Review: Aliens: Fireteam Elite

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.

The Story 

< 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. 

Gameplay

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. 

Sound

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. 

The Bad

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.

Overall

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.

REVIEW: Alien RPG by Free League

Last year Free League, a Swedish gaming company, released the official Alien RPG tabletop game based on the hit cinematic universe published by 21st Century Fox. I bought the Player’s Manual and Starter’s Set on the month of release accordingly as the Alien movies encompass some of my favorite films of all time. There was a lot to go over–the full manual being over 500 pages, but I finally got a firm grasp on the game, how it’s supposed to be played, and how it can be fun. 

I was able to get a few of my friends to play while I played as the Game Mother or GM. The game is quite literally and figuratively a sci-fi adaptation of D&D-like gameplay that can be neurotic at times, focusing on creating tension between players by means of dramatics and forcing players to make difficult decisions. While flummoxing the players with horrors of the great unknown and otherworldly mysticism–we found this game to be exceptionally loyal to the series and lore, while also encouraging us to expand on the universe and riff from the movies. At times, what we got was something akin to another glorious day in the ‘corps. After all, these shake-n’-bake colonies have a substantial dollar value to motivate the characters whether they’re a Colonial Marshal for the Colonial Marine Corps, a roughneck working as a space trucker, or a Company Agent for a major conglomerate (ex: Weyland-Yutani) that has a peculiar interest in what goes on at the edges of the galaxy.

How it works:

    Much like its contemporaries (D&D, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Warhammer…), players assume the role of a character they’ve built from the ground up or premade characters can be assigned or chosen. The game can be played in two modes: Cinematic play and Campaign play. Cinematic gameplay will mainly use premade characters to play out scenarios filled with several tropes from the Alien universe to make the crew feel right at home. These scenarios can be finished in 1-3 two-hour sessions and typically have a crew of 3-5 players with one person acting as the GM. Campaign play is more relatable to the long Dungeons & Dragons stories that encourage players to explore a world and even accomplish major goals. A lot of creative liberties are taken in campaign play, but thankfully Free League has provided tons of resources and details about the universe (in the Player’s Manual) to establish what we know is out there, and what may lie in the darkness. This also establishes rules and guidelines to play out any type of scenario you can dream up.
    When comparing Alien RPG to other tabletops, you’ll notice the characters have no levels. Characters are able to get experience points (XP), but the XP is used to buy/strengthen stats rather than accumulating for a “level up” that strengthens several stats. Also, there is no mana obviously. In its place is a different element to mitigate: stress. Players are required to manage their stress, so as to not panic in terrifying situations. Too much stress leads to an unstable character that will be a liability to the rest of the crew. Lastly, another major difference is the usage of only six-sided dice–two sets of ten six-sided dice, or 2*10d6 to those that are hip. The Starter’s Set comes with the unique base dice and stress dice needed to play, so I recommend starting there.

The Good:

    One of my favorite aspects of this game is that it is extremely neurotic and focuses heavily on characters’ personal agendas and the psychological warfare that ensues until conflict boils over, burning through several layers of the ship’s hull. Because of this, the players are forced to actually role play and make real decisions that will affect themselves and others. Too often we are presented with RPG’s that present players with characters and worlds that require no interaction to play the game and achieve an end-goal. 

This begs the question:  Why play an RPG if there’s no need in playing the role of your character? With so much freedom of creativity in games today, why wouldn’t you want to?

    Alien is one of the most neglected franchises because of the many directors the series has gone through; there is very little direction in the official canon. So instead of Ridley Scott bogarting the rights to all of the Alien lore, getting very little done–the Alien canon is now (generally) established and decentralized thanks to this game. Now we have an encyclopedia and atlas to navigate and expand on the lore. Alien is getting its long overdue attention.
    In the age of the COVID pandemic, mask mandates, and long lines for vaccines, we all need something to do in our downtime. I’ve learned over the past year or so that tabletop games are a great catalyst for interacting with friends. Apps like Zoom and Discord are all that’s really needed, along with some character sheets and maps to share. One of our players eventually emulated the sessions to Roll20, a website made specifically for playing tabletop games virtually. Essentially, we found solace in role-playing a sci-fi super-pandemic in the midst of a real-life pandemic.

