Review – Aliens: Fireteam Elite
I grew up in a pretty conservative household where everything I watched or listened to had to be approved by my parents. I wasn’t even allowed to watch Harry Potter as a kid, which was a pretty big deal to miss out on as a child of the 90’s. The one exception to the rule was Aliens, which I watched for the first time at the age of eight. Why? Because my mom loved it and reasons. Given it was the only thing I could watch that wasn’t Disney or Nickelodeon, I latched onto Alien and Aliens.
Before diving into the review I want to summarize what the franchise is. Alien, the original film, is about a blue collar crew aboard a merchant vessel who finds them trapped aboard their ship with an unfamiliar alien life-form that’s slowly eliminating them one by one. Its effective use of silence and small sets creates a claustrophobic sense of dread as the crew is hunted down. You know that the crew doesn’t stand a chance but you’re engrossed from start to finish, even during the cheesier moments.
James Cameron gave us the sequel titled Aliens seven years later. Aliens is much more of an action movie with horror elements than its predecessor. However, it’s also intended as an allegory for the U.S. Military’s experience during the Vietnam War. From the design of the costumes, weaponry, and vehicles, the entirety of the sequel portrayed the horrors U.S soldiers experienced while they were outnumbered in unfamiliar territory.
Even the design of the aliens had a deeper significance. Swiss artist H.R Giger was responsible for the iconic visual design and rightfully so won an Academy Award for it. Ginger’s work prominently featured two major themes, the merger between machines and organic material and the horrors of reproduction. Both of these aspects were masterfully reflected in not only the Xenomorph design, but the story as well.
It feels like I went on a bit of a tangent but bear with me. I highlighted everything that the Alien franchise is because it’s also everything that Aliens: Fireteam Elite is not. Sure, it has Space Marines and the iconic Xenomorphs, but it’s far from what one would expect from a game of the Aliens IP.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite provides up to three players with two game modes to explore. The Campaign has four chapters each divided into three missions that take about fifteen to twenty minutes a piece to complete. Once the campaign is completed, it unlocks Horde mode.
Players are dropped off in the hanger to wander around, interact with a limited number of NPCs and the Armory. One of the first things I noticed is the lack of animation when speaking with NPCs. There’s no mouth movement to the NPC while a voiceover provides the dialogue. A UI frame around the NPC provides text for the voiceover as well as button prompts for the player’s silent response. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach and I understand the amount of money saved during production but it’s an underwhelming first impression. Again, it’s not the worst thing, but industry standards have moved so far beyond this that the it leaves the Hub area feeling underdeveloped.
To start a game, players need only to open the menu and select their current mission to join a queue. Depending on settings, players will form a group from their existing party, get assigned in matchmaking, or will be joined by two A.Is, Alpha and Beta.
When in the queue, players have a number of other options they can choose from. For starters, players can choose between one of four classes: Gunner, Demolitionist, Technician or Doc. The Gunner class is your standard solider class with well-rounded abilities. Demolitionist are the heaviest who are great for taking out special Xenos and crowd control. I played as the Demolitionist more often than not, but this next one was my favorite since the technician has a skill that lets them drop a sentry turret as one of their skills, rather than a consumable like other classes. Lastly, we have the Doc, who as you may have guessed, is the medic class. I didn’t personally find the Doc fun to play, but they’re essential at higher difficulties.
From the queue menu, players can also adjust the difficulty settings. For the purpose of completing all of the chapters in a timely manner, I played through the campaign on Standard first and then dabbled with greater challenges after that. The most interesting challenges added at higher levels is the inclusion of friendly fire. At lower difficulties, there’s little more strategy than spray and pray with the occasional use of a mine or turret consumable during a hold the line section. By adding friendly fire, it significantly reduces how much players players can rely on just holding down R2.
The last option in the queue are the Tactical Opportunities. These are timed challenges that players can complete to earn additional credits and consumables. It’s a helpful way to boost your inventory of consumables as well as earn extra credits to reduce the grind of buying new weaponry. To be quite honest, if it weren’t for the challenges, I would never have played a class other than the Demolitionist. When we got our review copies, one of the the weekly challenges was to play three chapters as the Technician and it was the only reason I changed up my class. To this day, I have not gone back.
Each mission takes anywhere from fifteen to twenty minutes to complete which is a nice way to break up the experience. Players spawn either as a group together or with the Alpha and Beta AI Synthetics at a drop point and are then guided by waypoint through a series of linear passages. Typically two or three times a mission these will open up into a wider area where players will have to activate an elevator or scanner and hold the line against waves of Xenos for a few minutes. It’s a fairly rinse and repeat experience that I only enjoyed with the right players.
The environment is littered with chest-high walls that looked like they could be used for cover during an assault. Given that I never had to take cover through the entirety of the first chapter, I just ignored them entirely, or at least until the end of the second chapter. Partway through the second chapter we encounter an army of synthetics that fire back and for the first time, almost halfway through the campaign, I had to start taking cover to stay alive.
