After a long wait, Cold Iron Studios has finally released Aliens: Fireteam Elite (AFE), and it has proven to be the best installation to the franchise since Alien: Isolation. AFE is an impressive labor of love that adds even more lore to the series while staying true to the accepted canon. While there have been fears of the series going cold and dormant in the empty vacuum of space these past few years, fans like myself have put ourselves into hopeful stasis–that is, until August 24th when expectations were nuked from orbit. Released on PC, PS4, and Xbox, AFE has become accessible for fans of all relevant gaming oulets. And since it uses influence from the most notable movie and literary installments, fans can rejoice that it’s the most promising specimen we’ve seen in quite some time.
< Spoilers ahead; skip to the Gameplay section to avoid >
This is a direct sequel to the book Aliens: Infiltrator by Weston Ochse. I recommend this book if you’re interested in the background to the game’s story; there’s a lot that’s alluded to in passing that can only be truly answered by reading Infiltrator.
In this game you play as the United Americas Colonial Marines (UACM) as they investigate the aftermath of a Xenomorph infestation on Katanga Station that orbits LV-895. Upon arrival, the marines are greeted by a gargantuan flood of xenos that seems endless and unstoppable, proving that circumstances are much more dire than any typical bug hunt. After the fireteam extracts Dr. Timothy Heonikker (the main character in Infiltrator) safely from the station, they learn of Weyland-Yutani’s malevolent experiments involving Xenomorph breeding and the A0-3959X.91–15 Agent (also known as the black goo or pathogen seen in the movie Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.)
The UAMC then descends to LV-895 with this knowledge in hand, hoping to snub out the origin of the outbreak while saving any remaining survivors. This plan goes just as expected with hordes upon hordes of various xeno life assault the marines with no end in sight. The deeper the marines go, the more familiar imagery is seen, which proves the Engineers seen in the Prometheus mission had extensive involvement in the source of the outbreak.
In a final showdown, the marines are sent back to the hive on Katanga to overload the nuclear reactor, as such a massive explosion is the only way to be sure. Here, the biggest, most horrifying Xenomorphs throw themselves at any and all intruders. The fireteam’s skills are tested as they take on the Drones, Warriors, Praetorians, Crushers, and eventually the infamous Queen Xenomorph. All of these xenos are seen in other Alien entries so it’s awesome to see them properly implemented in this story.
This game functions primarily as a tower defense or horde onslaught game wherein the xenos throw themselves at the marines, wave after wave. While going through familiar scenery it’s up to you to piece together what has happened and what will happen throughout the missions. There’s a four-chapter campaign to complete straight out the gate that, once completed, unlocks Horde Mode. Horde mode is essentially pure enemy mitigation with no traveling; the xenos get stronger after every wave completed. So it goes without saying that this game has a steep difficulty curve that can be very unforgiving at times.
Instead of the USS Sulaco (a la Aliens,) the marines travel by means of the USS Endeavor, which acts as the hub for players to meet and prepare for battle. Here, you’re able to set up fireteam groups, adjust weaponry and specialist kits, and talk to NPCs that will expand the storyline. While you’ll have the ability to go mission-after-mission without stopping, the Endeavor is helpful in pacing the game and negating post-Xenomorph stress. Fans of the Aliens extended universe will appreciate the interactions with the aforementioned NPCs; many of them are integral characters from the books and comics that have recently gained notoriety.
What tower defense game wouldn’t be complete without experience points, level mastery, and unlockables? Every mission has tons of weapons, decals, uniforms, and a litany of add-ons to unlock. And with six specialist roles (or classes) to use, each with their own strategies and weaponry, players will easily stay busy searching for that perfect combination that matches their style. I had fun leveling up my Demolisher into a Drake-like ultimate badass armed with a pulse rifle and flamethrower.
One of my favorite parts of this game was the music and ambiance. From the title screen you’ll be greeted with quiet, ominous orchestral music that inspires wonder and a subtle fear of the unknown. It felt like every part of the game was perfectly scored with music that not only made the gameplay reminiscent of the movies, but also inspired the feelings that went along with them. When xenos first show up, there’s music that comes off as dubious or even mischievous. When large Xenomorphs roar and storm the battlefield, the music changes to the ominous overture that inspires horror and dread. I cannot stress enough how good the sound design is in AFE.
While there’s a lack of cutscenes, every character in the game has a voice and tone that places them firmly in the Alien universe. Fans will also notice several familiar one-liners from the series that set similar scenes to the movies. NPCs have elaborate backstories and realistic attitudes when I imagine what it’s like to travel to the edge of the galaxy with the purpose of hunting down the ultimate killing lifeform that Weyland-Yutani just can’t let die. Hoenikker from Infiltrator really came to life in all his terror while escorting him off of Katanga, all while fending off the Xenomorph that birthed from his ex-girlfriend.
There are a few issues with AFE when it comes to accessibility and general gameplay that I hope are resolved in future updates. Players trying to find random groups will have to be patient in queuing as there is no “quick play” option or general queue. Choosing a mission causes a 60 second timer to begin counting down. If no one is found to join in this time, you’ll be paired with bots, or synthetic marines to be precise. This can be particularly frustrating with the more difficult levels. I really hope they fix this, because this seems like a major design flaw. Until this is resolved, I recommend grouping with friends or patiently grouping with randoms.
Another issue is the lack of optimization. Rarely and randomly, frame rates will drop to choppy, flip-book styled visuals. However, even more often, the game exudes its share of glitches that can bring the game to a screeching halt.
Some of the issues are, but not limited to: an extra player joining the session that can’t interact with anything, intel items unable to be picked up, gunfire audio looping endlessly, random crashes, and not being awarded unlockables when appropriately earned.
These are just the issues I’ve run into. I’m playing the game on PS4 but I’ve seen these issues while people play on PC and Xbox. I can’t help but feel this game could have benefited from further testing and more insightful beta reviews.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite was undoubtedly worth the wait and I’m glad so much care was put into making it. That being said, I do think the game needs an update or two to optimize things in their current state. It also wouldn’t have hurt to have included some cinematic cutscenes between missions to better set the mood in such a nostalgic universe. These shortcomings don’t take too much away from the game and I recommend all Alien / Aliens fans to get this game. However, appropriately priced at $40 at launch, this is more of a double-A than a triple-A title. I’m sure if Bishop reviewed this, he’d agree that it’s not bad for a human.