 The Bad:

    The issue of having a wildly niche audience is all too familiar when it comes to finding tabletop gamers–this game is made ultimately for people who are tabletop gamers and also are Alien fans. There’s not a lot of overlap so finding players can be difficult. Luckily the comradary found playing with fellow fans of the series makes it all worthwhile.
    After a survey with our players, one issue in all of the feedback was the difficulty adapting to a game wherein the gameplay and actions are too open-ended. The players were all familiar with RPG tabletop gameplay but they noted that this game was hard to adjust to. Most said they would have approached many situations differently if they knew they were able to avoid or reveal and deterrence. For instance, doing mobility checks to traverse different routes or move silently would have helped when Jordan’s character got face-hugged because Andrew let his character rifle, very loudly, through a bunch of desks in a dark room. There is a silver lining in this feedback though. Every player we played with really liked the aspect of a game that is so narrative driven, and I agree. It’s a fun yet nerve-wracking trip through the Alien universe.

Final Thoughts:

    The Alien RPG is fun because it offers players seemingly infinite options to overcome any problem. Narrative driven stories are made to cause conflict and stress for both the characters in-game and the players in the real world. The game does have a steep learning curve in the beginning but after a play session or two we were all confident in our roles. Ben was even so confident he made his android character do an impressive jump kick to knock a Neomorph out of the airlock. It was awesome.
    If you’re looking for a perfect rendition of the Alien universe into a tabletop game, this is it. It can be just as fun as D&D in the right setting–perhaps even more fun. I can’t lie to you about your chances of survival but. . . you have my sympathies. 

How Much Content Should Be Included in the Final Product?

Saying you’ve “beaten a game” now is far more obscure than “beating/finishing/completing” the video games of yesteryear. Video games made in today’s market rarely have a distinct ending wherein the game play comes to an end; this is especially present in AAA, high-budget games. So is this the best way to make a game? Is this done to leave the ending ambiguous and up to the player, or is this a well concocted formula to get players normalized to canonical content being presented as DLC? Looking at how games are presented, begin and end will give us insight on how games’ stories work as a whole, and how the rhetoric should and shouldn’t be presented. 

In the 80’s, back in the days of musky arcades, Atari 2600, ColecoVision and Commodore 64–games rarely had a distinct ending. You played the game until you died or exploded and bragged about your high score until someone beat it and the process starts over again. 

Flash forward a few years. Nintendo releases Famicon(J) and NES (Nintendo Entertainment System(USA)) respectively. Games like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Shinobi and Mega Man change that formula with compelling storytelling, dynamic game play that pulled players in, and music that surpassed expectations. These games had endings. When you jump on the axe and Bowser falls in the lava at the end of World 8, the game ends. Ask any speedrunner. 

This type of game presentation was used by Nintendo’s competitor, Sega. Games like Sonic, Vectorman, Phantasy Star (and. . . you know. . . all those games) typically had definite endings and this was highly unlikely done solely to be like their competitor that was pumping out tons of IPs. They also realized the aforementioned elements were vital to the video game experience. Games had evolved out of the primordial soup of Pac-Man, Galaga, and Centipede and emerged with 8 bit and 16 bit legs.

This stayed the same for a while–until online play became a normal or expected thing to extend the life of the game (see: Call of Duty Franchise, Quake series, Everquest.) This was where the common formula for games was changing and, if you’re paying attention to the franchise owners, it’s starting to make a lot of sense. 

We can lump today’s games’ endings into two categories:  New Game+ (NG+), wherein the game game be restarted from the beginning, but the player gets various perks for playing through the story again; and endless, side quest filled open world (Endless) which is fairly self explanatory. 

Big games that we saw use NG+ recently include Final Fantasy XV, Disgaea 5, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, and Dead Space. These are all great games–there’s no doubt that, and I think NG+ was the best way to go with these games. It encourages players to go through the game at their own pace, rather than rush to the end game so you have access to everything and you can “finally experience the real game.”

This leaves the rest of today’s games. Games like Death Stranding, God of War, Red Dead: Redemption 2 (RDR2,) Grand Theft Auto 5, Metal Gear Solid V, all the massively multiplayer games and all the shooters. Almost all of these games have an end objective, or a final task to complete the story of the game, but game play (or sometimes “the real game play”) continues. For most of these games the free-roam game play seems to be done so the player can enjoy the other parts of the game, side quest, or lowered stakes because the main antagonist isn’t looming anymore, more or less. 

Excluding online-only games, this leaves the DLC continued games in the Endless category. Games like Dead Space 3, Alien Isolation, Starcraft 2, Shovel Knight, (soon to be, hopefully) Cuphead and the list goes on. When I look at this rash list I made from the games I’ve played in the past years, I notice they have varying audience reception for reasons usually related to the DLC. The reviews on the DLC on some of these games are hyper critical mainly because the content appears to be “base game content” or canonical content, and not just a fun expansion. This content doesn’t expand the story, it completes it. I wholeheartedly believe you shouldn’t have to pay extra down the road to complete a game’s story. I can find the justification in critical reviews if the game isn’t truly complete-able on day one. 

