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In an early deleted scene from James Cameron’s genre-defining film, Aliens, Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) assures Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) that he “and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you!” Unaware that he’ll spend most of the movie as a blubbery, terrified mess, Hudson even tells her how. “We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs — we got sonic-electronic ball breakers! We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks!”
And the team at Gearbox Software got to put all of it into their upcoming bug hunt, Aliens: Colonial Marines (releasing February 12 for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, with an undated Wii U port following). Even the sharp sticks “are represented,” according to Gearbox co-founder and chief executive Randy Pitchford.
It’s a level of granularity not often seen in previous attempts to do the franchise right. But as a 20th Century Fox-approved, canon sequel to Cameron’s film, the team at Gearbox had to step up and make an Aliens game that hit you in the gut exactly like an Aliens movie could. That meant “invoking the legacy” of the films, as Pitchford put it, and then applying that source material to the game.
“To the extent that we’re capturing what was in the movies, it’s really fantasy fulfillment,” says Pitchford. “Every time we saw the colonial marines and thought about how awesome they are, how badass they are, how cool their equipment is, and how gnarly that situation was — and even the specific environments like the Sulaco, and Hadley’s Hope, and the derelict ship from Alien — those were fantasies we wanted to fulfill. Sometimes it’s the script and narrative. Sometimes it’s experiential.”
It’s not easy to deliver on those fantasies when you consider the movies offer very different experiences. “Even in Aliens, which is mostly an action movie, there’s a bit of a monster-in-the-house scenario,” says Pitchford. “Here’s a group of guys. Some of them are going to get it. Who’s going to get it next?”
So while Colonial Marines isn’t short on straight-up fights, it also picks up and incorporates the survival-horror elements found in the movies. Making Colonial Marines its own stand-alone story gave Gearbox opportunities to keep the “who gets it next” tension high and turn that horror vibe into a gameplay experience.
‘The first time I faced off against one of the new species that’s introduced, I felt scared,” says Pitchford. “It’s less about brute force and rushing at you and dying. It’s more a stealthy hunter. And when you first encounter this thing, you’re vulnerable. I did not know where it was, and I could hear my motion tracker pinging. And that sound the motion tracker makes? It’s like, ‘Oh shit!’ I feel I’m one of the guys in the movie.”
That eerie motion tracker ping — science fiction’s version of the Jaws theme — doesn’t hurt with building atmosphere, either. On the Wii U port, it even appears on the GamePad screen. Players will hold it up to find their targets just like the marines do.
Gearbox also had to build out other iconic gear like the M56 Smart Gun — made from a German heavy machine gun and mounted on a steadicam unit. “The HUD of the smart gun is cool,” says Pitchford, referring to a targeting system hinted at in the movie but never actually seen. “This is what they were looking at through that eyepiece. This is why it’s called a smart gun. It’s actually helping me to aim.”
But to really build out the marines’ universe, they had to figure a few things out, starting with a few of Hudson’s throwaway lines.
“You’re thinking, ‘What’s a sonic-electronic ball breaker?'” says Pitchford. “We had to think about what that would be and create it. OK, it’s probably an acronym for S.E.B.B., so sonic-electronic B.B. — what would the B.B. be? What’s the actual name that would make the marines nick-name it that?”
“Oh, well, it’s probably a bouncing betty,” says Pitchford, citing the famous trip-mines that spring off the ground and detonate right about at crotch height. “We felt like geniuses. What else could it be? Well, it was just some improv Bill Paxton did for all we know.”
Unfortunately, Pitchford didn’t get to ask Paxton in person. But after pulling together the right tempo and toys, he hired the right talent. Gearbox wanted to ice its cake with an extra layer of authenticity, so it brought in actors like Michael Biehn (Cpl. Hicks), Al Mathews (Sgt. Apone), and William Hope (Lt. Gorman) to perform voice work, though not always as their original characters. One, however, did reprise his Aliens role.
“And seeing Lance Henricksen as Bishop!” Pitchford gives in to the pure geeky thrill of it. “Bishop’s back! Holy crap! There’s Bishop! I’m spending time with Bishop! This is happening! We’re making an Aliens story here! A real one!”
“It’s moments like those that get you,” says Pitchford.