Diving into Cold Iron Studios' Aliens: Fireteam Elite for the very first time - especially if your last videogame experience of this universe was Alien: Isolation - it's probably best to adjust your expectations ever so slightly. This isn't some slow-burn horror effort, tension-filled corridor crawler or narrative-focused experience featuring a terrifyingly clever take on the perfect organism, it's a straight up, action-heavy squad-based shooter that catapults you immediately into the mix against endless hordes of Xenomorphs and never really lets up.
Which is a good thing. We don't jump into a squad-based shooter for its downtime, we're not here for the cutscenes or drama, we came to board an express elevator to hell and we want to go down. Thankfully, in this regard, Aliens: Fireteam Elite has got us more than covered. Taking place some thirty years after the events of the original Alien Trilogy, there's four separate campaign sections here, each comprised of three chapters that keep the enemy targets coming thick and fast, providing a solid eight hours-worth of Aliens-flavoured action to dig into with friends.
And this is very much Aliens as opposed to Alien, an ooh-rah Colonial Marines Corp adventure full of tough guy banter, muscles, massive guns and waves of aliens who are just begging to get shredded to acidic ribbons by your squad of cocky space soldiers. There's constant radio comms chatter with your team back at base during missions, the kind of dialogue Privates Hudson and Vasquez would be proud of, with absolutely no pretensions to building any sort of real tension before your team gets swamped by vicious, never-ending hordes of cinema's deadliest killing machines.
Speaking of killing machines, Cold Iron Studios has done an impressive job in bringing some twenty different varieties of enemy to the party here. There's your cannon fodder Xeno Runner who'll come charging up corridors, down walls and across ceilings in impressive droves, Spitters who take cover and fire off volleys of acid from range, Prowlers who lie in wait in the shadows to jump you when you least expect it, Drones, huge Praetorians and resilient Warriors who soak up huge amounts of damage and require proper teamwork to take down.
Alongside this impressive array of alien types you've also got Weyland-Yutani's sharpshooting androids who come in a variety of flavours, from base level grunt to malfunctioning suicide bomber, sniper and flame-throwing heavy tanks - heck, even Seegson Synthetics' terrifying Working Joes make an appearance.
There is, in short, lots to get busy killing here and Aliens: Fireteam Elite provides you with plenty of ways in which to get down to business. Starting off with a choice of four marine classes - Gunner, Demolisher, Technician and Doc - with the Recon class unlocking once you've beaten the campaign for the first time, there's lots of cooldown-based skills, perks and upgradeable weapon loadouts to get your head around and a nice level of synergy between the various classes and their unique abilities once you're on the ground and in the thick of the action.
We blasted through most of the campaign focusing on the Gunner and Demolisher classes, with the former providing an overclock skill that temporarily enhances the entire squad's rate of fire and the latter coming equipped with a "blastwave" that can stun and knock back close-range Xenos - as well as a handy volley of micro-rockets that dish out devastating damage to encroaching packs of aliens. The Doc class, as expected, heals up troops and provides stims and the Technician can lay down a turret for automatic defensive fire or even booby-trap environments with Charge-Coil traps that electrify and stun foes. All of these skills can also be upgraded through various levels to dish out more punishment too, with the Demolisher's rockets becoming available in a Napalm variant, for example, and the blastwave eventually capable of killing smaller enemies outright.
There are also sentry guns, various types of ammo, electrified traps and so on to pick up from crates around levels, or purchase between chapters, that'll you need to make good use of during the game's many wave defence sequences, setting yourself up with all angles covered before pushing or pulling whatever button or lever is required to kick off the next alien onslaught.
As well as the various skills and gadgets here, each class comes with its own unique weapons loadout and Cold Iron Studios has brought all the guns and their iconic movie sound effects to the parasite-popping party. You've got your M41A2 pulse rifle and OCAP-91 flamethrower - perfect for giving the action a proper Aliens vibe as you fill infested corridors with fire and scream "they're coming outta the goddamn walls!" into your headset - as well as the usual array of shotguns, machineguns, Magnums and grenade launchers. Our own personal favourite so far is the Demolisher's Smartgun, a heavy weapon that automatically picks out its targets, providing spectacularly powerful bursts of precise fire that are perfect for whittling down slithering masses of Xenomorphs from distance, making it that little bit easier for the squad to mop up what's left by the time they arrive at your location.
