The Alien franchise is full of hits and misses. The first two movies of the franchise? Hits. The third? Miss. The prequels and sequels since then have also been a mixed bag. And the video games based on the franchise follow suit. Aliens: Colonial Marines was some hot garbage, but that was followed up by Alien: Isolation which is considered one of the best games in the franchise
That brings us to Aliens: Fireteam Elite, the third-person survival shooter from developer Cold Iron Studios. Releasing on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S tomorrow, August 24, you might be wondering whether you should give A:FE a go or avoid it like you would an Alien egg sack. Well, I’ve had a chance to play through all that Aliens: Fireteam Elite has to offer, both solo and in a group, and I can tell you that it mostly didn’t disappoint. Mostly.
Another Day, Another Alien Hive
The story in Aliens: Fireteam Elite is all too familiar. Taking place 23 years after the events of the original Alien trilogy, you are a Colonial Marine aboard the UAS Endeavor. The Endeavor has been sent to Katanga, a derelict orbital refinery, to answer a distress call. Your first mission is to locate and evac Dr. Tim Hoenikker, a Weyland-Yutani scientist. From there, it’s a story of corporate greed and coverup as you fight through a total of twelve missions.
Each mission plays out in a similar fashion. Your path is pretty linear as you travel through a map, with only a few short side sections to clear out. You will encounter small groups of enemies as you travel from point to point, with some hidden hunters jumping out from the shadows to serve as jump-scare moments, but the bulk of the fighting takes place in larger areas like junction rooms and landing bays. These defense spots always have multiple access points that allow the Xenos to come at you from all sides.
There are plenty of choke points in the early levels to help you manage the waves of aliens as they scamper towards you. As you progress further through the story, these rooms get larger, with more open spaces and higher ceilings, making the fights more chaotic. Additional objectives, usually pulling switches or operating a control panel, also get added into later missions, making you leave the safety of your turrets and anti-personnel mines behind. These objectives also split up the team, making you rely on consumables to keep aliens from swarming you. All of this makes for an excellent progression of difficulty as you work your way through the story and level up your loadouts.
I can’t say that there are any real surprises here; the lore of the Alien universe is already filled with despicable corporations and unscrupulous individuals, so trying to top what is already there would be hard to do. The A:FE storyline does fit in quite well, though, and the delivery of each segment flows well. There are even some collectibles you’ll find during missions that help tie the current setting to the movies and other games from the franchise.
I Can’t Lie To You About Your Chances, But You Have My Sympathies
All in all, the story mode will take about 8-10 hours on your first run-through at standard difficulty. Along with a casual mode for solo players having difficulty finishing missions, there are three higher difficulties - Intense, Extreme, and Insane. These higher levels don’t just increase enemy health and damage, they make everything harder. As you progress through each difficulty, you’ll have less time to revive a downed player, acid does more damage, and most importantly, you start taking damage from friendly fire.
By the time you reach Insane difficulty, your chances of survival are similar to that of the Marines in the movies. Even the weakest Xenos will take the better part of a pulse rifle’s clip to take down, and getting hit by a Burster’s acid spray is almost instant death. You’ll also take full damage from friendly fire, and when one of your teammates kills you, they are using up your only revive.
Still, I’m sure there will be players who will think the game is too easy. For them, Cold Island Studios offers up Challenge Cards. Each one of these cards adds a modifier to a mission. Some do little more than change the graphic settings, like the Noir Cam changing everything to black and white or the No HUD card removing all of the HUD elements from your screen.
Other cards can have a more drastic effect. One card we used caused weapons to randomly jam, requiring us to reload the gun to begin firing again. We made it through the mission, but I’m pretty sure my teammate was ready to reach through the monitor and punch me for playing that particular card. There is bonus experience and credits to earn with each card played, so I don’t know why he was so mad.
Setting The Mood
The Aliens: Fireteam Elite campaign takes you through multiple environments that look like they are pulled directly out of the movies. You start off on an orbital refinery, then head planetside to explore ancient ruins before finally boarding an Engineer’s spaceship.
The claustrophobic hallways of the refinery are reminiscent of many of the fight scenes in the original trilogy. Visually, they have a very realistic look, and the lack of lighting helps to keep everything closed in. They all feel a little too clean, though. This is an area overrun by Xenomorphs, and it doesn’t feel that way. There needs to be more damage. More sparks and smoke coming from broken consoles. There just needs to be more grit and grime.
Planetside, the ruins and open areas are a stark contrast to the tight passages you explored on the refinery. You once again feel like you are in the movies, with just enough differences to know you aren’t visiting the exact planets you’ve seen in other material.
The final stages take place on the Engineer’s ship, a great tie-in to the prequels. The oversized corridors and defense areas found here give you a feeling that you are insignificant, that you are a bug pretending to be more than you really are. Then, as you advance closer to the hive, everything becomes covered in resin. You’re back in the dark, fearing whatever might be hiding around the next bend.
Loading docks and alien relics are only half the picture; the creatures you will fight make up the other half. There’s no need to worry; you will encounter a wide variety of Xenomorphs, all ready to tear your body to shreds. The Runners are the most prolific and easiest to kill, just like in the movies, but by pure numbers alone, they will drain your ammo in no time. While dealing with the Runners, you also have stronger Xenos mixed in to make things more difficult.
Bursters, Drones, and Spitters are but a few of the more durable Elite Xenomorphs you’ll encounter in A:FE. Along with extra hit points and damage, each of these Elite Xenos packs its own special power move. The Burster, for example, explodes upon death, drenching everything and everyone nearby in acid.
On the other hand, Drones prefer hit-and-run tactics, attacking until they start taking too much damage. At that point, they flee into a nearby vent, only to return at what seems like the most inopportune time to continue chomping on you.
Then there are the Xeno Bosses. Warriors that pin you down and try to rip off your face, super-sized and super-tanky Praetorians, and other big baddies that are thick-skinned and hit like a truck. Just one of these requires a group effort to take down, so it gets pretty hairy when multiples bosses attack at once.
And that’s just the Xenomorphs. Although the Xenos are featured throughout most of the campaign, you’ll also run a few missions where Weyland-Yutani Synths are your primary enemy. The Synths may not instill the same amount of fear their alien counterparts do, but they are just as deadly. While snipers and other gunmen use cover from a distance, other Synths will rush you and try to beat you down, while still more have explosives strapped to their bodies ready to explode when they get within range. If nothing else, it creates a welcomed change of pace in the middle of the campaign.
Regardless of species, the enemies in A:FE are a sight to behold. Due to the hectic fighting, you don’t always notice it, but each creature is highly detailed and has fluid animations. Swarms of Runners advance towards you, moving back and forth from the floor to the walls, while others drop down from vents and race towards you on the ceiling. Xenos (and other enemies) can be staggered by your shots, and they fall and slide with their appendages flailing as they try to regain their footing, just like a dog sliding on hardwood floors. And when they finally reach you and lunge at you with mouth open and claws reaching outward to tear you apart, you feel the pain even before they hit your body.
Their death animations are just as impressive as their attacks. Light and medium weapon kills will send an alien to the ground like a sack of potatoes, their lifeless body sliding a few feet before it comes to a stop. Heavy weapons and short-range shotgun bursts send fragments of their bodies flying in all directions, and you can almost see the torture in their eyes as you fry them with a flamethrower.
The only fundamental flaw with the combat of Aliens: Fireteam Elite is the AI pathing. Although you have enemies coming at you from multiple directions and starting points, each enemy that spawns from a particular point follows the same path. So when six Runners come out of a vent, they form a single line, each following the same route as before. Multiple starting points and paths for each area or hallway help disguise this lack of randomness to the creature’s movements, but it’s still noticeable when you can aim at the lead alien and the others behind it run straight into your stream of bullets.
Building The A-Team
To take on all of the threats that Aliens: Fireteam Elite throws at you requires a strong team of three Marines. When playing solo or duo, the empty spots on your team are filled in by your trusty Synths, Alpha and Beta. Although their blank stares and lifeless eyes make your AI companions just as creepy as any Xeno you’ll face, they can hold their own during combat. They are limited to basic weapons and lack any special abilities other than tossing a grenade here or there, but they are quick to target enemies and heal you up if you go down. They can also take quite a bit of punishment, making them excellent meat shields.
