI quirks seen in the woeful Colonial Marines.
Campaign maps are solid representations of familiar locales. You start on an overrun orbital station, before descending to the planet and raiding ancient ruins. Later the Marines find themselves in the dripping black tunnels of an alien hive, complete with eggs and skittering Face Huggers. After you beat the main campaign, a horde mode further highlights the art design by eliminating repeating corridors and staying in one big arena.
For all that Cold Iron Studios gets right here, there isn’t much more to Fireteam Elite beyond a basic attempt to emulate better games and the tonally jarring use of its license.
It’s an experience constantly at odds with its own execution. As a co-op shooter, it’s competent and fun in short (controlled) bursts: the movement is chunky but responsive and the weapons feel distinct and offer a good depth of customisation. It’s great to play with friends and the bot AI is perfectly reliable if you want to go it alone. But there's always something at the back of your mind when you're mulching bugs with shoulder-mounted rockets and electrifying sentry guns — this is supposed to be an Alien game.
The second film in the series declared war by pitting a well-trained army against the Xenomorph. But even then, there was an atmosphere of danger, a sense that no matter how big their hardware, any one of them could be eaten or impregnated any second. Here, even the most formidable enemy can be obliterated by a savvy gunner with a bright pink rocket launcher. Challenge cards serve to mix up the difficulty and reduce repetition, but even they can’t create a lasting appeal or make the enemies feel like anything other than cannon fodder.
There are times when it clicks. When you and a squadmate are stacked up at the end of a corridor, aliens crawl along the ceiling towards you, like demonic spider monkeys. Letting loose with a flamethrower and hearing that signature death screech really gets the blood pumping. But then there are a dozen more swarms in the space of five minutes and the temptation to just rush through the mission creeps in. Once you start to level up abilities and weaponry, even on harder difficulties, the basic bugs become trivial. Special units aren’t as varied as they could be and they don’t elicit the sheer panic of, say, a witch in Left 4 Dead.
After the finely tuned chills of Alien Isolation, a game that made the Xenomorph scary again, Fireteam Elite has rendered it just another fast-moving target.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is in no way the failure that Colonial Marines was. It’s a fun squad shooter with just about enough features at launch to keep you coming back to replay missions and tackle the horde mode. However, it’s not the strongest game of its type and really doesn't seem to fit the license.