It’s impossible to overstate the influence James Cameron’s Aliens has had over video games. From rowdy hoots and hollers of Halo‘s interplanetary Marines to layered rows of gnashing insectoid teeth in Contra, the medium owes a lot to the legendary 1986 film, and Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a long-overdue interactive cover song of sorts. This three-player cooperative third-person shooter from developer Cold Iron Studios excels at frantic firefights with never-ending hordes of xenomorphs throughout a staggering variety of gorgeous landscapes sure to tickle your nostalgia. It’s only the lack of a compelling story and exhausting pacing that keep it from being a classic itself.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite takes place two decades after warrant officer Ellen Ripley gave her life to protect humanity from the xenomorphs in Alien 3. Sadly for any folks keen on keeping their chest cavity intact, the universe’s deadliest species is still thriving — to a point where the USC Marine Corps are regularly sent out on extermination duty. The latest outbreak is on LV-895, a planetoid rife with all sorts of acid-fueled uglies, and it’s your job to mow down as many as possible. Beyond this embryonic set dressing, though, the story never gestates into a tale with anything to say or any nuance to it. Not once in the roughly 10-hour campaign did I care about the events or character motivations because what’s there is either well-tread, cliched ground or thoroughly uninteresting. There’s a great deal of respect for the series, particularly if you’re fond of prequel films like Prometheus, but the whole thing ends up feeling as if you’re just on a somewhat shallow Aliens-themed rollercoaster.
I won’t deny that Aliens: Fireteam Elite’s nostalgic peaks and valleys are a blast to ride out all the same, though, especially with how joyously vicious combat is. Xenomorphs will spill into rooms emitting a raging torrent of spine-chilling shrieks, seeking to drown anyone caught in their sea of acidic lifeblood and head bites. Staying afloat means keeping them at a distance with the firearms at your disposal, be it M56 Smartguns that automatically lock onto most anything that moves or ol’ fashioned pump-action shotguns that come in handy for close encounters, how the weaponry and xenomorph behaviors coalesce might be my single favorite aspect of Aliens: Fireteam Elite. There’s something wildly satisfying about pumping a bunch of cannon fodder xenomorphs full of lead, then witnessing their exoskeletons explode into dark green hunks of cartilage and flesh.
The more formidable xenomorph breeds are not so easily disposed of, however. Take, for example, Warriors: hulking brutes that serve as tanky bullet-sponges. Whenever one of these behemoths showed up early in the campaign, my co-op partner (I played through most of the campaign with one friend and a relatively intelligent AI companion) and I would inevitably exhaust several magazines of ammo just to keep them from punching a hole through our skulls. Until we learned of a better way, that is; Aliens: Fireteam Elite periodically introduces new enemy types that force you to make the most out of your class toolkits, and out of the five available classes, I came to adore the Demolisher’s shoulder-mounted rocket cannon, while my co-op partner opted for the Technician’s proficiency with mines and turrets. Couple a rocket barrage with a steady stream of turret spray, and even the mighty Warrior xenomorph goes down pretty quickly.
My only gripe with the classes is they introduce unnecessary progression systems. It’s weird having experience points, levels, and RPG-like elements when all of it amounts to little more than boring passive buffs. Sure, slight increases to a pulse rifle’s damage are fine, but it’s not compelling enough to make me want to replay missions ad nauseam as if this was Destiny and no new strategies open up as a result. Not to mention, there’s no cool loot system to make that prospect more alluring.
However, should you wish to take another stroll or two through the campaign, there’s a decent amount of visual variety and optional objectives to spice things up. Aliens: Fireteam Elite has four chapters, each with three missions apiece, offering glimpses of iconic sights from across the Alien saga. From cold, moisture-caked metal corridors of an atmosphere processor to Engineer ruins commemorating long-forgotten battles with the xenomorphs, there’s plenty to feast your eyes on. Better yet, selectable challenge cards introduce unique modifiers to keep subsequent playthroughs relatively fresh. My co-op buddy chose one that would frequently spawn Drones, a fierce hit-and-run type of xenomorph, resulting in laugh riots for both of us. In one instance, as I looked away for mere seconds to restock ammo, a drone firmly planted its foot on my chest and gleefully wailed on me until my friend was able to shoo the bugger off with a few pulse rifle rounds.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite Review Screenshots
I welcomed any opportunity to tweak mission ebb and flow with open arms, as stagnation sets in quickly without it because Aliens: Fireteam Elite’s level design is dismally repetitive otherwise. You’re either funneling along narrow pathways or triggering wave-based defense sections, and essentially… That’s it. Neither is terrible on its own, but by the 30th “press E to trigger the horde” prompt, I couldn’t help but sigh in exhaustion. Regrettably, any deviation from this formula usually results in distinctly irritating encounters.
Roughly halfway through the campaign you’ll run into armed synthetic androids, and that’s when Aliens: Fireteam Elite becomes a Gears Of War-like stop-and-pop affair. While I appreciate breaking up the monotony of persistent xenomorph ripples, the alternatives aren’t exactly fun either. You’ll run into several other species (that will remain unnamed for the sake of spoilers) to wrestle with later on, but they run into the same issue as the synthetics: it makes me wish the xenomorphs were all I had to contend with, repetition be damned.
What bugs me the most is while Aliens: Fireteam Elite lifts countless ideas from Left 4 Dead, it forgot all about the importance of safe rooms to mark progress and avoid frustration. Nothing takes the wind out of my sails like failing one of these bafflingly long missions: if the whole squad goes down, then it’s back to the very beginning for the entire lot of you. That doesn’t sound like a big deal on its own, but when each mission takes upwards of 45 minutes on more challenging difficulties, the margin for error transforms into a cavernous precipice where patience goes to die.
That’s especially true when it’s not immediately clear how you’re supposed to survive. In one of the early missions, you have to repair a dropship while simultaneously fending off an encroaching swarm of xenomorphs — ending with a scenario where multiple Warriors, Drones, and several other special breeds spawn at once. My co-op partner and I failed this section a couple of times, and no matter how we adjusted our plan of attack, there were just too many of them to deal with, and trying again meant fighting through the same 40 minute level all over again. It wasn’t until our third attempt that it became clear that we had to run behind the dropship to trigger an ending cutscene, and that standing and fighting the horde was a bad call, despite every shootout beforehand training us to do so.