Aliens: Colonial Marines is not just a game that ties into the popular film series. It is also canon, an officially endorsed part of the films' larger universe, but it's more than that, too. It is the official sequel to James Cameron's 1986 film blockbuster Aliens. Yes, you read that correctly: the official sequel.
A few months ago I spoke to Gearbox's John Mulkey, Design Director on the game, and he explained how Gearbox cooperated with the studio to craft a canonical new part of the Alien universe.
"Brian Martel, the Creative Director on the project and one of the owners of Gearbox, he's just the biggest Aliens nerd you could ever find on the planet," Mulkey said. "It was really important to him to not just make the game, but make something that was real. That's how we got the opportunity to make something that's actually in the canon."
I asked how Gearbox got the studio to sign off on the game being declared canon, and Mulkey smiled and shrugged. "I don't know how, but they did it! We got to work with Ridley Scott and go through the original storyboard script for Alien, with all his little hand-written notes and everything," he recalled. "Martel and Ridley talked about the motivations for the aliens and all that kind of stuff, and that was a great insight, you know?"
"We've got drawings from Syd Mead, who worked on the project with us," Mulkey said. Mead designed much of the future technology used in Aliens, so the Gearbox team was enthusiastic about having him on board. "We have been working with Fox, because we've been adding new xenomorphs to the canon, so they are official," Mulkey added. "We've had great access to archives, props, and original drawings."
Exactly where the game fits into the film chronology is a little complicated, as it takes place in the same locations as Aliens, but occurs after the conclusion of Alien 3. Mulkey set the scene: "At the beginning of Alien 3 we see something terrible happen on the Sulaco, the EEV gets ejected, and it's presumed that the ship gets destroyed in orbit."
"At the beginning of our game, you get the distress call from Corporal Hicks," he explained. "So you're going in as a group to respond to this distress call that came from LV-426. When you show up, the Sulaco is there in orbit, and it's like, what the hell is going on? So they send in a bunch of marines and, as has to happen, everything goes to hell."
Gearbox are keeping many story details close to the chests, but Mulkey talked about a few of the game locations, including the Sulaco and the nuked remains of the colony below. "You get to go back on board the Sulaco, you get to go down onto LV-426, you get to explore what's left of Hadley's Hope," he said, and then talked about a new location. "It's a facility that's nestled in under the derelict spacecraft that you saw in Alien, which is another location you get sent to. The derelict makes a really good backdrop - it's awesome."
Asked how the team went about deciding what to include, Mulkey smiled and called the process "wish fulfilment". "I myself am a huge fan of the franchise, and I think, okay, there's going to be a new Aliens game. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? It's like, I want to get in a power loader and I want to crush aliens! And we're like, okay cool, let's do that!"
"One of the great things about doing the sequel to Aliens as an interactive experience is that we're not a two hour movie. We're a ten-plus hour game. We've got a lot of room to play with, we can do some cool stuff! We can do a lot of locations and do a lot of things."
The main story mode of Aliens: Colonial Marine promises around a dozen hours of play for a solo player or for up to four friends playing co-operatively. "We're trying to integrate it, so the goal is that if you're playing it by yourself, strong experience, and if you play with your friends, it's still a really great, strong experience," Mulkey said. "We're looking to do things as we go through the maps and missions where we will cater to the idea of being co-op, different approaches and strategies."
"It's not an open world game, so it's a relatively linear narrative, but in game design we refer to it as the 'wide hallway'," he explained. "It's directed, but you have options. There's lots of different approaches to what you're going to do, but ultimately it's following a linear narrative. This is the sequel to the movie, you know? There's a strong story to be told."
Beyond the story, there is also a wide selection of multiplayer content, starting with the basic six-on-six team deathmatch, aliens against marines. Many other game modes will also be offered, though details are scarce right now.
I felt that some kind of wave-based "horde mode" would be an obvious choice, so I asked if that would be included. Mulkey was cagey. "I can't say yes, because we haven't announced certain things, but what I can say is we're going to have other game modes that are more objective-based. There are some really cool ones that fit right into the franchise."
Aliens: Colonial Marines is scheduled for release in February 2013 on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii U. Mulkey was especially excited about the Wii U version, saying, "The controller for the Wii U means you've got the motion tracker from the movie in your hands!"
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez