Aliens Still Can’t Find Its Stride In Video Games

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aliens: fireteam

Aliens: Fireteam Elite is the latest in a long line of games inspired by the classic sci-fi horror films. And just like its predecessors, Fireteam Elite can’t seem to land the mark.

While Fireteam Elite and other games in the series have certainly found fans in their mixed receptions, none has captured such a wide appeal as the films—or their retro counterparts. Save for one critically acclaimed 2010s installment based on the first movie’s survival horror premise, Aliens titles continue to face scrutiny. Why can’t the video games live up to their legacy? Let’s take a look.

Alien and Aliens: A complicated legacy

aliens fireteam
Aliens: Fireteam Elite

When Ridley Scott’s original Alien released in 1979, the film introduced an intense survival horror premise that combined Jaws-like thrills with brutal gore and succinct, albeit somewhat subtle, political commentary. James Cameron’s Aliens reworked the setting for 1986, transforming the series from a thriller into an action-horror metaphor about U.S. imperialism and colonialism. To this day, “Alien” video games are generally survival horror titles, while “Aliens” games are more action-oriented.

There have been many, many Alien and Aliens games since the ’80s, a large chunk of which pull on the Alien vs. Predator crossover. The first Alien game released back in 1982 on the Atari 2600. Three years after the original film’s release, the game involved navigating a maze akin to Pac Man. Players wandered through the levels, squashing eggs and hiding from aliens. 

Little is documented on the reception or sales of the many smaller titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but 1994’s Alien vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar received favorable reviews. Developer Rebellion’s 1999 follow-up, Aliens Versus Predator made the jump from consoles to PC and received critical acclaim. Shortly after, Monolith Productions created a direct sequel, 2001’s Alien Versus Predator 2, which still scores an 85 on Metacritic. To date, AVP 2 is considered one of the best Aliens-themed games on PC, receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews over the years amid fan attempts to resurrect its addicting FPS multiplayer gameplay.

Releases slowed down over the next decade and really picked back up with 2010’s very creatively titled FPS Aliens vs. Predator. Developed once again by Rebellion, the reboot couldn’t quite land the same reception as its late ’90s and early 2000s counterparts. Across PC and consoles, the game only mustered reception in the 60’s across consoles and PC, per Metacritic’s metascore system. Three years later, Aliens: Colonial Marines met an even further disastrous launch. On Metacritic, the game comes in at less than 50 on each platform, and the disappointment of players even spurred a lawsuit against publisher Sega over false advertising.

Coming off such a disaster, The Creative Assembly managed to do something incredible: Make a good game. Though it wasn’t universally praised, 2014’s Alien: Isolation received a largely positive reception and critical praise. Metacritic scores ranged from 78 on Xbox One to 83 on the 2019 Switch port, with critics praising the game as a true survival horror adaptation heavily inspired by the original Alien film.

Now, seven years later, Aliens: Fireteam Elite returns to Aliens and resumes the trend Isolation bucked. The game, launched yesterday, has received mixed reviews, ranging from high praise to disappointment. By no means a failure (especially after Colonial Marines), Fireteam Elite only comes in at 68 on PS4 and 70 on PC, per Metacritic. In true mixed review fashion, some players are enjoying the title far more than others, and reception remains equally scattered. WGTC gave the game 4.5 stars in its review, commending Cold Iron Studios on “a good story, awesome gameplay, deep customization, and everything that makes the film franchise so beloved.”

Eagle-eyed fans will note that Alien received a solid adaptation, but Aliens can’t quite fit the bill these days. After a couple strong ’90s and 2000s classics, including a few integrations into the Aliens Vs. Predator series, Cameron’s action-oriented flick just can’t make the transition to consoles and PCs. Why is that the case?

The Aliens dilemma

Aliens vs Predator
Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator, 2010

Consider what makes Aliens so unique. The original 1986 film perfectly blended grotesque, sci-fi horror with heart-stopping combat sequences. Hitting that perfect blend between action and suspense, thrill and fear, is no easy task for even the best developer. Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2, now a masterwork in survival horror FPS gameplay, was highly controversial when it launched in 2009. The original Left 4 Dead was a slower, far more meticulous affair that relied on poorly lit settings and scary horde encounters to create an addictive zombie horror experience. Many fans complained the sequel tampered with the first title’s pacing, changing the Left 4 Dead series from a gradual crawl through apocalyptic cities to a fast-paced run-and-gun that left little time to stop and prepare for the next part of the level.

At its core, Aliens adaptations have faced similar criticisms. Negative reviews of Aliens Colonial Marines noted outdated pacing, buggy AI, cringey storytelling, and gameplay designs that turned xenomorphs into gun fodder. 2010’s AVP was similarly criticized by Destructoid, who claimed the game offered the perfect recipe for a solid multiplayer experience, but sported a Marine single-player that felt “very frustrating and cheap,” less scary than aggravating.

If Aliens feels cursed, well, maybe that’s because it is. A good Aliens game forces developers to synthesize both survival horror and action gameplay. For that perfect adaptation experience, players must feel on edge, but powerful; outmatched by their environments and opponents, but certainly not out-gunned. The original Aliens vs Predator games successfully introduced this finely-tuned balance into the series’ single-player and multiplayer, but the newer Aliens games have lost the way.

Too much challenge isn’t scary, and too much action isn’t Aliens. A delicate hand from a sophisticated team with plenty of time, developers, and money is required to properly gauge whether players feel immersed in an Aliens setting, complete with all of its intensity and drama. Until then, the lackluster adaptations will only continue to disappoint.