Warning: the following review for Aliens: Fireteam Elite contains some spoilers regarding gameplay and story. There will be warnings within the article, which will allow you to skip sections if so desired.
I’ll be honest. I’m a die-hard, lifelong Aliens fan; I’ve been crazy about this franchise since my childhood, watching the films on repeat as a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s. So yes–that does make me biased, and I’ll own that up front. On the other hand, that gives me some serious Aliens cred when it comes to reviewing this game. I’ve played or owned nearly every Alien and Aliens video game ever made, recently completing my collection with Aliens: Infestation for the Nintendo DS. For more on my obsession with games from this franchise, read here.
For years, Aliens fans have longed for a game that truly matched the experience of the film, arguably the most celebrated sequel of all time. James Cameron took the science fiction / horror masterpiece created by Ridley Scott and turned it into a full-scale action classic. Not everyone was a fan of the genre change of course; to this day, many still prefer the unstoppable terror produced by the first film, for which the Xenomorph seemed nearly unkillable rather than a bug needing extermination–and that’s fine. Personally, I love what both films have to offer and will happily take more of each. (Perhaps we can all hold hands and grieve the abomination that is AVP, but that’s for another article).
A similar divide exists within the gaming world. In 2014, Creative Assembly and Feral Interactive created the definitive Alien experience in the survival horror masterpiece Alien: Isolation. Finally, the paralyzing fear of facing the unstoppable Xenomorph had been captured in a game. The way Alien: Isolation forces players to outsmart and outmaneuver the creature, along with the impeccable dedication to the 1979 visual effects, captured the soul of the Alien film and immersed the player into the iconic story-verse.
While fans of Alien finally had their game, Aliens fans were stuck arguing over Aliens: Colonial Marines and Alien vs. Predator. No game had yet captured that epic feeling of battling Xenomorphs within an inch of death’s door, only to be saved by the courage and valor of warrior companions. No game, that is, until Cold Iron Studios released Aliens: Fireteam Elite.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite released August 24, at last giving Aliens fans the game of their dreams. From the dark, atmospheric missions to the faithful inclusion of the franchise’s lore, the game absolutely delivers. Battling wave after wave of Xenomorphs while pressing deeper into aging labyrinths where unknown dangers await, players feel the same beat-your-chest adrenaline inspired by the iconic film while also carefully advancing as a fireteam like survival depends upon it–because it most certainly does.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite does for Aliens fans what Alien: Isolation did for fans of the original horror film. It is now clear that the franchise has two viable branches, tactical action shooters and survival horror. It is my sincere hope that developers and company executives will continue producing both kinds of games, much in the same way that franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid all offer 2-D and 3-D versions of their brand. Aliens: Fireteam Elite proves that there’s room enough, and demand enough, for both within the legendary science-fiction franchise.
The following section contains plot and story spoilers. If you wish to avoid these, skip down to the “Gameplay” section.
Story and Lore
One of the factors that makes Aliens: Fireteam Elite so fantastic is its dedication to the lore of the franchise. Unlike Aliens: Colonial Marines (which at times directly contradicted the second film), this game makes it very clear that it is aware of its place in the cinematic universe and shows great respect and care as it forges its own story within that world. Each of the four major campaign missions addresses a unique part of the Alien films’ mythology.
The mainline story takes place 23 years after the original Alien trilogy, but makes numerous references to those films while also acknowledging later installments in the franchise as well. Players first deploy to the Katanga orbital mining facility, built by Seegson (Attention Alien: Isolation fans!). The company was one of Weyland-Yutani’s chief competitors until it was bought out by the infamous corporation; players will notice a heavy Seegson presence in the game, most notably the iconic Working Joes. (For those interested, Titan Books published a prequel to the game called Alien: Infiltrator, written by Weston Ochse). In typical Aliens fashion, the facility has become unresponsive due to a Xenomorph outbreak; but this is where things begin to get interesting.
