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.

JOURNALISM: Anti-Vacciners in Everquest

    Recently I had the chance to log into one of my all-time favorite MMORPG’s from my youth: Everquest. I got into EQ for a few years in the early 2000’s and journeyed through Norrath, slaying its fiends and had a grand ol’ time. But life has a strange way of pulling you away from some passions and replacing them with others, as if to place them in a time capsule for later enjoyment. 
For the past few years Daybreak, the company that owns EQ now, has been hosting several servers for Everquest that focus on the original experience when the game was in its heyday. These servers are called Time-Locked Progression servers, or TLP. Think of it as a cross between Project 1999 and World Of Warcraft’s classic servers. I’ve been drawn into nostalgia as of late and since I’m playing on the Aradune server, that recently just unlocked the Planes of Power expansion and the Froglok playable race, I wanted to dive right back in, but what I found was both bizarre and disturbing.

So there I was, killing small fodder to get some XP on my new Froglok, and I noticed the chatter in the General chat was moving very fast. After quick examination I saw that there were people responding, in mass, to two players spamming insane messages that said the COVID19 vaccines are a bioweapon, and people that take vaccines are idiots and causing a health crisis. These asinine remarks continued for hours. Their messages weren’t all the same, so it wasn’t bots programmed by someone trolling.
I eventually got one of them to talk to me one-on-one in a private chat. I figured there was absolutely no way someone actually could believe this imbecilic jargon. I tried to interview this person, but it was difficult; they kept trying to change the subject in order to avoid answering questions while becoming more and more unhinged. I think it’s best to post the conversation in its entirety, and then reflect.

Strangely enough, Anfen didn’t block me. So he’s definitely not a man of his word. And I have no regrets for trying to spark a challenging response from him with insults. After that the anti-vaccine messages died down in the main channel and I’ve never seen the rabble about vaccines again. 

In Folklore class we called them “anti-vaxxers” because they push insane propaganda that implies vaccines cause problems or are made to create major medical issues or “become autistic.” The gossip they spew is not only damaging to society but also serves to “poison the well” and create distrust in the government and pharmaceutical companies. These people get lumped in with the Alex Jones enthusiasts–they truly hold no credibility, but they cater to an audience that is already distrusting of helpful authority for whatever inane reason. Here’s the problem: these people are just now figuring out 2005-era swarm tactics used by radical activists and loosely moderated websites like 4chan.

What troubles me the most is these people saying things like “stick to your own blood” and “oh I know because I know.” It does nothing but create further division and spread harmful banter that targets societal health, as if to weaponize ignorance.

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.