Aliens: Fireteam Elite Review
Another failed rescue mission
Not every IP is capable of making a successful transition into the video game space. No matter how cool, how deep the lore, there's always a chance that it simply won't become a worthwhile video game experience. Some have changed their fortunes, like the Middle-earth themed games, while others continue to struggle. One franchise that hasn't had much luck is Alien, the sci-fi horror/action brand that began in 1979 with the successful release of the first feature film. There's been a variety of attempts to bring this setting to the video game space, from first-person horror experiences to more action-focused shooters – but the results have been uneven at best. The latest take on the IP is Aliens: Fireteam Elite, a third person shooter that sends players to an Alien-infested planet. Sadly, the mission is deemed a failure.
The narrative is fairly straightforward – you are a Colonial Marine on a vessel that receives a distress signal from the planet LV-895. You are sent to investigate, and of course find that the whole place is crawling with Aliens / Xenomorphs. As you fight your way through, you rescue a scientist and encounter a secret facility, eventually come across Alien ruins, and so forth. All of the story is basically told via radio chatter and talking to the characters on the ship, which acts as a small central hub. There are one or two twists and turns, but the game is too brief to get anything interesting done. There are four campaigns, with three missions each, and the missions take around 20-30 minutes – leaving you with less than 6 hours of original content.
However, even that estimate is generous when you focus in on the "original" part of it. Fireteam Elite features some of the most uninspired mission design in recent memory. Each level has your team of three marines traverse a linear set of corridors and rooms, fighting off waves upon waves of Xenos. You move and shoot at enemies that sprout from every vent and hallway; as you get to a larger room, you have to pause and shoot for a while as the waves keep coming, halting your progress. Eventually you come across a bigger room and a bigger fight, clearly indicated by the placement of ammo and health kits. You stand around to defend the area for a while, and move on again. It's very stop-and-go, and it's extremely repetitive. This design persists for the entire duration of the campaign, no matter if the setting and enemies change slightly.
Just as the mission design is copy pasted, so are the environments. The same hallways, textures, and even doorways are repeated all over. You will fight through tight corridors of a space rig, slightly more open areas on the hostile planet, and the larger halls of the Alien ruins, but it changes nothing for the level design or gameplay. It wouldn't have been too bad if at least the gunplay was enjoyable. But alas, shooting in Fireteam Elite feels rudimentary and bland. Weapons don't pack a punch, and the absolutely constant gunfire and reloading cycle begins to grate on the nerves. There is noticeable mouse smoothing/acceleration going on, which is forgivable in the game as it doesn’t require quick reflexes, but is annoying in menus. Movement is generally clunky, but at least functional and you don't get stuck on the environment.
The enemies also lack variety – you will mow down probably thousands of Xenos over the course of the game, who have the same animations over and over. Sure, initially it's disconcerting to see them crawl all over walls and ceilings, but soon it becomes run of the mill. They simply run at you and try to perform their swiping attack, which you can dodge away from. Occasionally, and usually during the pre-designed area defense sequences, stronger enemies appear – toxic Xenos that rush you and explode with damaging acid, spitter ones that stay behind cover and shoot at you from afar, and the soldier type enemy that is physically large and menacing, and with an equally haunting health pool. But with enough focused fire and using the team's abilities, they don't offer much threat.
There are only a few missions that feature enemies other than Xenos, such as Synthetics, and they aren't around long enough to make the gameplay feel different. It makes the game's inclusion of a basic cover system even more strange – you are never going to use it, except when rarely fighting Synths who have weapons and shoot back. For the majority of the experience, this is a swarm-defense game against melee enemies, so taking cover is entirely pointless and in fact a detriment to your mobility.
You will head into battle as a marine with one of four classes (called kits); the fifth class is unlocked after you beat the campaign. The class defines what special abilities you get, and which two weapons you can use. The Gunner can wield a rifle and a close-quarters weapon (i.e. shotgun), the Doc can use a rifle and handgun, the Technician gets a hand gun and one for close quarters, and the Demolisher gets a rifle and a heavy weapon. The cooldown-based abilities of each class make them uniquely useful – the Gunner can throw grenades, the Doc can place a healing node, and so on. While you can deploy with all three marines of the same class, it makes much more sense to have a diverse team, and it becomes a necessity on higher difficulties.
Each of the classes has to be leveled up separately, however they do share equipment. Weapons can be customized with a few attachments, and visual color. The attachments and skins are shared across all classes, so you don't have to start from scratch each time. You also unlock perks, which are passive buffs. You have to arrange these buffs on a grid, like sorting through your Deus Ex inventory. As you level up each class, more of the grid becomes available to slot more passive boosts into. The perks usually reduce ability cooldown times, increase your rate of fire with specific weapon types, and so on. This has at least some notable impact – unlike attachments, which promise boosts to your accuracy or reload times, but it doesn't really feel any different in-game due to the lackluster shooting.
