Man, I’m a gaming dinosaur. Most of the time I spend with games now is framed with a never-ending, slow shake of the head as I try to comprehend what it even is these days. From open worlds with endless icons pulling me in every direction to entire catalogues of microtransactions that have been carved away to sell for eternal engagement, it’s all a far cry from the titles that got me hooked so many years ago. For me, the shift from PS3/Xbox 360 to PS4/Xbox One was the most noticeable, as suddenly developers could depend on a consumer internet connection, and so games became a service. I feel like the self-contained, more focused AA game is becoming as much of a relic as those that still want them.
Which is why Aliens Fireteam Elite is such a treat. Sure, it has a few modern marketing points ticked – three-player co-op missions (although it’s perfectly playable in single-player with bots) and the dreaded “Seasons” of downloadable content (to go with the laundry list of things you can unlock through normal play) – but, at its heart, it is a game that has a singular focus and it really wants to show you a damn good time.
It helps if you are a fan already of James Cameron’s audacious sequel to the horror classic. This is an Aliens game, after all – if you’re looking for the more claustrophobic atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s original, then Alien Isolation is what you want – and as such it works hard to press all those right sensory buttons. There’s the dread-inducing motion tracker heartbeat as the enemies close in, and the genre-defining musical twitch of the M41A Pulse Rifle which angrily spits fire in a most agreeable way. Levels are tight labyrinthine metal corridors put together by cold corporations or yawning dark caves hewn out by an ancient intelligence, with xenomorphs spewing from every hole and crevice to try and take you out. The xenos themselves are brilliantly animated and pose the perfect level of threat; they’re not hard to kill, but there’s just so many of them. They come in skittering waves that come perfectly close to being utterly overwhelming, before fading out and giving you a moment to catch your too-long-held breath.
The gameplay loop is pretty simple – maybe a little too simple? – but never less than thrilling. Explore an area, fight off random attacks that come in undulating patterns a la Left 4 Dead, and occasionally set off a piece of machinery that brings a swarm. If you play solo, the other two slots are filled with synthetics who, bless them, do their best to shoot as many bugs as they can, but they do not compare to humans partners. It’s slightly annoying that you can’t assign them loadouts too, but they have guns and grenades so generally work out as passive resistance. I’m sure that if you played with a coordinated team that took on different roles, the whole thing would be easier, but I kind of like the fitting desperation from being the one who carries the team of bots. Luckily, all the weapons have a weighty crunch and boom in the darkness, scraping and smashing against the backdrop of Austin Wintory’s fantastically spooky score.
The story is standard fare (which fans will work out its twists as soon as they hear the words Weyland Yutani) but a good fit for the world it’s emulating. As Colonial Marines, you’re the bug hunters called in when any side bites off too much they can chew, and it certainly looks like that’s the case here. A space station has a Xeno problem, and through the missions, you learn about who’s been breeding them and why. Cue lots of fights, impossible situations, and surprising developments (read: new enemy types to shoot). The whole campaign is split into four chapters, and each of these into three sections that comprise the main missions. They take around thirty minutes each so, even though there are no mid-section checkpoints for if you get taken out, they are perfect nuggets of highly replayable action. Between each section, you can return to the mothership and restock/shop/decorate your guns to your heart’s content, with lots of alluring items locked tantalizingly behind one of the two in-game currencies.
And, best of all, both of these currencies are accumulated through gameplay. Maybe I moaned so much about losing the thrill of in-game unlockables that the universe finally heard me. Just like the straightforward gameplay, it feels like a throwback to the days when everything had unlockables included, and it’s a real pleasure to drop your virtual credits on a paint scheme, weapon, or new hat. Alongside the cosmetics are consumables like electroshock turret guns and an ever-increasing set of Challenge Cards that modify a level for a reward. Combined with the rotating selection of Tactical Opportunities (which gently suggest a certain playstyle, dangling credits as a reward), there’s constantly a reason to revisit an earlier level.
Here’s a great example of a gameplay situation that would never have existed without the carrot-and-stick of challenges: I opted to play as a Doc (one of five loadouts that feature different weapons combinations) to collect that daily challenge. However, I thought I’d maximise the mission credits by using a Challenge Card called They Breed, You Die to double the spawn rate of Xenos for a tasty 1.5x credit bonus on completion. But, there’s a problem: in place of secondary shotguns and grenades, Doc has a selection of health recharging tools that are useful under normal circumstances, but when there’s a flood of Xenos streaming towards you, deploying a health station maybe isn’t the most useful move. Staying alive with just a single gun for that mission was truly gutwrenching, but so satisfying when I scraped through.
It’s moments like that which elevate Aliens Fireteam Elite way past so many other current action games. Without being reliant on constant engagement, service requirements or co-op raids, developers Cold Iron Studios took a step back to find a gameplay loop that is far more self-contained and all the richer for it. With a laser-tight focus and the assets to match the atmosphere, it’s finally a chance to live that Aliens dream in silky-smooth 60fps on PS5. Some modern gamers with maybe baulk at its lack of social features or supposedly short amount of campaign content, but for dinosaurs like me, it’s a total dream.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is available now for XBOX One, XBOX Series X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC