"So, The Derelict," says Gearbox President Randy Pitchford, "that's a cool environment." He's speaking to IGN about multiplayer maps for Aliens: Colonial Marines. His studio is showing just one: a location inside Hadley's Hope, the primary setting of the classic Aliens film. The Derelict is one of the series' most notable locations -- hardcore fans know it as the home of the Space Jockey.
"No one's really been inside there," Pitchford continues, "but we know what it looks like."
Soon we'll know more. It'll be one of many homes to myriad online battles between the Marines and xenomorph threat.
Gearbox is shy about what modes are coming beyond the standard team deathmatch, but says Colonial Marines' competitive multiplayer is heavily objective-based. Pitchford continues, "Think about fantasies from the movie, like a Last Stand kind of moment." This climactic scene from the film saw Ellen Ripley jumping into a walking forklift to fist-fight the xenomorph queen, as Aliens nerds know all too well. "Or, we've got to get from A to B and everything in between is trying to kill us," he says, summarizing the source material succinctly.
Even the adversarial side of Colonial Marines aims to ooze fan-service, and while killing friends as aliens or humans is an excellent component of its competitive side, it isn't even the greatest thing about it. That would be the masterful use of suspense in an online environment.
Ask anyone about the old Aliens vs. Predator PC shooter and a strange trend emerges; discussion surrounding the Predator is almost nonexistent. Tension between the Marine and Alien teams brought about unforgettable stories for the water cooler. The high whine of a motion tracker sent chills down the spines of Aliens fans, and striking sneakily from the shadows truly felt like playing a xenomorph.
Aliens: Colonial Marines does a marvelous job of mimicking this while maintaining balance between both teams. Vulnerability and empowerment are equally important here, and are precisely what captures the essence of both the beloved film and classic multiplayer.
Gearbox isn't coy when it comes to Colonial Marines' influences. It acknowledges the Left 4 Dead footprint in the multiplayer's structure and visuals. Each playable team, human Marines and Alien xenos, has its own distinct set of abilities, character classes, and unlocks. The teams play totally unlike each other, naturally, since xenos pop out of vents and through ceilings to eat and disembowel frantic, fleeing Marines.
The xenomorphs are quick, crawl on all fours, and stick to walls. A hazy green shade paints the world in an otherworldly way, and their third-person perspective gives them a greater view of the battlefield than their enemies' first-person POV. Aliens can also detect victims through walls using pheromone-based radar, which sends sonar-like pulses through the world to spot Marine locations.
Arranging ambushes with alien allies should be the most satisfying angle to this asymmetrical multiplayer. Aliens manufacture horror movie moments for their opponents, and there's a unique thrill in knowing the other guys are panicking as the pack preps to appear from anywhere.
So how long has Bishop's body been there?
Waiting for surprises keeps the Marine team is in a constant state of worry. Their enemy is quiet and more capable than humans, so shotguns, pulse rifles, and grenades are the main tools of self-defense. Where the alien team always has the navigational advantage, they're more susceptible to damage for numerous reasons. Humans have the benefit of owning the long-game. Guns are also extremely lethal, naturally. Aliens only need to eat a few well-aimed shots to die, so sharpshooters should be able to clean up with double- or triple-kills at times.
There's a looming sense of exposure within squads, so trusting teammates is the one means of staying alive when one pulse rifle won't cut it. Marines have to watch each other's backs or those slippery xenos will get the jump on them.
Pitchford tells IGN that the multiplayer experience is "totally asymmetrical" from top to bottom. Every mode features Aliens' unique brand of tension and uses it in a different way. He's also excited to show more of multiplayer's connection to the campaign – challenges completed in one mode earn money that carries over between both single- and multiplayer.
If even a regular ol' team deathmatch can feel this fresh, present this level of tension, and offer such widespread reward, Colonial Marines' multiplayer is on the best possible track.
Mitch Dyer is an Associate Editor for IGN's Xbox 360 team. He's also quite Canadian. Read his ramblings on Twitter and follow him on IGN.