A major issue with Alpha and Beta is the inability to issue them commands. Having even the most basic orders such as guarding a specific direction or being able to have them focus fire on a single enemy would go a long way in increasing their usefulness. They also become a liability on higher difficulties where teammates take damage, as they don’t seem to mind crossing through your field of fire.
This can be avoided by grabbing a couple of friends to take along on missions. This allows you to utilize strategies you can’t execute with Alpha and Beta, and the synergy between the different classes makes the group stronger than the individuals. There isn’t any in-game chat, so coordination will have to be done through Discord or other third-party options.
The only oddity I find with the fireteam makeup is the 3-man team. With five available kits (and a sixth coming with the first DLC), I would expect to see at least four, preferably five, spots on a team. I don’t know if Cold Iron Studios capped it at three due to balance issues or something else, but I hope to see the group size increase through a future patch.
17 Days? We Won’t Last 17 Hours
Along with running the campaign missions repeatedly, Aliens: Fireteam Elite also has a Horde Mode. You’ll definitely need to gear up a little before heading into this Xeno attack marathon, and getting deep into the waves will take a full team of human players. The premise is quite simple - set up a defensive perimeter and take on wave after wave of Xenomorphs, stay alive long enough to earn your rewards, and evacuate the hell out of there. Each round you stay in, the difficulty gets harder. It doesn’t take long before multiple elites and bosses are attacking at once, and only a coordinated group has a chance of making it past the first few rounds.
There is a short break in between each wave where you can place any consumables like mines or turrets, gather any dropped med kits and heal up, and otherwise catch your breath. After each round you will gain a small amount of requisition credits that can be used to purchase more defensive supplies from an equipment locker on site. You only get enough creds to buy something every three or four rounds so it’s definitely not enough to hold you over from round to round. I highly recommend purchasing some defensive consumables before you head into Horde Mode.
Every ten rounds you get the chance to extract and collect your reward. Staying in for another set can greatly increase the loot you earn, but you have to make it out alive or you leave it all behind. Even without the extra goods, the experience gain can be much higher than what you’d get from running single missions.
What Are We Supposed To Use? Harsh Language?
When going up against an alien hive, a Marine needs to bring the right tools for the job. In A:FE, your role is determined by your loadout kit (think character class). Before each mission you can choose the Gunner, Demolisher, Technician, or Doc kit. A fifth kit, Recon, becomes available once you complete the campaign. Each kit determines not only what primary and close quarters weapon you can carry but also your special abilities and perks. Once your loadout is set and the missions starts, there’s no changing things up mid-run. Successful or not, after each mission experience is put towards leveling up your kit and weapons.
Each Marine has three weapons during a mission. Two of the weapons, your primary and close quarters weapon can be chosen before you launch a mission. The third weapon is a standard issue side arm, useful only in the event that you run out of ammo for your other two weapons.
All but the Technician use a rifle as their primary weapon, starting with an M41A2 Pulse Rifle as your initial choice. You may not remember it, but as soon as you hear the sound it makes as it fires its caseless rounds, you’ll recognize it as the standard infantry rifle used in the movies. Additional weapons unlock as you level up through the ranks, with a burst rifle, DMR (designated marksman rifle), and sniper rifles available for those who want a more controlled shot.
Unlike the other kits, the Technician uses hand guns as their primary weapon. You start off with a 50 caliber pistol and can unlock other options like a riot gun or auto pistol. This may seem like a penalty, but we're not talking about standard issue pistols here. Hand guns have nearly the same range as an automatic rifle and pack a similar punch with better handling characteristics. Someone with a steady aim can quickly bring down an enemy with just one or two shots.
Each kit also gets a close-quarters weapon. A variety of shotguns, submachine guns, and even a close-range flamethrower are on tap here. All of these weapons are the perfect complement to your Marine’s primary weapon, and you’ll constantly be switching between the two depending on the situation.
The Demolisher and Doc don’t use the same CQWs as the other kits. While the Doc goes with a hand gun as their secondary, the Demolisher brings an aperture-mounted heavy weapon to the battlefield. Demolishers start with the iconic smart gun used by Pvt. Vasquez in Aliens, but later on, this can be switched out for other heavy armaments. Unlike other kits that will freely switch between their primary and close-quarters weapon, the Demolisher should save the limited ammo of their heavy weapon for the most powerful enemies.
