Murky shapes take form as they leap into the light, slick, inky-black creatures with pronounced ridges lining their bodies. A shotgun burst drops the first attacker in an instant, its inert body slumping to the floor as a burst of acid blood sprays over a nearby squaddie.
Gearbox Software is a studio of many talents, but the developer's biggest success on Aliens: Colonial Marines may well end up being how accurately it's managed to nail the feel of the famous sci-fi series. This is vital, as anyone who has seen the movies can understand. There's nothing in the science fiction genre quite like the franchise's Xenomorphs, a race of highly aggressive and agile beings with acid for blood and the ability to reproduce through something akin to a cross-species infection. Xenomorphs in Aliens: Colonial Marines slide through the environment with the same sort of ease that they do in the movies, as we learned during a recent hands-on demo of the game's campaign. An unseen network of air ducts connects every room and corridor, so any alien that slips out of sight will eventually emerge elsewhere. Probably behind you. This network of access pathways creates some interesting artificial intelligence challenges for the dev team, as Gearbox veteran and Colonial Marines senior producer Brian Burleson tells us. "The Xenos don't necessarily spawn from the same place every single time. We have this concept called 'bloodstains,' and that means if Xenos die in a certain area, they'll stop coming in that way."
"Just like the film, when the aliens are trying to test the defenses against the sentry guns. They stopped going because they knew they would die. So if you're just sitting there shooting through a door, they going to try to spawn someplace else. So it makes [combat] more dynamic, because depending on where you're fighting, there's dozens of places that they could be coming from. You change the world as you fight through it."
Publisher Sega's first hands-on preview with the campaign covered familiar territory, running through the same chunk of Hadley's Hope that media got its first look at during New York Comic-Con. Players logging hours of Borderlands 2 will find themselves on familiar ground, with the same well-constructed and polished shooting mechanics featured in Colonial Marines. A pop-up radial menu offers quick access to your ever-growing stockpile of customizable gear, allowing you to assign weapons freely to primary and secondary slots.
Feeding this upgrade system is a constant drip of XP that players earn in combat. Progression in Aliens: Colonial Marines carries between both campaign and multiplayer too, so there's an added hook to all potential unlocks. Gearbox isn't sharing the numbers yet, but expect plenty of upgrade options for each weapon as well as a handful of collectible signature weapons, such as Ripley's own Pulse Rifle.
Gearbox's demo gives a sense of how Aliens: Colonial Marines feels, but reveals little in the way of story details. For answers on that we turned to Burleson again. He's obviously wary of sharing any spoilers, but he reveals a bit more about Weyland-Yutani's "ant farm in space" and how this layer of human meddling fits into the story.
"They're always present once you understand that they're there," Burleson said of the sinister mega-corporation. "When you first come across them, they don't want you there. They didn't know you were going to come. So you kind of catch them off guard a little bit. They were trying to do their evil little things, and when you ruin their party... they try to just cut bait and get rid of [everything and everyone]."
"For lots of reasons that doesn't go so well, because the Xenos are hard to cover up. Things go bad very quickly," Burleson added. "That's kind of one of the main themes: you can't control these things no matter how hard you try. So Weyland-Yutani ... they're not necessarily the overwhelming threat that's always trying to get you, but you keep messing up their shit."
There are still many questions to be answered beyond these points. Little has been said about Bella, the female lead who is offered as the game analog to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the films. Bella is a Colonial Marine who is found early on after an unfortunate run-in with a facehugger. Alien fans know what that means, but the in-game characters don't understand the danger at first. The revelation of Bella's terminal condition and how she deals with it is one component of the story. There's also a bigger mystery surrounding the Xenomorphs. Anyone who saw Aliens knows the fate that befell the queen, but there's apparently another queen roosting somewhere beneath the surface of LV-426. Much like separate beehives, the Xenos from one colony aren't necessarily in league – or even visually identical – to those from another colony.
That's all Gearbox is willing to share at this point. Based on our preview time, the studio definitely has the feel of an Aliens-inspired experience nailed down. Whether the story measures up as the canonical sequel its been touted as remains to be seen, but we at least won't have to wait much longer. Aliens: Colonial Marines arrives on February 12, 2013.
Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.