Obviously there are some exceptions. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Everquest rely on periodic expansions that retail for the price similar to that of a video game. These games get a pass in this analysis because the new content essentially adds another game, or another main story line. 

Games today seem to be lacking scrutiny in what is included in the base game and how the game should end. I surmise this is a mixture of what video game companies feel that they can get away with to make an extra buck (EA,) developers being stretched thin in their work load and failing to make a deadline (Nintendo,) or possibly even bad enterprise collaboration between departments like HR, marketing, and localization (Sony.) It depends on the publisher. I’m looking at you in particular, Konami. 

I assert that a game is only truly completed, or can’t provide anything more, when you’ve lost interest in the game. You can continue to deliver tons of packages repetitively in Death Stranding after the last stranding event, you can tend the farm and family life in RDR2’s epilogue, and you can play Dark Souls until it’s NG+x8 and you hate yourself–as long as you’re enjoying the game, it doesn’t have to end. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite pastimes is driving around in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, causing mayhem and getting chased by the cops at super-high speeds while listening to 80’s pop; it has stood the test of time.

Dec. 1, 2020 – A Special Update

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to update this blog. But I’ve come back bearing great news. I’m unsure of where to start; there’s been a lot of change for me, and I’m finally starting to feel like I’m where I should be with things.

I can’t get into the specifics, but for nine months (Feb-Oct this year) I’ve been living in a very abusive situation wherein I couldn’t do much to get out, was enduring horrid mental turmoil, was being extorted for money, and wanted to take my own life. I tried resolving things several different times, in different ways, on different terms each time–nothing was ever good enough. Even when I explained my suicidal thoughts, I was met with laughter and told to “try it out.” I would never wish any of this onto anyone. Eventually this all caused me to go into a “fuck everything” attitude and call out their physical threats. This ended with me having to call the police to ensure safe passage out of my house.

It was horrifying and traumatic, but I escaped and they can’t hurt me anymore. I stayed with a friend for a week afterward, and after staying there for seven days, I was moved into a nice two bedroom apartment. It’s really nice. Having a room to dedicate to being an office is nice too. Furniture shopping at IKEA and Target was hell, but I snagged some decent furniture for the new place. Ordered some snazzy lights from Amazon too on a sweet Cyber Monday deal. Listen to me, I sound like a mindless consumer. 16 year old me is raging.

The bar has been good work, but COVID19 regulations are ruining business. It’s a huge drag and I can’t wait for the pandemic to finally be under control. I don’t particularly like writing about politics, but I have good faith that the incoming new administration will be wildly more efficient than the current tape-and-rubber-glue scenario we have going on until January 21. Couldn’t help but feel that Christmas came early this year.

This year was the first year that I did not celebrate Thanksgiving in any way. I literally sat at home all day, made a huge steak for dinner, played video games, and slept. It was awesome.

Speaking of video games, I’ve completed a lot since my last post:
Starbound
Hotline Miami
Disgaea 5
Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch remake)
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Grand Theft Auto 5
Death Stranding (Again)
Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2
God of War (PS4)

Finally a #gamer

I still have a lot of games that I want to complete, and I just got the Bloodborne DLC on a sale. It’s a good feeling to know that even in the midst of this pandemic, I’ll have (hopefully) enough video games to last it out. Don’t get me wrong though, I really miss being social and going places. We really took that for granted, huh?

There’s still so much more to say, but this is a good place to leave things. I have plans for many more writing projects that I need to get off the ground floor. Lots of plans for this site too. And I finally have a reliable connection, office, and stable mentality to do it all. It feels good to finally feel good. More to come.

First Post

Thanks for dropping by my site. I’ll be blogging and adding portfolio pieces as I keep this site. A little about me: my name is Derek and I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I graduated OSU with a Bachelor’s Degree in English writing, rhetoric, and literacy; hence, the reason I’m making such a blog. I had a blog while I was in college, but it was mostly autobiographical and lacking in content. I don’t mess with it anymore.

I’m very interested in video games, movies, and most fictional literature. Call me an escapist, I guess. A large portion of this site will be game/movie reviews and critiques. After absorbing the content for so long and analyzing it, I feel the time has come for me to do some content creation of my own as I feel I can lend some useful or intriguing insight on the subject matter.

Also, I love meme culture.