Aliens: Fireteam Elite (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 31 August 2021 / 1,062 Views
After 2014’s excellent Alien: Isolation, the Alien series has been rather conspicuously absent from the realm of video games. Outside of a couple of mobile releases and that one absolutely bizarre alien birthing sim in VR, a series which has been known for reliably banking in on branding for soulless cash grabs has been pretty quiet. Perhaps Isolation presented something of a dilemma for the Alien franchise; maybe the thought of having to follow up on a well-designed game with genuine creativity and care was too frightening.
Sooner or later, though, the appeal of all the money behind the Alien branding was inevitably going to entice someone into trying their hand at an AAA Alien title. The only question was whether that inevitable attempt would follow Isolation’s example and be another well-crafted game with actual effort and passion behind it, or whether the Alien series would immediately go back to drinking out of the toilet.
If you're planning on buying Aliens: Fireteam Elite, then I would highly recommend grabbing your toilet water filtering gear, because this is about as disappointing as it gets. Let’s start with the story, which manages to somehow be laughably predictable and completely bizarre. Weyland Yutani is off breeding aliens on a random space station again, because I guess after like the past twenty attempts to control the xenomorphs all resulted in the company's scientists being turned into dog chow I guess the only reasonable response was to go for a twenty first. God knows how much they must be bribing the Better Business Bureau to not have their rating plummet through the floor.
Anyway, if you’ve consumed basically any Alien media before, you know the drill. The xenomorphs being experimented on escape and basically everyone winds up French kissing a facehugger. A distress signal leads a squadron of marines to the space station in question, and you (and two other friends or internet strangers) are tasked with beating back the alien menace and saving whatever survivors may be present.
By itself the story would just be fairly uninspired, but the weird thing is despite copying its set-up so heavily from past Alien media, it can’t even be bothered to resolve anything or end properly. I don’t want to go too much into spoiler territory in case anyone still wants to experience this roller coaster of a narrative by the end of this review, but along with messing with xenomorphs, Weyland Yutani has also taken some cues from the Umbrella Corporation as well, and has started experimenting with a pathogen that turns people into zombies. There’s a big affair about how this virus could easily destroy Earth and has to be stopped at all costs, and then after the threat is temporarily dealt with this whole plotline completely disappears for the entire final act of the story.
A dodgy story might not bother me so much were it not for the sheer brevity of the game itself. There are only 12 story missions available, each of which can be beaten in around 20-30 minutes. This is about a 5-6 hour title in terms of story content, which is pretty slim even with the reduced $40 price tag. What’s perhaps most frustrating is that the open-ended nature of the story feels like the developers just cut off the resolution to the main story and plan on selling it as extra content. It even concludes with a cheeky “welp, there’s still plenty of the pathogen around so you’ll have to stick around and deal with other people who want to use it”, which is just short of saying “hope you’re saving up for those DLC packs we’ve already announced!”.
But even a pitifully short runtime can be redeemed if the game is fun and varied enough to encourage replayability, and boy does Fireteam Elite not do that. Gameplay is pretty repetitive, with waves upon waves of cannon fodder xenomorphs charging you, broken up by sections where you prepare for a bit and then even larger waves upon waves of cannon fodder xenomorphs charge at you. Call me a stickler for narrative consistency, but it’s a little disheartening to see xenomorphs return to the role of minor annoyance rather than terrifying entities that they were in the movies and Isolation.
The real threats involved are the special xenomorphs, which fill different roles. Some charge at you, some spit acid from a distance, and others charge at you but in a slightly different manner. These usually have a lot more health and dish out more damage than your everyday boring xenomorph, but they don’t ultimately affect the gameplay all that much. Ideally, stronger enemy classes should force players to approach gameplay differently, to keep them from getting too comfortable and locked in a routine, but these enemies don’t do that. A special class shows up, everyone focuses their fire on it briefly, it dies, and then you return to your regularly scheduled shooting gallery.
That lack of variety is something of a running theme throughout the entire game. The four classes (five if you count the additional post-game one) play remarkably similarly, just with slight variations that are more of a temporary spin on things than anything that requires a notably different approach to playing the game. The doctor carries around a canister that heals people within a certain range, the gunner lets people shoot and reload faster for a brief window of time, etc. Team composition is less about creating a mixture of player classes that can cover each other’s weaknesses and more about just everyone grabbing the class that they like the best.
And perhaps that’s for the best, because for a cooperative game, there’s precious little way to communicate with your teammates. There’s no built-in voice chat, which for PC is especially miserable. You’re not even allowed to communicate by text on the mission queue to divvy up class responsibilities, which somewhat handicaps most of the notion of this being cooperative from the get go. Metroid Prime: Federation Force somehow allowed for more communication between teammates, and Federation Force is up there with the Star Wars Christmas Special when it comes to things you should ideally aspire to not be compared with.
One intriguing element that does spice up proceedings a little bit is the inclusion of optional challenge modifiers. Essentially, by spending in-game currency or finding certain optional pick-ups in the levels, players can add extra modifiers to make levels harder when replaying them. These are a solid addition, although some of them border more on making the game more difficult by making it more annoying, like one that makes your gun jam every few shots and just resulted in me having to reload every five seconds or so.
Fireteam Elite also has quite a few technical issues, which is probably ironic for a title that describes itself as a “bug hunt.” Especially in the later missions, aliens will frequently clip in and out of textures like they’re attempting to phase through the floor in order to reach the player faster. Another particularly humorous bug featured a variant xenomorph getting stuck in his dying animation and playing an infinitely looping death screaming sound while t-posing in what I can only assume was defiance of his health bar being depleted. Fortunately, all of the bugs that I encountered ranged more on the funny side of things rather than game breaking.
For what it’s worth, there is some fun to be had. If you can grab a group of friends and all pile around a Discord call or use console voice chat on PlayStation or Xbox, Fireteam Elite does provide the necessary tools to have a good bit of dumb fun. There are some tense battles later on when the game really lets loose with the number of baddies at its disposal, and it also does a decent job of mixing standard xenomorph waves up with synthetic enemies, as well as the aforementioned zombies.
Unfortunately the fun is over before it has a chance to really get going, and the very repetitive nature of the gameplay means that it isn’t something I can imagine myself wanting to go back and replay, even with friends and the aforementioned card modifiers. There just isn’t enough here to justify $40, and the fact that this already has a DLC pass lined up for it when the story couldn’t even be resolved satisfactorily is the video game equivalent of selling me a half eaten cookie and promising to regurgitate the other half once I shell out more money.
Another point in the title’s favor is the art and sound design, both of which do a good job of capturing the grungy weird retro sci-fi aesthetic of the Alien films. The music in particular deserves credit for making the last couple of missions really feel like the conclusion to an old Alien film (or, at least, it would if the gameplay felt like it belonged). Character models are a bit shaky, but the level and enemy designs are quite good as well. If all of this had been in a better game, it would have really accentuated the conclusion.
All in all, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is probably what I deserve for getting my hopes up. After Isolation, I finally had hope for Alien video games. Hope that they would start consistently getting the love and attention they deserve. Hope that the now tarnished reputation of the franchise that once captured my weird curiosity for visceral horror could be recaptured within an interactive medium. But just like my plans for Summer of 2020, my hopes have been taken from me and ejected into the cold vacuum of space. Now all we need is for someone to repackage my dreams and sell them back to me as DLC for ten bucks apiece.
This review is based on a digital copy of Aliens: Fireteam Elite for the PC