Xenomorphs swarm through tunnels and tight spaces toward players and are frankly too squishy and easy to kill. The game favors a higher number of targets in sequential waves rather than fewer more difficult targets and frankly, it doesn’t quite feel like Aliens. In the movie, there were 158 colonists on LV-426 meaning that at most there could only have been 157 Xenomorphs (thanks, Newt). However, in Aliens: Fireteam Elite even the earlier missions in a similar colony end with the team wracking up more than 500 kills without ever feeling like your characters are in any real danger.
I strongly feel that it would have been a better experience to have fewer xenos that are harder to kill. As it currently stands, it feels like this game could have been built for any other sci-fi franchise, but the final product slapped Aliens skins on everything. Even on death, the Xenos leave just a small pool of acid on the ground providing little danger to players. The better option would have been more splash damage based on proximity of the Xeno, a punishment for letting them get too close if you will.
While I understand the need for the wider variety of baddies to mow down, Aliens feels like the wrong series to be redesigning. Again, the Xenomorph is so iconic that redesigning it, even for gameplay function seems like a pretty poor decision. From the original trilogy alone we had Facehuggers, Chestbursters, Adult Xenomorphs, the Queen, and the quadropedal dog Xenomorph from Alien 3.
Instead, Aliens: Fireteam Elite went the route of Left 4 Dead and created special Xenomorph variants while omitting and downplaying many of the versions that already exist. Adult Xenomorphs are the most common in Aliens: Fireteam Elite, but die very easily. To increase the challenge, the devs created special Xenomorphs like the glowing green Bursters that explode on death and spread acid in the immediate vicinity or the red Prowlers who hide against textured ceilings and walls before launching at players and pinning them down.
My argument is that Cold Iron could have created the exact same gameplay experience without trying to redesign such a successful franchise. Rather than taking the time to create the Burster special enemy, they could have added blood splatter. Instead of creating Prowlers, they could have utilized the already existing Facehuggers for the same effect. Personally, I believe it would be far more frightening to see one of those scurrying flesh spiders leap soar through the air.
What I did really enjoy was in inclusion of species from the more recent Prometheus series. Later campaign chapters introduce the bioweapon black goop from Prometheus, and with it a series of new monsters inspired by the prequel films. I was far more open to the creative choices of the Colonist Husks, Stalkers, and Poppers. Since we’ve seen little of how the black pathogen can mutate life, there’s much more creative freedom that can be taken with the Prometheus lore and creature life cycle before ignoring canon. But even in those chapters Aliens: Fireteam Elite missed the opportunity to include earlier evolutions like the Xenomorph like the Neomorph and Deacon.
I do, without criticism, love the upgrade system. As players level up in each class, they earn new skill and weapon modifiers. Between Hidden Caches found on missions and modifications that can be purchased at the Armory, it’s easy to get your hands your hands on very helpful skill boosters. What is not as easy to do is select which modifications you want to attach. In a system that reminded me of Resident Evil‘s inventory, Aliens: Fireteam Elite has a grid system where modification chips have to fit onto the grid adjacent to the skills they modify.
As players level up more spaces on the grid become available and more mods can be added for greater impact. The modifications themselves are standard fare and allow players to reduce ability cool downs or increase effect radius. While it doesn’t improve the core game experience of the game, it does add an upgrade system that I would welcome in other games as well.
But let’s get back to what doesn’t work, because there’s a lot of that. Outside of game design, there are parts of it that are just outright broken. On at least three occasions now, my party and I were forced to restart an entire mission. There are a number of doors that won’t open unless the whole team is in front of it. However, even when all are present sometimes the door just won’y open anyway, halting all game progression. The only fix we were able to find was to restart the mission altogether.
When my party wasn’t available, I played with the AI synthetics who also got stuck. After the game loaded, the AI characters got stuck and never left the initial spawn location. Thankfully, it happened right at the start of the mission and I didn’t lose much time going through the mission, because the only solution was to restart the mission again. It’s a real disappointment to see a game focused on cooperative campaign progression have so many issues that force players to restart and play through the same sections again.
I had a lot of hope for Aliens: Fireteam Elite but will not make the same mistake again. As strong as the source material is, Alien games just statistically don’t manage to deliver. It wasn’t until the second chapter when I was fighting off androids that I started to have a little bit of fun. But to be frank, that was the most disappointing part of all. I was looking forward to enjoying an Aliens game, but the only time I really enjoyed myself was when the game looked the least like Aliens. To this date, the best Alien games on the market are still Alien: Isolation and the Alien-inspired Nemesis. Here’s hoping that something better comes along for the franchise soon.
Game visuals are acceptable but a lot of the textures lack the detail expected of current generation games.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite feels under-developed. Game hub has little to interact with and there aren’t enough modes to keep players coming back when the story is over. Bugs really hurt the experience.
I love that Aliens: Fireteam Elite uses sound effects from the films but all of the audio in it is overly compressed and leaving the final product sounding muddled.
Regardless of the design strengths and weaknesses of the game, it’s just not fun. Even in divided up into short sessions, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a repetitious experience of spray and pray and underwhelming battles.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is available now on PC, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S.
Reviewed on Playstation 5.
A copy of Aliens: Fireteam Elite was provided by the publisher.