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Xeno-blast: Hands-on with the Aliens: Colonial Marines campaign

Gearbox's shooter locks, loads, and readies itself for the doubting masses

It's mad that we're only now getting hands-on with the single-player mode in Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game announced by a series of flaming beacons on mountain tops (or however people spread the word back in 2007). And for some, it's a bit of a worry.

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This is a very different project for Gearbox than Duke Nukem Forever, the videogame equivalent of a troubled ruffian bouncing from one foster home to the next. It's been with the Texas developer all the way along, from the first talk held between Brian Martell and Ridley Scott that lit the touch paper. All the same, that worry can't quite subside in the face of rational thought.

See, not only does Aliens: Colonial Marines carry the hulking weight of a five-year development cycle on its slimy great shoulders, it also has to succeed as two distinct entities; as an exhilarating first person shooter with solid weapon feedback, enemy behaviour and level design, and as a kind of walk-in virtual museum of Giger/Scott/Cameron fanboyism. Shooter fans and sci-fi nerds. Easygoing bunch, the pair.

You'd have placed your bets on Colonial Marines clearing the fan-pleasing hurdle first. This is after all, as Gearbox never fails to mention, a canonical sequel to Aliens, set just after the events of Alien 3. One plot hole and the venture's sunk. And yet this absurdly anticipated hands-on session demonstrates that actually, the game's very atmospheric. It's tense. It plays with shadows and vaguely xenomorph-shaped silhouettes in that fine tradition of all Aliens titles since Rebellion's 1999 Aliens Versus Predator.

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And damn it all, if it isn't quite affecting after all to stomp over a crest on LV-426, the setting from the 1986 movie, and find the Hadley's Hope facility poking through the gloom on the horizon. It's just as gratifying to be toured through the corridors of Hadley's, passing the sentry turrets that gave up on Cameron's cast, stepping over the acid-soaked floor panels.

Colonial Marines doesn't look cutting edge, but the trumpeted deferred lighting engine (more light sources, higher shadow detail) does a great job of swathing the fairly basic surface textures and architecture in drama.

The atmosphere only lasts as long as the safety's clicked 'on' on your pulse rifle though. When your tour of Hadley's concludes and you're tasked with setting up motion sensors in a series of befuddling identical corridors, the aliens make their entrance with surprisingly little pomp and ceremony. Remember the first time you saw a xeno in, heck, any of the movies? Quite the event.

On the big screen, even the first xeno in a particular scene was treated with such reverence by the camera that you wondered if it wouldn't wipe out the whole cast right here, and you just paid to watch a 40-minute film. That's lacking here in Colonial Marines. Obviously the alien count's exponentially higher than the movies and it'd be silly to treat every enemy as the first, but your AI squadmates don't seem to react like their life's on the line.

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At times, they don't even react like there's anything to stub a half-smoked cigarette out over, tracking xenos sluggishly with their S.M.A.R.T. guns and pulse rifles and lackadaisically taking bites and scratches to the back. For their part, the xenomorphs move convincingly - that is to say they move like men in rubber suits, just as they do in the movies. And that's no accident - it's a commitment to honouring the game's source material, says environmental artist Chris Neely.

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