Preview Aliens: Colonial Marines preview – the atmosphere’s great, now fix the alien animation

Rocky Jan 5, 2013

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    Rocky Guest


    Gearbox’s ET-blaster has been pinging on Motion Trackers for years without ever seeming to scuttle closer to release: a sure sign of an express elevator to development hell, if ever there was one. But at long last the final countdown to launch has been initiated, and with it the Texan studio has unscrewed its vent grilles to let us dive in, Pulse Rifles ready.

    Aliens: Colonial Marines preview

    First impressions are that, outside of combat, Aliens: Colonial Marines does indeed look like a game that’s been in production for an unusually lengthy period of time. Gearbox is adamant that its proprietary deferred rendering tech (in normal speak: a next-gen lighting solution that allows for dynamic lights and shadowing) is core to Colonial Marines’ atmosphere, and it backs up this claim by showing off new areas from the campaign.

    The first is on LV-426. Having crash-landed on the planet, protagonist Winter and his squad are trekking across the surface in the middle of an electric storm, trying to find the wreckage of obliterated human colony Hadley’s Hope. Their path takes them through craggy canyons and past film props such as a crashed UD-4L Cheyenne Dropship and a broken M577 Armoured Personnel Carrier, with plenty of vista points placed along the way to encourage you to stop and admire your surroundings.

    Blinding lightning flashes illuminate dark corners. Flares cast pulsating crimson shadows on shelves of rock formations. In the distance, the nuked terraformer billows smoke into the unravelling atmosphere while huge sheets of tarpaulin ripped from their anchor points fight losing battles against the furious weather. Grey and inhospitable LV-426 may be, but there’s still beauty on its surface.


    Inside Hadley’s Hope, the deferred renderer’s given a chance to really flex its muscles. The place is a wreck, and striplights swinging from broken chains nicely create theatres of shadows locked in endless dances inside the colony’s corridors. It’s a fine effect on its own when you’re admiring the environments (from the director’s cut’s Weyland-Yutani tricycle tucked under a fallen beam to the exact placement of Xenomorph and Facehugger corpses, the attention to the film’s detailing is second to none), but it’s only when the Xenomorphs spring forth from vents that the true effect of the lighting tech is felt.

    In most shooters combat is a relatively straightforward affair. Enemies attack from the front and it’s usually easy to get a handle on every bogeyman’s position. In Colonial Marines, combat is disorientating. The combination of lights and ventilation shafts mean your eyes are forever drawn to foreboding shadows racing by on every surface. Even though Xenomorph appearances seem wholly stage-managed, their post-arrival behaviour is emergent: floors, walls, ceilings… they can use them all. Although it doesn’t take much to reduce them to piles of acid, actually getting a lock on your enemies in the first place is tough thanks to the bombardment of visual distractions.


    As great as the combat lighting and shadowing effects are, fighting is currently the game’s biggest potential choke point. Animations jitter as Xenos transition from surface to surface, resulting in a comedic effect that dashes all sense of fear that’s otherwise been expertly crafted. What good are environments lathered in atmosphere if enemy encounters don’t provide the biggest shocks of all?

    Indeed, the sole scare factor from the combat stems from fact that close-quarters kills often leave you splashed with corrosive acid. Colonial Marines uses traditional health and armour bars-and-packs systems (although health is broken up into discrete recharging ‘pips’), and an acid shower will instantly dissolve any armour you’ve grabbed.


    While there’s still work to be done on Xenomorph animations, human movement is looking fine. Not just those of friendlies, but of enemies, too – of the Weyland-Yutani PMCs, to be precise. We meet this faction in another new area – a sprint through the USS Sulaco as it begins to suffer catastrophic explosions – and three-way fights between the Marines, the PMCs and the Xenos soon begin.

    In theory, Aliens’ human-on-human combat works much like any other shooter, but as the Sulaco is buffeted by explosions, the ship shakes, drops and tilts all over the place, turning around like Uncharted 3’s cruise liner. Impressive? Undoubtedly. Yet with the visual gut-punchers of Crysis 3 and Bioshock Infinite also due out in February, Colonial Marines has picked a tough month to stand out on tech alone. The delays surrounding that very tech have given Gearbox an altogether unexpected bonus opportunity, though: a chance to dive in and retcon content in the wake of Ridley Scott’s latest piece of cinema.

    “We did some things after we saw Prometheus,” admits design director John Mulkey. “In our game you go into the derelict spacecraft. We knew [the Prometheus version] was going to be in people’s minds probably more than the original Alien one, and after seeing this… we had to have an amalgam of those designs that made sense. It was pretty painless. We went over to our artists and said, ‘We’ve been watching Prometheus and we think we need to do this and this,’ but they’d already changed it all!”

    This sort of attitude has us thinking this still has a strong chance of coming good after all. Gearbox is clearly obsessed with Aliens and wants Colonial Marines to be the game Aliens fans have always dreamed of playing. “When people get it, they’re going to feel that if it’s not the best Aliens game ever made, it’s one of the best they’ve ever had a chance to play,” says game director Brian Martel. “For us, it feels [like] the best that’s ever been done: being in the boots of these soldiers, not throwing in Predators or [other] crap, really lets us focus on that.” Now all we need is a deck of cards to tide us over until February.

    Source - OPSM

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