Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a third-person shooter from San Jose coders Cold Iron Studios and is, of course, based in everyone’s favourite cinematic universe. Namely that of James Cameron’s sublime 1985 action/horror flick Aliens. The thing is though that Cold Iron’s roots are in MMOs and this is a three-player co-op game, so going in it was fair to say that our expectations were pretty low. Partly because of their history but also because of the history of Aliens games too.
Set 23 years (2202) after Aliens/Alien3 (2179), Fireteam is a standalone sequel which exists alongside the films without seriously tying itself to them. Using the tried and tested plot device of a “mysterious distress call” to send a team of marines to a remote planet (LV-895), the game sees you playing as part of a fireteam fighting through four campaigns (essentially four levels with three stages in each). There’s not a huge amount of story here and certainly nothing that diverts far from the usual tale of corporate greed and Prometheus-flavoured mythology but there’s a bit of additional lore found through conversations with NPCs and intel collectibles.
The focus here is clearly on co-op based shooting, gearing up and experience albeit set in the Aliens universe. If you’re looking for the heavy fan service of Aliens: Colonial Marines, you won’t find that here. Instead you get just a taste of it, in the same way that Terminator: Resistance did it.
Anyway, that’s enough about the story. What we really wanted to know about was how does it play. The headline here is that Aliens: Fireteam Elite does not disappoint. Much like any recent co-op shooter, the game starts you off in a hub area, namely the USS Endeavor (this game’s version of the Sulaco). Here you can talk to NPCs, buy gear and upgrades and select your next mission. Then you pick a class and wait for the matchmaking to pair you up with human players, or fill the gaps with reasonably useful bots. You’ll then select your mission and will load into that level.
The levels themselves are quite long, usually north of twenty minutes and with twelve of them in total, that’s a fairly reasonable size for a campaign. One of our pet peeves is a campaign that goes on for too long (we’re looking at you, Alien Isolation) so this is perfect for us but if you want a bit more value for your money, you might see it differently. But anyway, when you get into the action this is very much a third-person shooter in the Gears of War style. There’s cover to stick to, a handy dodge manoeuvre and a huge number of aliens to shoot at. If you’ve ever played any Aliens-based shoot ’em up though, you’ll know that cover probably isn’t your friend and instead shooting while retreating tends to work better but other foes in the game make the cover mechanic more useful.
When you first see an alien, it’s actually with no fanfare at all. You see it drop down from the ceiling and run around a corner with no-one commenting and just barely a blip on your motion tracker. The game makes it clear that the marines, and their support, know what the aliens are. From the first encounter, very early on in the first mission, they don’t even bat an eyelid. At least not until new variants show up (“I’ve never seen a ‘morph that can spit acid before!”) and that’s probably the right choice as we as players are obviously now very familiar with them.
However, before long you’ll start getting besieged by them. The game likes to put you in an area and then flood it with the acidic bastards. Indeed it’s a big fan of having you wait for something (a door to open, a lift to arrive, a computer to run some sort of routine) while you face a horde of them. It’s an oft-repeated trick but an effective one.
So, here’s what Fireteam gets right. The aliens, the move right. Our problem with Alien Isolation (aside from the dragging runtime and dreary fetch quest mission structure and terrible level design) was that the alien felt too human. When it was patrolling an area, it walked around bolt upright like some sort of guard in a German prisoner of war camp. But here, they move in a way that gets to you. If you’re making a stand against them, you can’t just look down a corridor or at a door. They’ll pour in like an ant invasion, climbing the walls, clinging to ceilings and jumping across gaps. They even let themselves fall from the ceiling in a way that echoes how they move in that brilliant scene from Aliens where they come in via the false ceiling.
To keep things interesting, they’ll throw in some variants too. The main aliens are smaller drones but you’ll get spitters, bursters and full grown warriors. And of course, when you get closer to uncovering what Weyland-Yutani are up to, you’ll be facing off against Working Joes, the androids that plagued you in Alien Isolation.
So it’s a bit of an odd balance reviewing this game. If you want exciting lore and secrets from the universe, you won’t really get it here. However, if you want a really good team vs. environment shoot ’em up with an Aliens flavour, then you’ll be very happy. And look, we know that Colonial Marines broke a lot of promises but there was something very exciting about being in locations from the film and seeing things that the film didn’t show us and you don’t get that here but we’re happy with what we get in terms of this being a very competent shooter.
The game has some decent depth when it comes to its combat. The four classes, for example, each have their strengths and they work together well. The Gunner is your standard USCM grunt armed with the iconic pulse rifle and shotgun, as well as having grenades. This is your standard Colonial Marine. You can of course swap out your weapons as long as you stick to rifles and close quarter weapons.
