Aliens: Colonial Marines preview – the atmosphere’s great, now fix the alien animation

Aliens Colonial Marines PS3 screens

Gearbox’s ET-blaster has been pinging on Motion Trackers for years without ever seeming to scuttle closer to release: a sure sign of an express elevator to development hell, if ever there was one. But at long last the final countdown to launch has been initiated, and with it the Texan studio has unscrewed its vent grilles to let us dive in, Pulse Rifles ready.

Aliens: Colonial Marines preview

First impressions are that, outside of combat, Aliens: Colonial Marines does indeed look like a game that’s been in production for an unusually lengthy period of time. Gearbox is adamant that its proprietary deferred rendering tech (in normal speak: a next-gen lighting solution that allows for dynamic lights and shadowing) is core to Colonial Marines’ atmosphere, and it backs up this claim by showing off new areas from the campaign.

The first is on LV-426. Having crash-landed on the planet, protagonist Winter and his squad are trekking across the surface in the middle of an electric storm, trying to find the wreckage of obliterated human colony Hadley’s Hope. Their path takes them through craggy canyons and past film props such as a crashed UD-4L Cheyenne Dropship and a broken M577 Armoured Personnel Carrier, with plenty of vista points placed along the way to encourage you to stop and admire your surroundings.

Blinding lightning flashes illuminate dark corners. Flares cast pulsating crimson shadows on shelves of rock formations. In the distance, the nuked terraformer billows smoke into the unravelling atmosphere while huge sheets of tarpaulin ripped from their anchor points fight losing battles against the furious weather. Grey and inhospitable LV-426 may be, but there’s still beauty on its surface.

Aliens Colonial Marines PS3 PreviewInside Hadley’s Hope, the deferred renderer’s given a chance to really flex its muscles. The place is a wreck, and striplights swinging from broken chains nicely create theatres of shadows locked in endless dances inside the colony’s corridors. It’s a fine effect on its own when you’re admiring the environments (from the director’s cut’s Weyland-Yutani tricycle tucked under a fallen beam to the exact placement of Xenomorph and Facehugger corpses, the attention to the film’s detailing is second to none), but it’s only when the Xenomorphs spring forth from vents that the true effect of the lighting tech is felt.

In most shooters combat is a relatively straightforward affair. Enemies attack from the front and it’s usually easy to get a handle on every bogeyman’s position. In Colonial Marines, combat is disorientating. The combination of lights and ventilation shafts mean your eyes are forever drawn to foreboding shadows racing by on every surface. Even though Xenomorph appearances seem wholly stage-managed, their post-arrival behaviour is emergent: floors, walls, ceilings… they can use them all. Although it doesn’t take much to reduce them to piles of acid, actually getting a lock on your enemies in the first place is tough thanks to the bombardment of visual distractions.