With the video games set in the same universe, the same pattern largely follows here as with the films. In the solo-monster corner of strategic survival horror, there’s Alien (1984), adapted from the movie, where the remaining crew members search the ship, presented on a rudimentary top-down map where blips and open ducts drive the tension. There’s Alien: Isolation (2014), in which the player protagonist (Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter) is embroiled within the trappings of a first-person-perspective nightmare where the lone alien cannot be killed and only evaded. And then there’s the made-for-mobile sequel Alien Blackout (2019), which despite its inexplicable existence, is essentially a decent extra-terrestrial riff on Five Night’s at Freddy’s (2014), incorporating elements of the other two games (a love of cartography and claustrophobic scares). Over in the Alien Shooty Bang Bang corner of action-horror, there’s over a dozen of every other game: either a loose adaptation of titles from the film franchise in the platformer and first-person styles [notably, the first game, Alien (1982), also predates the Aliens escalation trend, being a solid Pac-Man (1980) clone featuring multiple colour-coded xenomorphs], or uses the Aliens moniker to create their own spin-offs, such as the hand-held, pocket monster games Aliens: Thanatos Encounter (2001) and Aliens: Infestation (2011), arcade shooters on an “express elevator to hell,” such as Aliens: Extermination (2006) and Aliens: Armageddon (2014), and, of course, Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013).
The emphasis within video games on Aliens over Alien is tantamount to a preference for the cigar-chomping, ever frosty Marines with their auto-turrent guns and pulse rifles over the crying, wailing, and utterly useless antics of any civilian that is not directly played by Sigourney Weaver. Obviously, everyone in the Aliens universe always dies horribly in the end, but you can’t go wrong with the Space Marines on your side, even when Aliens is largely a screed against the exact kind of blustery smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning rhetoric that would traditionally result in over-confidence, under-preparedness, and lots of failure. In its inevitability, the gun-toting scenario always plays out the same, like a sci-fi Final Destination (2000), except it’s a xenomorph leaving the hair dryer near the expanding pool of water while the Marines witlessly “Hoorah” in the shower to themselves.
Sadly, it’s these negative traits that have also been poured directly into the making of some of these franchise games. First-person shooter Colonial Marines had a famously protracted development cycle (courtesy of the developer passing the job onto a sub-developer and then trying to cover their progress up with the license holders) which resulted in an “uninspired and unfinished game, [...] not remotely worthy as a sequel to the Aliens film”, according to IGN. Befitting the substantial budget thrown at it, Colonial Marines had the fan-service, recreating the Sulaco spaceship and parts of LV-426 in exacting detail at times, but in other areas the game was rough and ill-conceived. Undoubtedly, every player must have felt acid creep into their veins as a variety of wobbly creatures shuffled past with pea-brained A.I, ultimately sharing more in common with a crocodile puppet trying to steal the sausages in a Punch and Judy show, than the apex predators that should deserve our fear and respect, before earning a grim place in our soft bellies as nightmare incubators.
Colonial Marines is the gold-standard in disappointing franchise explorations, with it being competent enough to constantly remind the player that a better game could have been made, if only the circumstances had been less corporate - less Weyland-Yutani - in execution. Perhaps then, this makes Colonial Marines something like the experiments to recreate Ripley in Alien Resurrection (1997), a tragic road marking on the path to a perfect specimen of Aliens action games.
Having arrived at Aliens: Fireteam Elite (2021), I wouldn’t put away the flamethrower quite yet.
Fireteam Elite is a standalone sequel to the original trilogy, set 23 years after the original films. Colonial Marines are sent to a refinery station (again), where they discover that Weyland-Yutani have been breeding xenomorphs (again), resulting in the station being overrun (again). A Hive Queen takes exception to the Marines (again), as they blow up the station (again). In terms of plot, the most interesting element is that [actual spoiler] a survivor ends up being a Mother A.I. gone rogue, who in their best SkyNet impersonation, attempts to send the Pathogen first seen in Prometheus back to Earth (again).
