When Craig Zinkievich and Matt Highison described the essence of what they’re attempting to capture in their studio’s new game, Aliens: Fireteam, they cited a specific moment in James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens. Cold Iron Studios’ upcoming Aliens title is a cooperative survival shooter, and it’s not the “ultimate badass” scene in which Hudson and the other Marines confidently discuss how they’ll easily rescue beleaguered colonists with their motto of “peace through superior firepower.”
It’s a moment of heart-pounding desperation.
It’s the scene where Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and the rest of the survivors of the doomed rescue mission to LV-426 are holed up, trying to hold out long enough to escape the planet. They’ve barricaded themselves inside the colony’s command complex, but despite sealing corridors and setting up defenses, their motion trackers are going wild. The aliens are inside the perimeter. Suddenly, Ripley realizes they’ve overlooked something and Hicks discovers a mess of aliens crawling inside the ceiling toward them. In seconds, everything is chaos as the Marines open fire and aliens stream into the room.
“For me, it was that single scene that we would keep going back to, and it’s like, ‘Are we hitting this? Is this what it feels like? This is what it needs to be,'” said Zinkievich, Cold Iron’s CEO and co-founder.
Aliens: Fireteam is a three-player cooperative survival shooter, and it sounds like the emphasis is on “survival.” It’s all about Marines fighting to stay alive against a horde of xenomorph enemies, using different weapons, equipment, and character abilities to escape the alien threat as it presses in from all sides.
“Everything goes wrong,” Zinkievich said. “That’s the thing, where it’s like, everything that you try is just the wrong thing to try. It’s about that challenge and hopefully overcoming that challenge.”
“Many of the encounters start off with that moment of, ‘Oh, we’re badass Marines. We can throw turrets down, we’ll use all our consumables, and we’ll get through this just fine,'” Highison, co-founder and chief creative officer at Cold Iron, added. “But by the end, we want you to have that panic, and that moment where you realize, ‘Hey, if we had split up, it would have been really, really bad, but we narrowly avoided defeat here.'”
The game is set 23 years after the conclusion of the original Alien trilogy, with players taking on the roles of fresh Colonial Marines recruits aboard the ship Endeavor. The Marines receive a mysterious distress call that sends them to the colony LV-895, which sports an orbital refinery called Katanga that was supposed to have been lost decades earlier.
At an online preview event for journalists, Cold Iron gave a quick hands-off look at what gameplay in Aliens: Fireteam will be like. The team of three Marines was forced to hold a position as they waited on an elevator, setting up defenses like turrets against a horde of incoming aliens. There are 11 different varieties of xenomorphs, Zinkievich and Highison said, some of which are original to the game and each with its own artificial intelligence and tactics to mimic the feel of the way aliens swarm, surround, and ambush Marines in the movies. Fireteam also includes combatants like androids from the villainous Weyland-Yutani corporation for a total of some 20 different enemy types.
Fireteam is about putting your back to the wall as you fight for your life, but of course, you aren’t powerless against the xenomorphs. Fireteam will outfit you with the iconic guns from the movie, like the M41a Pulse Rifle or M56 Smartgun, as well as dozens of other weapons; Highison said the game has more than 30 guns for you to bring to bear against the xenomorph threat. You’ll also have different roles you can take on as part of your squad. You create your Marine from scratch–you’re not playing an established character here–and choose one of five classes, each with its own abilities. The Gunner is your standard Pulse Rifleman who carries a variety of firepower, for instance, while the Demolisher sports the high-powered Smartgun, and the Technician can drop defensive equipment like turrets. There’s also the Doc class, the team’s medic, and the Recon class, which sounds better-equipped to track threats.
You also level up your character as you play and earn skill upgrades as you use different weapons and equipment, so while you might find yourself overwhelmed by aliens time and again in Fireteam, you’ll have something to show for it. Cold Iron’s developers have a lot of experience in MMOs, and co-op games, so RPG progression systems are a big part of the replayability in Fireteam. You can also earn additional customizations and perks for your gear and unlock additional assets such as special mines or grenades; Highison said there are more than 80 attachments to add to your weapons to change how they play.
The story of LV-895 unfolds over four different campaigns, each of which includes three missions. It seems you can expect missions to clock in at around 40 minutes in length, although there are a lot of variables at play that could extend or shorten the duration significantly. The game is best when you’re in a three-player squad, but if your team is smaller than that, the open slots will be filled in with AI-controlled bots. Between campaigns, you can return to the Endeavor to adjust your loadout and abilities to better suit the threats you’re facing, as well as converse with other characters to learn more about what’s going on in the world and story.
“I’ll be honest, we’re scared too.”
But this is a survival shooter, and similarly to games like Left 4 Dead, you’ll be returning to the same missions more than once to increase the challenge and face new threats. Zinkievich said that Fireteam is loaded with behind-the-scenes elements that can adjust a given mission so that it feels a little different every time you play through it. There are also five difficulty modes, which do everything from making xenomorphs heartier and Marines squishier, to cutting back on the resources you might find in a mission, and adding friendly fire or drastically adjusting the danger of the aliens’ acid blood spray.
On top of the difficulty modes are challenge cards, a system that allows you to add mutators to a mission before you start it. Zinkievich and Highison said that challenge cards can have a lot of effects in forcing you to take on a mission in a specific way–they mentioned one that might make xenomorphs immune to body shots, for instance, demanding a high degree of accuracy to get you through, and another that might make your gun more likely to jam.
There’s still a lot that Cold Iron isn’t ready to talk about, though, including its take on an Aliens story and what it’s adding to the universe. Zinkievich mentioned that the era Fireteam is addressing, the early 2200s, is an interesting moment in the franchise’s timeline as the Colonial Marines increase their mandate to protect human colonies and battle shady corporations. But that lore is based on expanded content like comics and novels. In the timeline of the Alien films, 2200 is in the middle of a 200-year jump between Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, so for many Alien fans, it’s uncharted territory.
There’s also the elephant in the room of the Alien franchise’s mixed history in video games. The last major game in the franchise, 2014’s Alien: Isolation, was a survival-horror title that captured the feel of the original Alien, but was divisive in some of its choices. Before that was 2013’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, an infamously panned sequel to Aliens with a sordid development history, rough first-person shooter gameplay, and xenomorph AI that was often more perplexing than threatening.
“I’ll be honest, we’re scared too,” Zinkievich said. “We started working on [Fireteam] as soon as we started work with 20th Century Fox, and we were just overjoyed. We’re like, ‘Yes, it’s amazing. It’s fantastic, I can’t believe we’re working on this.’ And then there was almost the hangover, where it was like, ‘Oh my God, are we going to make a game that’s good enough for us?’ We’re crazy fans of this and want to make sure that whatever we do really, really speaks to the franchise, to the movies, feels authentic, not just in the art, which Matt’s team has just done an amazing job with, but also with the way that it feels like to be there. And it’s a tall order.”
“It must have made it easier because we were huge Aliens fans, clearly, before we got the opportunity to work on this, and this is a game that we want to play,” Highison elaborated. “When you’re always looking at it as a fan, and asking, ‘Would I be happy with this?’ It becomes a lot easier as a developer to make a quality experience.”
It seems we won’t have to wait long to find out whether Aliens: Fireteam will capture the Aliens feel that Cold Iron is going for. The game is set to launch in Summer 2021 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC, although its price point hasn’t been revealed yet.