On top of all of this you've got class-specific perks, unlocked as you level up, that you need to organise on a neat little Perk Board - think Resident Evil's attaché cases - that's tight on space and requires you to carefully pick, choose and juggle around which perks you want and where to fit them in. There are also plenty of cosmetics to grab and weapons to purchase from the store aboard the UAS Endeavour between sorties and a ton of unlockable components - muzzles, magazines, scopes and so on - for each and every one.
Basically everything you'd expect from a modern squad-based shooter is present and correct here, there's no real surprises mechanically, nothing much beyond that Perk Board to set it all apart from anything you've seen before, but there's still plenty to dig into, plenty to unlock and tool around with as you make your way through the main campaign.
Oh, and there's also a nice level of replayability introduced by Challenge Cards collected throughout the game that can be activated pre-mission, adding various random effects to proceedings. You might activate a card that gives you bonus XP at the cost of your marines taking more damage, for example, or fun stuff like having your enemies explode violently when they die or weapons dishing out far more damage than usual to up the carnage levels at the expense of a little XP. It's a neat little wrinkle that encourages players to jump back into the campaign over and over again.
And what of that campaign and the Horde Mode that unlocks once you've completed it? Well, for the most part, it's a blast. Cold Iron Studios may not have brought much in the way of horror or sweaty tension here, but there's still an impressive amount of attention to the environmental detail on display. You'll recognise plenty of sound effects and visual cues from the classic movies and the various steam-filled spaceship corridors, bizarre alien architecture and claustrophobic infested areas take in a wide range of influences, not just from the classic trilogy of movies, but also from more recent efforts like Prometheus and Covenant. There's tons of lore to dig into too as you collect intel hidden around levels and bring it back to base where you can indulge in conversations with the ship's expert in order to fill out lots of background to the events taking place and how they fit into the greater Aliens mythology.
Unfortunately, as the campaign progresses - and after a terrific mid-section that ups the ante by introducing synthetic enemies and lots of violent three-way battles between human, robot and Xeno - the game does begin to run out of steam, the final acts seemingly happy to have you jog down endless samey corridors before stopping at some barrier or other, preparing for battle and then defending against waves of aliens ad nauseum. We get it, this is how squad-based shooters roll, but we couldn't help feel a little disappointed with the lack of a real climatic battle to end on, with the lack of surprises and lack of diversity in mission objectives, leading to an experience that kinda fizzles out on the back straight.
It's also of vital importance to point out here that the level of enjoyment you're going to get out of Aliens: Fireteam Elite absolutely comes down to whether you're going to be playing through this one solo with bots or with a few friends or random internet marines. We spent the first half of the campaign playing solo on the default "normal" difficulty with a pair bots, but then switched up to a squad of human friends and kicked the difficulty up a notch - as suggested by the game itself - and the difference was night and day.
Alone on lower difficulties this one can feel a little bit pedestrian and the rather basic bot AI isn't particularly up to the task of dealing with higher difficulty settings, resulting in a fight against enemies who don't present the level of challenge required to really make things exciting. With a fully human squad on a slightly higher level of difficulty, however, it's an entirely different beast, a non-stop barrage of frantic action that really does force you to utilise your skills and abilities at just the right time in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the Xeno horde.
It's when you're working together in the heat of battle like this, constantly feeling as though you're teetering on the brink of being completely swamped and torn apart, firing off short bursts from that iconic pulse rifle, your motion sensor beeping frantically as the enemy surges forth from every vent, crevice and crack, that Aliens: Fireteam Elite is at its very best. Even with the rather lacklustre ending to the campaign and a basic horde mode that, so far, has done little to impress us, when you get into the thick of the action with a few friends here it undoubtedly delivers on providing a fun and challenging squad-based shooter set in an impressive approximation of the Aliens universe.
For all its flaws then, for all the repetition in objectives, samey defensive stand-offs and a story that falls flat towards its end, this is a satisfyingly solid squad-based shooter, an action-centric Aliens game that does much to wash away the bad taste of 2013's Colonial Marines, and (fingers crossed) a strong base upon which to build with future expansions and story DLC that we really, really hope to see coming down the line.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite mostly delivers the goods with a super solid squad-based shooter set in the Aliens universe. There's plenty to enjoy here, lots of fun nods to the movies, tons of lore, impressive attention to environmental detail and slick Xeno-slaying action that's enhanced immensely by taking the fight to the alien hordes with a couple of friends. It may be a little repetitive, there aren't nearly enough surprises and the campaign fizzles out towards its end but, grab some buddies, get your headsets on and crank up the difficulty and there's hours of properly intense, team-based action to get stuck into with this one.