All over the world, right now, people are quoting that one line from Aliens into their headsets, and smugly grinning to themselves as if they’re the first person to do it. For this reason, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is bad. For a lot of other reasons, this 3 player co-op horde shooter is good, providing you can find, rent, or coerce at least one mate to play it with.
I’m far from the first person to point this out, but yes, I know that saying a game is “fun with friends” is a largely useless caveat. Everything is better if you have someone to whoop at the highs and shout angrily at the lows with, from watching The Room to scraping pigeon poop from a car window. Except it’s especially pertinent with Fireteam Elite for two reasons: co-ordinated plays are greatly rewarded, and online matchmaking is wonkier than one of those lemurs getting mashed on millipede toxins.
Technical issues seem to (anecdotally) vary greatly from person to person and platform to platform, from aliens getting stuck behind cover to hard crashes. My own experience has been largely smooth, though I don’t doubt the game has issues. Polish is evidently lacking, and there are signs of a troubled and possibly rushed development, from the short campaign length to promises of future free content updates. Matchmaking is also unreliable enough for me to suggest holding out on a fix if you’re expecting to play with strangers.
That said, Fireteam absolutely shines in the one place it needed to: capturing the menacing onslaught and chaotic camaraderie of keeping your collective shit intact while swarms of ravenous xenomorphs rush from every vent and walkway. Short, controlled bursts is a platitude here, where all the discipline and tactical nous of the colonial marine corps are just entrails being flung from a burst chest as soon as things get hairy. Set up a perimeter, lay turrets, pick your targets, and watch it all crumble into “friendly” shotgun blasts and desperate combat rolls as soon as the Praetorians rush in.
Over twelve missions (and one horde mode map), you and two gr8 m8’s (or AI synths) will complete flimsily justified objectives while Fireteam finds excuses to throw bundles of enemies at you. A few missions have you fight Weyland Yutani synths, turning the game into a competent if unremarkable cover shooter. The main event is the menace of the Xenomorphs though, handily mutated into L4D-like categories. Fodder. Spitters. Rushers. Those sneaky ones that jump out and pin you down. The gang’s all here.
There are five classes to choose from. Gunner and Demolisher are the killiest, with the latter given access to the iconic smartgun. Engineers can lay turrets and stun mines. Medics heal, natch. Recon initially seems the least useful, but you’ll soon come to appreciate their target highlighting on higher difficulties, where the game takes away the green outline conferred to xenos you’ve already aimed at.
Both alien and weapon sounds are authentic as they’re sampled directly from the films. For me, though, the real selling point here was how the smaller aliens move. The actual animations are a bit rusty, but the movement patterns themselves are genuinely impressive. Somewhere between a dog and a lizard, the smaller xenomorphs will scurry up and down walls, leap over railings, and attempt to ambush from the ceiling.
A brief aside. It leads somewhere, I promise. Strategy game design methodology talks about the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’. In short, classical is systems based, while romantic is about getting swept up in the fantasy of it all. Generally, even romantic design approaches tend to reveal their classical underpinning once you’ve mastered a game enough to see through the narrative conceits. I bring this up because I’ve played and replayed Fireteam’s short campaigns multiple times, and while the cracks and quirks are showing, I still get escapist chills every time I know a big wave is coming.
This is to say that where Fireteam falters somewhat in technical stability, it really does make up for it in how the various classes and smart mechanical touches compliment each other in building a genuinely absorbing Aliens experience. The radar scanner, for example, mixed with the Xenomorph’s erratic movement, means you’ll be glancing frantically between those tiny blips and the ceiling, setting up killzones and choke points, and covering each other’s backs. Along with the sound design, it really does feel like more than the sum of its parts.
And sure, there’s more gunplay in a single mission than in the entire film trilogy, so if an Alien game without survival horror disempowerment feels inauthentic to you, Fireteam won’t click. The default difficulty is a little underwhelming, but on ‘intense’ and higher levels, you’re always on the backfoot, and crucially, always fearful. I’ve no doubt Fireteam will be a much better game six months from now. I still recommend holding out if you’ve any reservations, but this has the potential to be a great Aliens game. Right now, it’s still a refreshingly good one.