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.

Book Review: Aliens Infiltrator

In the past few years, there have been several entries into the Alien franchise, and I’m not referring to the prequel movies. Titan Books has been publishing a lot of these books by partnering with sci-fi/fantasy writers like Alex White and Scott Sigler, and the results have been terrifyingly awesome. Each author expands the Alien universe in a different direction, which I alluded to in my Alien RPG review. This is breathing chest-bursting life into a franchise that’s been acid-burnt for far too long. The newest book, Aliens Infiltrator by Weston Ochse, is an action-packed story filled with espionage and terror taking place in a United Americas Colonial Marines station at the edge of existence. This tale, however, is not for the faint of heart as the series takes a bizarre Island of Dr. Moreau-like twist that makes an already harsh world that much more disturbing.

The most recent addition reminds us of just how small we are in the vast, numbing darkness of space. And much like the RPG, it’s very hard for our characters to stay alive. Like most sci-fi and cosmic horror, there are a lot of characters–each with their own agenda. It’s actually pretty hard to keep track of all the characters, but I believe this to be intentional as the more relevant characters are easy to pick out. And with 53 chapters, the book bounces around following particular characters at times. I liked this mostly because it emulates the claustrophobic, neurotic mentality that comes with the Alien franchise, and Ochse clearly knows this formula inside and out.

The focus of most of the story is Dr. Timothy Hoenikker, an archeologist specializing in alien artifacts. He’s lured to a Weyland Yutani research site with promises of alien artifacts only to find out the facility is actually the breeding ground for horrifying abominations that mock the notion of life–Xenomorph aliens and various creatures’ DNA spliced with the black ooze (rats, spiders, chameleons, etc.) On the other side of this we have Victor Rawlings, a former marine performing the aforementioned tests and making Xenomorphs. He tries to contain the beasts… but we know how that always ends up. These two, and a massive cast of supporting characters, try to contain the Xenos while they stay on the lookout for a confirmed infiltrator on-site whose agenda is unknown.

This book is actually the prequel for the upcoming video game Alien: Fireteam. I would even go as far as saying the book reads very similar to recollecting a video game’s content. That being said, there’s a lot going on in this book story-wise; there’s not much content that challenges the reader outside of one scientist being arrested prematurely (with the undertones being because he’s black.) The lack of rhetorical argument isn’t a bad thing, but if you prefer the Prometheus-styled philosophy-porn that makes you question ethics and logic, this isn’t the Alien book for you.

Overall, this book is fast, action-packed, and doesn’t disappoint. At times it’s hard to understand certain fight scenes and you may have to re-read a sentence or two, but it doesn’t ruin the experience. If you’re looking for a disturbing, brutal day in the ‘core, this is a must-read for Alien fans.

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. 

Pokemon: Let’s Go! review

In the past five years or so, we’ve seen lots of remakes and remasters in both movies and video games. With nostalgia being the popular drive for content creation, Nintendo has jumped on the bandwagon with Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu as their pseudo-remake of Pokemon Red/Blue. I say “pseudo” because this game is very close to being a full-on remake, but there are several changes and additions that lead to a “passing of the torch” feeling from this game. Since gaming has significantly advanced in both technology and narrative since the late 90’s, so let’s go aboard the nostalgia train and see the improvements made with Pokemon: Let’s Go! 

    Players of the original Pokemon games on Gameboy will feel right at home in this nostalgia-driven adventure through the Kanto Region. The original titles weren’t very impressive visually and were loaded with glitches (some to exploit,) but we all quickly caught onto the hype and why this franchise is popular. With this new installment, the hype is still there, and all the same memorable pokemon and characters are present.   

Bearing this in mind, I was impressed to see people and places reimagined in 3D with much more to interact with. Familiar songs from the original are also remade to match the updated look. There is a significant degree of attention to detail in the reimagined world. For instance, the protagonist will kneel when speaking with children. However, this is the Nintendo Switch we’re talking about. The game looks good enough overall, but it looks like it could run on GameCube or a smartphone. They’re not really breaking new ground with these graphics, but it doesn’t detract from the fun. 

    Catching pokemon is similar to how Pokemon GO works now, which I think is actually a good idea. It was always frustrating to have to weaken a pokemon to near-faint, hoping you don’t knock it out. The new method simply focuses on throwing the pokeballs and lure. You’ll be rewarded with better aim and timing with additional XP for all the pokemon in your party at that time. 

    You also get a companion depending on which game you have, Pikachu or Eevee. I went with Eevee, because I never caught on to the Pikachu fandom. Also, Eevee is a cool companion but instead of saying it’s name, it just screams “BOYYY!” or something like “BOYYYO PE!” It’s really off-putting because it sounds like a ravenous K-Pop fan. 

    Strangely though all the other pokemons’ cries are a higher quality version of their Gameboy counterparts. This seems a bit lazy considering that we know pokemon like Chansey, Charmander, and Squirtle simply cry out their own name; where’s the consistency?

    One of my favorite changes made was the shift in how the Hidden Machines (HM’s) are used. This time around, you won’t be required to use a pokemon to use HM abilities. Instead, your companion will do the technique for you. It’s kind of weird to have a Pikachu or Eevee fly you around town, but don’t question it, this is more convenient. Also, TM’s can be used multiple times, making it much easier to distribute those moves you sought out. This helps with the elite trainers in the end-game that show up after beating Pokemon League the first time. 

    Pokemon Let’s Go is an interesting stroll through the ever expanding pokemon universe, but when I went into this game I thought I was going to like it more than I actually did. Overall, it took me 18 hours of playtime to complete the game, and I enjoyed myself most of the way through. This is a cool remake, but it is lacking in many areas. Recently, Nintendo announced they would be doing something with the “Let’s Go” series, so hopefully more improvements will be made that make the games more appealing. And finally, with a price tag of 60 USD, the same price as Mario Odyssey and the FF7 Remake, Pokemon Let’s Go leaves much to be desired. It’s a good game, not a great game, and I recommend waiting until the price drops or it’s on sale. 

-Derek Coleman