The Demolisher class also has a rifle slot but can also wield a Smartgun, the target-tracking monster that Vasquez and Drake used in the film. They also have a shoulder mounted mini-rocket launcher and a blast wave attack that hurts anything around you. This is a fun class to play if you just want to mow down huge numbers of enemies, especially while shouting insults in Spanish.
The Doc class is your healer. Armed with just a rifle or handgun, they are the least effective in battle however they have access to a device that can heal themselves and the team as well as a boost that improves fire rates and reload times for everyone for a short amount of time. This makes the Doc class very useful when making stands in those tricky timed situations we talked about.
Last, but definitely not least, is the Technician. This your less-panicky Hudson class. Armed with a rifle/CQW combination, the Technician is okay in combat but is bolstered considerably by having a deployable turret that lasts ages and has a quick cooldown. This will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you when it comes to dealing with the horde. The Technician’s other perks are Charge Coils. These are thrown devices that shock anything that walks into their range, slowing them down and doing minor damage.
On top of that, all classes have access to consumables meaning that they can put down their own sentries, mines and other defensive measures or boost their damage by equipping incendiary or electric rounds for their weapons. These consumables only stay active for a limited time but it does mean that a team can prepare for difficult situations and put the odds in their favour. For example, the last part of the first campaign sees you and your team rushing to get to a dropship. However, at this point a stream of elite aliens are thrown into the mix making combat an unrealistic solution. Instead you just need to all peg it to the dropship. The first time we tried it, we died a frustrating death (this was thirty minutes into that level). So the next time we put down sentries and cryo nets and ran like a bastard. It worked.
If you fail a mission, you still get to keep the experience and loot earned. This isn’t a straight looter-shooter (like Destiny for example) but you can find things along the way such as new weapons, mods (scopes, magazines and sights) and customisations. You’ll earn two types of credit too, one of which can be used in the Endeavor’s armory to buy gear and one of which that can be used to buy cosmetic items.
This aspect to the game is good but a little limited, especially as you are encouraged to stick with your weapons in order to level them up. What’s the point of offering me a different type of shotgun when you are encouraging me to complete the game several times with my current one in order to max it out?
The other key part of a character revolves around perks. These buffs can improve various stats such as your fire rate, reload speed, accuracy, weakness damage and so on and have to be placed into a grid to equip them. The grid itself has locked portions that are unlocked as your level up that particular class (again, you’re not really encouraged to experiment much here as the best rewards come from maxing out one character) but you’ll be looking to rotate and place your perks as best you can. Think of it like the inventory screen on Resident Evil 4.
In terms of the game’s presentation, we were very impressed. Sure, you’re kind of limited by having to stick to the grim, industrial look of the film but the visuals are sharp on the PS5 and look great on a big TV. It all moves smoothly, no matter how much is going on at any given time. The aliens, as we said before, move really well. And some of the locations have a decent sense of scale to them too, so overall we’re very happy. One thing though, you’ll want to turn off the awful Diablo 3-esque outlines right away. The aliens look entirely less threatening with a cartoony coloured outline on them.
When it comes to sound, it’s a mixed bag. Look, any Aliens game is going to have the echoey blip of the motion tracker, the lovingly-sampled sounds of the pulse rifle and of course the sound of baby elephants screaming whenever you shoot the aliens. That’s a given. Beyond that you’ve got decent voice acting (although the characters you talk to don’t actually have any speech animations, they just stand there moving slightly) and then you’ve got the music. Here’s the thing: the music kind of sucks. Sure, you get what sound like some faithful recreations of various refrains and motifs from the film’s score but variations on those themes sometimes sound a bit bumbling and upbeat. You need to use those woodwinds sparingly or else it can star to sound a bit like Star Wars and that happens here. We eventually turned the music right down as it was ruining the tension.
So, the good news is that Aliens: Fireteam Elite delivers a really enjoyable three-player shooter. The action is great, messing around with loadouts and gear is addictive and it all looks polished. The campaign doesn’t overstay its welcome and the game wants you to replay its missions, for experience and collectibles. We’re entirely satisfied with all of that.
The Aliens fanboys in us would have liked more of a connection between this game and the films though, with perhaps less of a focus on Prometheus’ aesthetics and lore. It all feels a bit parallel to the movies rather than part of it. As such, this game would probably score just as high if the enemies had been zombies, Terminators or something else. The Aliens license however does at least give the game a familiar setting and tone and given how let down we’ve been by this franchise in recent years, we’re happy to just have something competent let alone getting a game as good as this.
+ The aliens move better than they have in any game before
+ Nice visuals
+ Gearing up aspects are addictive
+ Three player co-op works brilliantly
- The music is a bit out of place at times
- Might be a little repetitive, especially as it wants you to replay it a lot
- Leveling system doesn't encourage experimentation with weapons and classes