Along with cosmetic choices like decals and color variants, Weapons in Aliens: Fireteam Elite can be modified through three attachment slots. On top of a unique cosmetic look, each attachment has one to three buffs associated with it. These buffs are all standard shooter fare - increased ammo, higher stability or range, things like that. You will also rank up your weapons as you use them in combat. There is a 4-star rating to be earned, with each star adding an additional buff to your weapon skills.
Your weapon choices aren't the only way to differentiate your Marine on the battlefield. Each kit comes with three special abilities to help solidify their role in the fire team. The Gunner’s abilities focus on increasing the damage of their steady stream of bullets, while the Demolisher brings a couple of single shot, long cooldown abilities.
The special abilities of the other three kits are focused on support. Technicians are geared towards crowd control and have a renewable Sentry Gun and Coil Grenades that help create choke points. Docs carry a Trauma Station, a deployable, small radius healing device used to heal up nearby allies. This is arguably the weakest ability available due to the limited amount of healing it can do, but it can still come in handy when things are going especially bad. Docs can also pop off their Combat Stims ability to give multiple stat boosts to nearby teammates.
Like the Doc and Technician, the Recon kit is best suited for a full group of players. Their first ability launches a drone that helps spot enemies while reducing their damage by 20%. A second drone can also be launched to resupply ammo to nearby allies and provide them with increased combat stats.
When it comes to character progression, your abilities are further enhanced by perks. Instead of using a skill tree, you place your choice of perks into a 4x8 grid, most of which is unavailable when you start the campaign. Perks take up anywhere from two to four squares on the grid, allowing you to slot in only a handful of the 50+ perks available. Each perk is unlocked by using one of the five kits, so you’ll need to level them all up if you want access to every perk. Only a few of the perks are restricted to the kit used to unlock it, so it’s worth your while to spend the time ranking up all five kits.
The loadout and perk systems work in tandem to give you the flexibility to customize the character you want to bring to the group without jeopardizing each loadout kit’s unique purpose. Whether you choose to focus your perks on cooldown speed, weapon accuracy, or higher damage output, a Gunner is still a Gunner, a Doc is still a Doc, and so on.
At the same time, this framework is open enough to add in additional kits and perks with relative ease. There’s no need for the developers to rebuild any existing skill trees; just add in new perks, determine which are unique to the new kit and which are universal, and let the players swap them in and out as they please.
When creating a game from intellectual property as iconic as the Alien franchise, developers have an uphill battle ahead of them. Fans of the franchise are sure to notice even the slightest deviance from the source material, and more often than not, they will not take kindly to the changes.
Fortunately, Cold Iron Studios has done an excellent job of converting familiar characters from the movies into survival shooter classes. The sounds and visuals of the environment, weapons, and enemies stay true to the look and feel of the films. Even more, all of the typical shooter conveniences like highlighting enemies and floating damage numbers can be adjusted by turning them on or off in the settings menu. This way, both die-hard fans and casual gamers can play A:FE the way they want.
For a survival shooter such as Aliens: Fireteam Elite, Cold Iron Studios also had to create a rewarding combat system to keep players engaged when the story campaign is completed. With five diverse classes to level up, over 30 weapons and 70+ attachments to unlock, and a large selection of perks to put into builds, players have plenty of reasons to run through the twelve campaign missions at harder difficulty levels.
When it comes to the Horde Mode, I think we got a mixed bag. Without any way to manipulate the environment - blocking vents, welding doors shut, or building barricades to create choke points, for example - there is minimal strategy beyond holding on to your consumables for as long as possible. It’s just a matter of all three players working together to keep the swarm of Xenos from reaching you, and once they do, using the old spray and pray approach in the hopes of making it to the end of the round.
Ultimately, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is more hit than miss. Although it does little to advance the survival shooter genre forward, Cold Iron Studio has done a great job of combining the familiar source material with fun, action-packed combat. The few flaws are merely a minor distraction and don’t mean game over, man!