Need to know
What is it? A co-operative swarm shooter set in the Aliens universe
Expect to pay: £35
Developer: Cold Iron Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release: August 24
Reviewed on: Ryzen 7 5800H, Nvidia GeForce 3070 (mobile), 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Yes, 3-player co-operative
Link: Official site
It’s tempting to hold up 2014’s Alien: Isolation as the standard against which all Aliens games should be measured—smart, distilled horror where the cold, sterile order of a space station gets torn apart by body horror and unknowable primal threats lurking in the walls. The reality is that in the intervening 40-plus years since the original movie, the series has been equally shaped by gung-ho action and a fair bit of shlock, and just as you can far more easily enjoy subsequent Alien movies without holding them up to the original, you can enjoy Alien games without comparing them to the masterful Isolation.
So with the right mindset, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is dumb explosive fun—a swarm-based action game that’s derivative of both Left 4 Dead and Gears of War, but with a few nice little touches of its own. It has that competent mid-budget feel that’s slowly becoming identifiable as publisher Focus Home’s house style, which is actually kind of refreshing in a videogame series that’s been so profligate in the past. It has sparse story and cheesy dialogue and NPCs who talk without opening their mouths (but not in that ethereal way that can be explained away as ‘artsy’).
Crucially, it’s also very co-op dependent, and whether you have a good time or not will be dictated by whether you play alongside real people or the grey, voiceless bots that stand in for them. It makes all the difference.
Set across four chapters of three missions each, the Fireteam campaign is a slideshow of distinctly ‘Alien’ environments—steamy metal corridors with emergency lighting, bases buried beneath slimy alien hive matter, and temples belonging to ancient cosmic civilisations. There’s the occasional pretty vista, but your trip through these spaces is mostly flat and non-interactive, which doesn’t make for the most exciting level design even if it is in keeping with the claustrophobic feel of the movies. You pull a few switches, grab some bits of heavily corporate lore, but mostly you blast away hundreds of aliens that come streaming out of every environmental orifice.
These claustrophobic levels do have a function however: to heighten the balls-to-the-wall intensity as the walls and ceiling turn black with xenos, who swarm you like angry ants descending on a great big butt that’s carelessly plonked itself in their nest. As you shoot into the dark mass, they will stumble and roll but continue to charge you with hive-minded ferocity. Even on standard difficulty you can quite easily run out of ammo or get overwhelmed, so that sense of urgency you’ll feel is well justified.
The corridor runs and endless alien harassment can get a little tiring, so it’s a welcome change of pace when you reach the wave survival segments in each level. Here you have the time to gather yourselves, prepare your defences with turrets, mines and crowd-control gadgets, then trigger the encounter when you’re ready.
Set your defences up well, get your pals to cover different entry-points, and it turns into a thrilling survival experience. When you inevitably get breached, however, the mechanics can get a bit scrappy—there’s no melee attack, you can arbitrarily leap over some waist-high walls but not others, and the stop-and-pop cover system is only really useful on the rare occasion you fight armed enemies. This is a game best played at a distance.
Speaking of enemies, who knew that there was so much diversity among xeno species? Beyond the classic dark aliens, you have your sneaky Spitters, iridescent-brained Bursters, and red Prowlers who wait around corners to give you a cheap jumpscare and QTE event if they grab you. Gun-wielding synths appear at one point, giving you an excuse to use those cover mechanics, and even the wonderful Working Joes from Alien: Isolation make an appearance. It’s all very goofy, of course, and I’m not sure many of these creatures will make it into canon, but it does its job of mixing up the threat and keeping you on your toes.
There are several classes to choose from, and while there’s plenty of crossover in their weapons and perks, each one also has a couple of unique abilities. The Demolisher, who gets to wield the series’ most iconic weapons like the smart gun and flamethrower, has the ability to fire micro-rockets. The Doc can pop down healing turrets, while the Gunner has an Overload ability that speeds up everyone’s firing rate. On higher difficulties, I particularly appreciated the more nuanced abilities of the Tactician, who has coil charges to slow enemies down, as well as a deployable turret that both shoots enemies and improves your defence when you stand near it.
You can go quite deep with stacking abilities, huddling together to get buffs, and mix-and-matching perks to optimise your build. Most of the guns you procure from secret crates or the armoury between missions can be used by all classes, and the attachments you get for them stick to the gun rather than the class, so you don’t need to assemble and reassemble them for different loadouts.
One of my favourite quirks in Fireteam are the Challenge Cards, which you can play before a mission to make it tougher in exchange for more money and XP. You can add VHS-like scanlines that hinder your visibility, disable consumables, or even summon a towering alien drone to stalk you through the entire mission. Each player can pick one Challenge Card per mission, so you can stack them to screw around with things in a way that’s both chaotic and rewarding. It gives you a lot of wiggle room to play around within one difficulty setting before jumping up to the next.
But all the above comes with a serious caveat, and that’s the human element. Without real people to play with, you’re saddled with bots that make Working Joes look like charming and gregarious dinner hosts, and much of the spectacle, tactical depth and cooperation gets stripped away.
For a universe in which androids make up some of the most compelling characters, it’s a shame that the bots accompanying you have nothing to say. There’s some well-written squaddie banter from HQ over the radio, and some chirpy NPC chats to be had between missions, but when you’re out in the field there’s a serious lack of personality for those playing solo
The bots perform poorly too. Even on standard difficulty I found myself dragging them through the latter part of the campaign. And to top it all off, the online matchmaking system is torrid, only matching you with players who are at that moment entering the exact same mission on the same difficulty as you.
You can’t invite friends to missions that they haven’t yet reached in their own campaign either. Presumably this is for spoiler reasons, but that really gives far too much credit to a threadbare story that you can largely ignore (you also can’t play the Horde mode until you’ve completed the campaign). The matchmaking needs to be opened out in an early patch, because at this point the game is not ready for those looking to link up with randoms.
At least Fireteam’s most glaring problems seem fixable with some patches (and a couple of friends). Yes, it plays into the trashy rather than the artful side of its franchise, but it embraces it, doing a better job of capturing that action-movie intensity than most past efforts.
A fun and flexible swarm shooter that’s a little too reliant on being played alongside friends.