Light my fire: A critical review of “Aliens: Fireteam Elite” (2021)

This blog is making its mad scramble to view enough media so we can put together some best of 2021 lists, and games is one space where we’re making the attempt. There are a few games we’re either trying to finish or trying to start: some we really like; some we’re really curious about; even a couple that are consistently featured on other, actually authoritative, “best of 2021” lists. However, there is only one game that is calling out for us to talk about: “Genshin Impact,” now free-to-play on Android and iOS.

Wait. Shoot. Hold on.

The clumsily named “Aliens: Fireteam Elite” is a third-person cover shooter set in the universe of xenomorphs and androids that bleed milk. Gameplay is mission-driven, and the co-op setup is similar to “Left 4 Dead” (but take note online-only skeptics: there is an offline mode). The plot shouldn’t surprise any familiar with the franchise: Colonial marines answer a distress call from a mothballed Weyland-Yutani ship. That leads them to investigate some suspicious research on a terraformed planet or whatnot. The point is, there will be aliens, rogue androids and maybe something else, all of it trying to kill you in waves. If there’s someone who works for the company and is definitely not a robot, they’re probably a robot. If you are told there’s no way you’ll encounter the hive queen, you’re going to see the queen.

“Fireteam” is not great by any metric. Its combat is repetitive, and its play options start to look somewhat shallow as the game grinds on. But it has a curious amount of heart, courtesy of solid voice acting and a respect for the source material. Even if it’s not great, it feels good, and fans of the franchise will likely cut it the slack it needs to come off as a fun experience.

One plays on a three-person team – an odd number in more ways than one – comprised of either bots, friends or randos online. There are four to six mildly upgradable/customizable character classes, depending on which version you’re playing, all somewhat distinct. The gunner is a well-rounded shooter; the technician plays more defense with turrets and mines; the demolisher offers crowd control with a weapons set that screams “run into battle and pull the trigger regardless of my teammate’s needs”; and the doc distinguishes itself by sucking. Individual guns aren’t especially distinct, but gun classes are distinguishable enough, with assault rifles more than glorified machine guns, and flamethrowers a colorful but messy option.

What you’ll be shooting with those guns is mostly xenomorphs, and again, they come in varieties that are sort of but not quite different. There are runners to bum-rush the players, spitters to hock neon loogies, and prowlers to hide around corners and provide occasional jump scares. I found drones provided the most variety. A little more than just runners with extra hit points, they had a pattern of taking damage, running into a vent, then reappearing and incapacitating players who were distracted by the horde. Even they weren’t particularly different in appearance or combat, they allowed for a touch of tension. Other than that, pretty much everyone charges at you in a conga line. If you’re observant, you can find a spawn point and pick enemies off as they exit the virtual clown car. At least there’s good feedback on shooting things in the head.

One element that does feel fairly distinct is level design. There are four missions, each one in a unique environment: an abandoned space station, the only jungle planet not to have Predators, an H. R. Giger designed “Ancient Aliens” set, and another abandoned space station except the xenomorphs have been playing decorator.

While third-person shooting does not typically lend itself to horror, “Fireteam” at least does OK as a thriller because it bothers to build an atmosphere. In most of those settings, there’s tricky lighting and small environmental cues to suggest tension. Was that the hiss of a xeno or just a leaky pipe? Things build. Even within the abandoned space station we end up in a waterlogged reactor, and the game doesn’t throw Giger wallpaper at us from the beginning, unlike another title I could mention. So when those jump scares do come, they feel at least earned.

The standout for most people is the voice acting, and I concur. It’s all quite good, with NPC line delivery both enthusiastic and good-humored. Some people complained about the limited character animation and lack of mouth movement, but that never bothered me. I prefer a quality character portrait with next to no facial animation to a poorly mapped effort. I was more bummed by the dialogue. Some of the attempts at comedy fall flat, and not due to delivery. There are interesting moments though. At one point, the ship’s resident robot made an observation about utilitarian philosophy. It wasn’t the most profound observation, but it was done for its own sake while still feeling organic. Not bad at all. Franchise fans might be more impressed by the thoughtful way Alien lore is woven into the script. And, naturally, there are also nods to grand Gothic standbys like the Bible and Greek mythology. Is the xenomorph called Monica a reference to “Doki Doki Literature Club”? Almost certainly not. There’s no K.

There are flaws. Sometimes scripted dialogue will start up when you’re shooting random aliens, so the words are lost under the chatter of gunfire and drooling jaws. Worse is when you trigger some sweeping music while a line of likewise triggered dialogue starts to play. Is it a significant plot point? Who knows? You won’t, at least not until you play the level again, hopefully without the soundtrack cue. At least the soundtrack’s good.

Still, most of the problems with the game aren’t flaws but places where it could be more. It could be scarier, have more Lewton buses and spooky visual effects, sport more varied enemies and boss encounters, and throw more challenges than press X and defend a choke point at the player. The game is fine at what it does; it just needs to do more.

I am starting to develop a criteria for how to judge these sorts of games, and I think “Fireteam” passes enough to be recommended. Combat feedback is good. Atmosphere is good. The sense of humor is mostly there. The slog is satisfying enough. Enemies… are. Classes feel different, and playing with humans versus bots is distinct, with bots dependable but unimaginative compared to the versatility and capacity for chaos offered by humans. Bot AI lags on later levels, which segues into an unfortunate point.

A glance through reviews suggests the “Fireteam” community is spotty. In this blog’s experience, getting matched with humans was pretty hit-or-miss. That strikes me as a little unfair.I don’t think “Fireteam” needs me to be its champion – I’m just a little guy, and the game presumably has the power of 20th Century Fox (technically Disney now) and the entire Alien franchise behind it. It also has received positive attention from Angry Joe, and what could be better than that?

As a sci fi action thriller, “Fireteam” has been rightly hailed as better than “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Coupled with the game’s obvious reverence for the franchise, it feels bad to sleep on this one, even if it’s not perfect. Perhaps a solid community could uplift it just enough to get it the attention it deserves.

If I had to sum up “Fireteam” in a single piece of its design, it would not be its drone-haunted hallways, or the one-liners of Sergeant Herrera or Lieutenant Ko. It would be how runner xenomorphs stumble a bit, like overexcited dogs, when you graze them with gunfire. It’s a cute touch. Off balance, and not enough to make a game, but cute nevertheless.

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