Players work to rescue a lead researcher, Dr. Hoenikker, who was forced to be a part of the Weyland-Yutani’s experiments to develop new bio-weapons, breeding new Xenomorphs by using wildlife from LV-895 and humans as hosts. After being rescued, Hoenikker remains aboard the USS Endeavor, where he offers insight and information as part of the game’s storytelling through dialogue strategy. He is a constant source of lore references, specifically name-dropping characters from Prometheus, as well as other recent films.
In the missions that follow, players are deployed to the surface of LV-895 where they search for survivors at Weyland-Yutani’s research facility. This is when the game really begins to shine. In addition to facing the Xenomorph threat, players are confronted with powerful Combat Synthetics guarding the secrets of what lies beneath the planet’s surface. The combat experience shifts dramatically with these enemies, something I’ll explore more in-depth later.
After dealing with the source of the Synthetic menace, players descend beneath the surface of the planet, where a much darker threat awaits. This section of the game is most heavily inspired by Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. The presence of the “Black Goo,” the mutagen from these recent films, allows for fresh storytelling in a portion of the game that might otherwise become stale. By this point, players have had extensive experience battling Xenomorphs, and just when the experience might become too repetitive, monsters of a very different kind close in on the Colonial Marine fireteam.
After surviving the depths of LV-895, players make a final return to the Katanga, which has now transformed into an Xenomorph hive. Revisiting familiar landmarks that have become infested is an incredible experience. The fireteam repeatedly attempts to assist another squad, but always arrives moments too late and eventually must pursue the mission into the very heart of the Xenomorph hive. Fans of the film Aliens can likely guess what awaits the fireteam there.
No major cut-scenes are used in the game’s storytelling, with developers instead preferring a truly immersive experience that at times feels just as much a space marine simulator as it does a shooter. Talking with other characters, exploring areas for intelligence reports, and even soaking in the environmental storytelling will allow players to enjoy what is a surprisingly intricate narrative. Some might feel disappointed by the lack of a cut-scene or major film clip at the resolution of the final mission; however, the game’s storytelling method remains consistent throughout the game. When players finish the mission, they should report to their commanding officer for a debriefing as expected.
The final opportunities for dialogue with commanding officers and crewmates strongly suggests that future DLC and more missions are to come. In many ways, it feels like the game’s conclusion is really the end of an opening act to a much larger drama. If what lies ahead is in line with the experience Aliens: Fireteam Elite has initially offered, you can count me in!
While some might not appreciate the passive storytelling of Aliens: Fireteam Elite, the gameplay is undeniably stellar. The game offers a variety of play methods, but for the campaign, there are two main options: solo and co-op. For those wishing to brave the hordes alone, the game provides two Combat Synthetics, Alpha and Beta, who round out the fireteam. They are adequate help for the early missions, but players will want to significantly level up (requires a lot of grinding) or team up with human players when attempting later missions.
For co-op play, there are also two options. Players can form a private party and play exclusively with friends or join the public lobby and be matched up with players from around the world. The game allows for a number of customizations for matchmaking, which some will want to investigate before playing a public mission. (In my first experience, I forgot to turn off challenge cards, which my fireteam squad mates immediately used, making my game experience more difficult than I was prepared for).
After players complete the campaign, a new mode of playing becomes available, “Horde Mode,” in which players must survive increasingly difficult waves of enemies. As with the campaign, this may be done in solo or co-op play.
Playing with other human players is where this game becomes truly memorable. Collaborating with other people who have different play-styles and class specializations is incredibly fun. For those who own the game or plan on buying it, I’d go so far as to say that your experience is incomplete without trying co-op play. My only criticism is that Cold Iron Studios launched the game without fixing some major matchmaking bugs. For the first few days after release, public and private matchmaking was nearly impossible, particularly for those on Xbox. Thankfully, a patch has since been released and the game runs fairly well now.
Variety and Customization
With only 12 levels available in the game at launch, replayability is what gives this game life. The levels constantly change when replayed and players have so many opportunities to level up or try new skills that no two playthroughs should feel the same. Hidden in-game loot caches randomly spawn at a variety of hidden locations, as do the release points of enemies, making play unpredictable and fresh.