If the plot seems as run of the mill as the title of the game (You will have forgotten both by the time you awake from hypersleep, regular sleep, or a brief Jonesy-nap.), the game itself is run-and-gun, being a third-person co-op shooter. Choosing from six utterly unsurprising character classes (guns, big guns, guns and medi-packs, etc.), the player can team up with two other die-cast grunts, controlled by other players or a noticeably stupid A.I., ironic given the plot. Everyone can then merrily walk down a series of familiar Aliens corridors like a genocidal cast from The Wizard of Oz (1939), mowing down twenty different flavours of enemy. Unfortunately, this variety extends to including humanoid synths, something that pulls the game towards the generic encounters found in better games such as Binary Domain (2012). But the xenomorphs, they come straight at you, they come from behind you; they come out of the floor, they come out of the ceiling: both the meat and the exploding giblets of the game are bloody glorious for how long they last on the main stage.
However, like most games in the horde genre, the game is also quite short (HowLongToBeat has the game at around 8 hours long to complete), meaning that there is a heavy emphasis on repetition, literally playing the game again with a Challenge Card system modifying encounters. This is where the game rapidly loses me. I can rewatch Aliens all day, drawn in by the characters with their quips, the set-design which still feels so ethereally smoky it might give me medical issues, and of course, the play off between heroism as a militaristic/capitalist ideology against Last Stand grit and humanity in the face of insurmountable odds when faced with the largest of all kicked hornet nests. It’s so freaking cool. Fireteam Elite doesn’t really tap into any of that especially well, working best as an embodiment of the sensation of in-the-moment fights for survival. The electronic TTTTHRIT of the pulse rifle, and the screeches and squelches of the xenomorph in various states of agitation and bodily composition are a delight, but for me, in many ways the best parts of Aliens take place when the grunts do not know exactly what is happening and the situation is escalating beyond their limited perception of control; no longer a jolly bug hunt, game over, and back to being horror as Space Dude Number Three is hoisted off into the vents. Dying in a video game just means reloading the level though, and Fireteam Elite, with its vast quantities of conveniently positioned ammo stockpiles and handily located waist high cover, plays out more like the idealised fantasies of the Marines when Ripley is losing her patience with them. Replaying missions, with always some calculated expectation of success, makes me feel as cool as Gorman with his “Thirty eight [drops]... simulated”, but less sweaty.
Having secured the Aliens licence in 2015, Cold Iron Studios, the development studio behind Fireteam Elite were brought inhouse by 20th Century Fox’s gaming division FoxNext in 2018. As Disney acquired Fox in 2019, they sold their gaming interests to mobile-game developers Scopely in 2020, with Cold Iron Studios then being bought by Daybreak Games. With more corporate plot twists than the Alien films, if it feels like Fireteam Elite demonstrates a hyper-focus in some finer details but a lack of cohesion in others, repeating several of the mistakes found in Colonial Marines. Maybe, one might blame the licence holders, who can see that the xenomorph property “has a substantial dollar value attached to it”, but fail to understand the exact nature of the beast, making games that are more direct-to-video homages than grand cinematic visions.
So, where next? Tellingly, Fireteam Elite became available on the Xbox Game Pass service in December 2021, making it ‘free’ for those that subscribe, only four months after being released at an already budget price compared to other modern big franchise releases. While the game is being updated with ‘seasons’, another comparison with both free-to-play games and limited ambition television shows, which means that all hope is not quite lost, my eyes have already turned towards another budget co-op shooter: cyberpunk-themed The Ascent (2021). Made by Swedish studio Neon Giant and a team of 12 people, the twin-stick-shooter is visually sumptuous, reminiscent of neon Blade Runner (1982) and the fallen worlds of Judge Dredd, and it evokes the same feelings one would wish for from an updated Alien Breed (1991) or Space Hulk: Vengeance (1995): two franchises (among several) that have already merrily plundered the Alien/Aliens universe for blood-soaked spoils and left the xenomorphs pining to be let out of their cells. We can go back to Alien-type games and make sure we never sleep again; I would love to see something in the style of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017), although that might be covered by the impending Dead Space reboot. Or we give the franchise to an indie studio like Neon Giant and make sure that nobody interferes with the development of another Aliens game. Toss them the keys to the APC and let them do doughnuts on LV-426.
Failing that, I’m so tired of being disappointed, “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”