In the early 1990s the Kenner toy company released an action figure line based on the classic 1986 film “Aliens” which starred Sigourney Weaver as the sole survivor of a grim encounter with the titular monster as she lead a group of unprepared space marines straight into the heart of darkness to eliminate the threat from it’s source. While the film Aliens was a dark and grim action/horror epic about survival against an unstoppable and unflinching species of extra terrestrial killing machines, the action figure line was obviously skewed towards children with an bizarre levity brought to both the characters and the wars they waged.
The toy line included many of the characters from the film (several of which met grisly deaths on screen) as well as an array of Alien characters that kids could use to terrorize their plastic marines. The Aliens in the film were a uniform species of black exoskeletons and silver fangs which stalked their prey like living shadows as they encroached in a hive mentality. But the action figure line bred different Alien species to justify having multiple Alien figures to sell. There was a Gorilla Alien, with blue color accents, large hulking arms and a rubber head which served to squirt water at the Marines, a Scorpion Alien which had a bronze finish and would explode into several pieces at the push of a button, a Bull alien which was scarlet red and had an extending neck to serve as a battering ram, and so on.
This toy line was always very bizarre to me as it took the premise of a hard “R” science fiction horror tale and slapped a Saturday morning cartoon coat of paint on it in order to make it more marketable to casual fans and kids. I bring this up because I just finished the campaign of Aliens: Fireteam Elite and the core thought that I had in my mind during the entire playthrough was that this video game served more as a translation of the Kenner toy line approach of Aliens than the films from which the property originates. Allow me to elaborate.
Fireteam Elite begins by having you the player create a custom space marine to play as throughout your experience. It’s standard create-a-character fare with custom faces, hair, armor sets and even an on-screen voice (although your character hardly speaks throughout the experience). As the game opens up and you play more you unlock even more customization options including new weapons, character classes, special abilities and even weapon decals and paint jobs. It’s kind of like customizing your own action figure. This goes a long way towards making you feel invested in your experience however the entire effort seems to be kneecapped by the way the game seems to go to great lengths to have the entire story happen “around” you and not because of you.
What I mean by that is the entire campaign unfolds with your marine being sent on a series of missions and having side characters converse with each other and carry the narrative forward through radio chatter rather than dialogue with your as the main character. Your commanding officer who is back on the ship orbiting your mission site will explain everything that’s happening to you and even speak to characters that are a part of your mission rather than having your character carry the conversations themselves. It’s very odd to be rescuing a civilian on a mission and rather than you speaking directly to them to hear what’s going on they speak instead to your CO and it all just happens around you with no involvement of your character whatsoever. This carries on throughout the entire game and injects a serious disconnect between your actions and the through-line of the plot.
Another truly bizarre thing holding the cinematic immersion back is the lack of polish for conveying the story in between missions. You as the player can bring yourself back to your main ship at any point and speak with side characters who will help flesh out the lore and goings-on for you. But these dialogue moments are very bizarre as the NPCs will stare at you blankly and speak with fully voiced dialogue but NONE of the characters will move their mouths as they do so. It was incredibly jarring at first and had me feeling like I was talking to an action figure rather than a living breathing character.
Also there are absolutely no cutscenes or cinematics in the game at all which is truly bizarre. When you have moments like an extremely climactic firefight as your fireteam waits for air support and evac from the battlefield, rather than showing you get whisked away at the last moment, the screen simply goes to black once you reach your evac point and brings you to your stats screen to show you how you did on your mission. This was never more jarring during the final mission of the game. I won’t spoil how Fireteam wraps up, but I will say it was almost laughable to be battling through the games most intense and climactic moment as the music intensifies and you fight with every ounce of strength you have left only to have the game fade out as you enter an elevator and signal that you beat the game. I was slack jawed at the disregard to giving the player any satisfying closure to the campaign whatsoever.
The plot of Fireteam Elite thankfully is quite interesting, if not low stakes in an episodic kind of way, and manages to tie in multiple different films into the experience rather than trying to milk the film which clearly it draws most of its inspiration from. There is one campaign in particular which calls to mind the prequel films Prometheus and Alien Covenant in truly effective fashion. I was very impressed with how well Fireteam Elite managed to bring variety into your missions as well as carry the story into new and interesting directions by bringing these films into the gaming experience. All-in-all I really enjoyed the story being told in the game but was left wanting more of a feeling of direct involvement in the happenings of each mission. With your character and your fireteam being nameless, mostly voiceless and basically a means to an end rather than story catalysts I couldn’t help but feel like my involvement in the whole affair amounted to nothing more than running and gunning to help carry me to the next episode.
Speaking of running and gunning, the actual moment to moment gameplay of Fireteam Elite is not only the highlight of the experience, but executes the feeling of being in a fight for survival against the Xenomorphs more effectively than I could have hoped for. Gameplay for Fireteam Elite will instantly feel familiar to fans of Left 4 Dead or similar co-op episodic shooters. You and your fireteam will go from point A to point B in a given chapter clearing waves of oncoming Xenos and restocking yourself at ammo and health caches which are always placed right at the moment that your guns are beginning to run dry. Trigger events such as unlocking doors or calling for evac drop ships will trigger waves of enemies against you which will require you to set up perimeters of mini gun turrets, mines or assist drones as you hold your ground against the horde. It all feels very familiar and is a satisfying pairing of gameplay to this particular IP.
The weapons are all incredibly responsive, diverse and movie authentic. The sounds and handling of each weapon really do feel plucked straight from the film as you will make use of Pulse Rifles, Smart Guns, Shotguns, Flamethrowers and so many more tools of destruction. The satisfying feeling you get as you hold your ground against oncoming waves of Alien baddies with your Fireteam at your side is exhilarating and I found myself more than once quoting lines from the film in my living room as sent these bugs straight to hell.
Which brings me to the bugs themselves and the games biggest connection to the previously mentioned action figure line. Aliens Fireteam Elite has a variety of different Xenos to dispatch each with their own special skills and color coding, just like the toys. You have Spitters, Runners, Warriors, Crushers and so much more to contend with. This brings a much needed sense of variety and challenge to the game which I appreciate, but is a vary stark deviation from the source material and had me feeling more and more like I was playing a Saturday Morning Cartoon version of Aliens rather than a true translation of the atmosphere of the films. Being charged by big red Aliens which looked like Bulls or having lime green Spitters hiding behind blockades and lobbing acid spit at me throughout the experience just made the game feel a little lighter and less oppressive than I was hoping for from this experience.
It may sound like I’m coming down harsh on Fireteam Elite but truth be told I had a wonderful experience with the game. The moment to moment gameplay is a blast, the graphics and aesthetics are truly on point really making you feel like you’re on set of an Aliens film. I enjoyed leveling up and customizing me Marine hero to send on adventures and switching out my character class and loadout to vary my gameplay experience. The game sits perfectly with a budget $40 price point and I think it’s worth the price of admission if you are a die-hard fan of the franchise like myself. Just temper your expectations for tone and polish and you can have a ton of fun blasting bugs with your space marine heroes either solo or with your friends, just like you did when you were young with a pile of action figures.