There exists a wide range of enemies within the game with 20 different enemy types, and specifically 11 different Xenomorphs. While games like Alien: Isolation excel due to high enemy AI and a single indestructible creature, Aliens: Fireteam Elite maintains excellent gameplay by the manner in which enemies work together to defeat your fireteam’s tactics.
Smaller Xenomorphs called Runners wear players down, draining health and ammo and softening defenses, which creates vulnerabilities that the more dangerous Xenomorphs exploit. Drones, Warriors, and the dreaded Praetorian Xenomorphs will charge at weakened or distracted players and deal heavy damage; they will also target certain defenses like sentry turrets and destroy them before slipping away and waiting for another moment to strike. Spitters often hide behind barriers and spray acid at moments when players are overwhelmed by Runners or not carefully guarding sentry turrets. Bursters will make a suicide charge into a defensive perimeter and explode with acid, causing heavy damage to marines and defensive equipment.
It is in this sense that battles in Aliens: Fireteam Elite are as much a match-up of military tactics as they are a shooter experience. There are no safe rooms, no opportunities to pause and catch your breath. There are instances when the game allows you to prepare a defensive parameter before a major battle, but no moment is truly safe. As you prepare your defenses, Runners will periodically attack; you must execute your game plan and stay frosty. It’s the hive mind against you and your fireteam; and just when you think you’ve finally got it figured out, the entire paradigm gets turned on its head when you fight Combat Synthetics, which fight more like traditional human enemies and also come in a wide range of classes. Good luck, marine.
There are 4 main classes players can choose from at the start of the game: Gunner, Technician, Demolisher, and Doc; upon beating the game, players unlock a fifth marine classification–Recon. Players can choose among 30+ weapons (many taken directly from the films) and 70+ modifications or attachments. Players have the ability to specialize buffs as they advance in rank, carefully arranging perks on a puzzle-like Perk Board.
Personally, I became obsessed with the Technician class and primarily played with that loadout for most of the campaign. As I progressed in rank, I was able to equip my personal sentry turret with a flamethrower modification, which was so much fun. I loved using my charged coils to slow advancing Xenomorphs, controlling the flow of battle by funneling enemies into my flamethrower sentry turret. Partnering with someone who is advanced in either the Gunner or Demolisher class was especially successful.
If I had any criticisms of the game, it would be the lack of cut-scenes. It would have been nice to build that in somewhere; I understand the storytelling strategy developers chose to take, but I feel like there ought to have been something at the end of the campaign as a reward for players. Still, the end of campaign reward was more gameplay options, which is clearly the focus of the game. It’s hard to argue against that–developers had a clear sense of the game’s identity, and they didn’t veer away from that.
I know that modern games don’t launch as perfect, complete packages. Yet, I can’t help but feel frustrated that a game built upon collaborative online play had so many matchmaking problems at launch. It feels like that should have been a focus in development. Ultimately, they did release a patch, so I’ll yield my criticism.
The campaign is disappointingly short; however, the replayability more than makes up for that and it seems clear that a lot more DLC is planned. I will reserve my judgement on the mainline story until we end up with a definitive edition. For now, I’ll just say that I enjoyed myself immensely playing Aliens: Fireteam Elite.
As someone who has played Aliens video games my entire life, I can honestly say this was the game I’ve always wanted. Not only is it atmospheric and steeped in lore, it’s an absolute blast to play with friends. Playing with my gamer friends or working through the campaign with my son created memories I’ll never forget. As someone who has Alien: Isolation in their list of top 5 video games of all time, I’m happy to report that Aliens: Fireteam Elite holds its own against the 2014 game. As a lifelong fan of the franchise, I truly hope we get more of each.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
David Lasby is the Editor-in-Chief for Boss Rush Network. His favorite video games are The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and the Aliens franchise. You can find him on Twitter to talk all things Nintendo, sci-fi / fantasy, and creative writing.