The game features two types of currency – one to buy new weapons, attachments, and perks, and another spent on visual customization items. However, everything at the vendor is the same quality/rating, so unless you want a specific attachment, it's ok to just wait until you get a new weapon drop as a mission reward. The weapons don't feel much different within the same class, and while they may have different stats, it's all a wash – i.e. one shotgun may have double the damage, but half the firing rate. What's the point? You also can find/purchase consumables – things like cryo/fire ammo, mines, and turrets. However, other than turrets, everything else feels ineffective; what is the point of mines or a clip of special ammo when you have hundreds of enemies to chew through in a single firefight.
The primary way that the game hopes to keep players involved is by upping the difficulty level. You can choose to increase the mission difficulty on subsequent playthroughs, which reduces the time it takes for a downed teammate to bleed out, how many times you can go down, increases enemy health, increases friendly fire damage, and so on. Playing at higher difficulty gets you more currencies, and perhaps new weapons, but on the whole there's not much there to keep you going. You can also activate Challenge cards, which modify the mission parameters in a specific way, but they are hardly groundbreaking. Some cards give you double the health and no reward; others toughen up the larger Xenos or just change the visuals to black and white for a boost to your XP. It's something, but again it's not enough. The bland gameplay and level design doesn't change.
Beyond the campaign, there is also a basic Horde Mode; an ironic decision, considering how much the campaign already plays like it. In this dedicated mode, you just have to survive as long as possible. Again, there are only Xeno enemies that show up, making for a mind numbingly repetitive experience. In the 20 seconds between waves, you can grab a healthkit if one was dropped by an enemy, and buy a turret with the special currency that's only earned in this mode. After every 10th wave, you get a choice to extract or keep going for more rewards.
Taking on the Xeno hordes will be done in a fireteam of 3, whether you play with others or with Synth AI. The friendly AIs are actually pretty decent, a welcome surprise in a game that's otherwise rather short on enemy intelligence. Multiplayer matchmaking worked quite well – until you get to the final missions and higher difficulty levels, where player population sees a sharp drop off and the friendly AI can't quite cope with the challenge. If a player drops out, they are seamlessly replaced by AI, which is a nice touch. There is no voice or text chat however, which may make things harder for random fireteams.
Fireteam Elite is not a full priced game, but it's not exactly $10 either, so the presentation quality is rather disappointing. There are zero cutscenes across the entire experience, whether at the start or end of the campaign, or in between missions. This makes the story feel completely detached, and you begin to ignore all the radio chatter about what is supposedly happening. The game's hub is a base of operations, which is basically a hangar and a few rooms, with some characters standing around. You can't talk to anyone except the vendor until the story allows it or you find intel to discuss, and when you do talk to the characters, you hear their lines and see the dialogue text, but the models just stand around and offer no emotion or even mouth animations. The menu design is awkward as well, with the effect of the screen constantly shifting as you move the mouse around. And, everything is tucked away under the Esc menu; to back out of menus, you have to right click, which is awkward and not intuitive.
The technical aspects of the presentation aren't great either. The game has passable textures and effects, but the lack of budget definitely makes it look more than five years out of date, and possibly fitting on the Xbox 360/PS3 era of consoles. Despite this, the later levels that feature some smoke effects can trip up the framerate. On a few occasions, the game seemingly got stuck in the menus and the mission wouldn't complete, and we also had this happen after a Horde Mode extraction - it's not clear if rewards were awarded or lost. The animations for both the fireteam and the enemies are rudimentary and lacking in detail, and the enemies perform the same weird looking dodges and dives when attacked. The game's audio is also frequently broken, with the sound of your gun firing glitching out or not happening at all – another dated problem that many probably haven't encountered since the previous console era.
Even when it’s not broken, there is a baffling design choice that drains any potential tension - anytime you're in an extended firefight, you get frantic messages over the radio telling you exactly where the next wave is coming from – i.e. from the right, behind you, etc. On a brief positive note, the music is well composed and fits the setting and the franchise; the audio cues when you eliminate enemies and the shrieks before a large Xeno appears can be decently haunting. Load times on an SSD are also extremely quick.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite continues the very uneven trend for this franchise within the video game space. It has some fun elements – the music and some audio effects are fitting, and the moments when an Alien can pounce and temporarily incapacitate your teammate are fun to experience. However, the very repetitive and bland level design, unsatisfying shooting, and endless hordes of enemies make for a forgettable and brief experience. It's not a great looking game, and the lack of cutscenes make it feel like a generic shooter that just happened to grab the Alien license. Whether or not you're a fan of the franchise, there's little here to recommend, lest you want to experience a third person shooter that feels like it arrived many years too late.