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Colonial Marines use a flamethrower in a Xenomorph hive in Aliens: Fireteam. Img: Cold Iron Studios/20th Century Games

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Aliens: Fireteam Elite is safe to the point of being forgettable

A Left 4 Dead-alike that can’t blaze its own trail

Before jumping into the second mission in Aliens: Fireteam Elite, I activated a challenge card that guaranteed a special alien to appear at least once. In exchange, this granted an XP multiplier — unfortunately, I had misread the second half of this mutator. Every 10 to 15 seconds the Drone, a Xenomorph with the ability to pin you down à la the Hunter in Left 4 Dead, appeared and terrorized my squad. It was so ridiculous that it became a running joke until we inevitably failed the mission. But in retrospect, this high risk/high reward situation made for a memorable moment, and I wish Aliens: Fireteam Elite was filled with more of them throughout.

Made by developer Cold Iron Studio, this is the latest in the ever-increasing array of Left 4 Dead-alikes (think Back 4 Blood, Deep Rock Galactic, or Warhammer: Vermintide 2.) You and up to two other players — or AI teammates in the form of androids — can join forces in online multiplayer to kill Xenomorphs across four campaigns, each boasting three chapters, following a rather shallow storyline set 23 years after the original film trilogy.

You begin this space mission not by choosing between a group of charismatic marines, but by creating your own. There are five classes to pick (featuring your usual archetypes with an Aliens twist around the weapons and abilities), as well as a customizable loadout. After a brief cutscene, you’re thrown into a space station that serves as the hub. Exchange a few dialogue screens with the nearest NPC, and you’re good to go.

A Xenomorph dives at a space marine in Aliens: Fireteam Elite Img: Cold Iron Studios

In practice, all of this feels immensely familiar to countless other games. But while recent examples like Outriders showcased classes with otherworldly abilities and Back 4 Blood is attempting to shake up the formula with its card system, Aliens: Fireteam Elite feels shackled by the ideas it borrows from other co-op shooters. It pays homage to both Aliens and Left 4 Dead, but it doesn’t build on either influence in new or exciting ways. It’s almost too respectful, and it ends up being forgettable as a result.

Classes are fairly straightforward and lacking in creativity. My squadmate went for the Demolitionist, which is the only class that can use heavy weapons, such as the signature Smartgun, or a flamethrower. Myself, as the Technician, could only carry a pistol and a shotgun. As for abilities, I could throw an EMP grenade and deploy an auto-turret. After a few missions I switched to the Gunner, which allows for assault rifles instead of pistols, and it became my go-to class. Its ability temporarily buffs the squad’s fire rate and reload speed, which helped me in pitched firefights. And while there are no microtransactions, leveling up can take a while, and grinding is necessary in order to purchase attachments and new weapons.

Abilities can be upgraded or even swapped for others, but this progression system is needlessly complicated. Instead of skill trees, you’re presented with a grid. Each upgrade or modifier takes a certain number of slots in the grid. If you want more space, you’ll have to level up your class’ rank. (And this can take a lot of grinding.) By the time I was close to having the grid fully unlocked, I had already finished the campaign. Playing Aliens: Fireteam Elite often means hurdling a series of unnecessary progression blockades.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite’s ability tree Img: Cold Iron Studios

Considering how convoluted all of these elements are, I was surprised to see how simplistic the space station hub is, both in terms of personality and interactions. You can talk to NPCs and ask them questions about events related to the Aliens universe, but it all feels so lifeless. There are several rooms to visit, but the Armory is the only one I felt compelled to return to because of its useful purpose. The general art palette certainly gives off Aliens vibes, but without notable characters or points of interest, it feels like a missed opportunity to add more flavor to the world.

That being said, some of the key characters you meet in the hub are fully voiced and deliver exposition during combat. But I was particularly unimpressed with the way Spanish-speaking characters are presented. They fall into the trope of reminding the audience about their origins by randomly switching to Spanish mid-sentence, often without a reasonable purpose. This happened constantly right until the end, and after a certain point I was either laughing or shaking my head whenever it happened. If the goal was to achieve a remembrance of decades’ old tropes around Latinx characters, then Aliens: Fireteam Elite succeeds.

As for the combat: Missions tend to last around 30 minutes, depending on your difficulty of choice and the challenge cards you’ve chosen, such as the aforementioned stalking Drone. Objectives are simple, mainly taking you through corridors from point A to B to either interact with a terminal, or a locked door, or a locked door followed by a terminal and vice versa. It becomes tiring quickly, and the lack of safe rooms of any kind means that chances to take a breath are incredibly rare. What’s more, since there are no checkpoints, difficulty spikes and unclear extraction points lead to complete restarts without even retaining the XP you’ve gained.

Encountering aliens isn’t exactly scary in the traditional sense, but seeing hordes in the distance getting closer to you at an alarming pace leaves you overwhelmed in the best possible way. At no point do you feel defenseless — unlike Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, the marines of Aliens: Fireteam Elite are well equipped for combat. They’re a match for the Xenomorph hordes, but not overly so, and I was often barely scraping by in fights. The uncertainty makes victories far more satisfying.

This tension is helped by a surprising variety of enemies the more you progress through the campaigns, each bringing a distinct behavior to the fight. As you’re fighting literally hundreds of smaller Xenomorphs, the presence of a Drone or a Warrior (the big, scary ones) can shake your formation and force you to rethink your strategy.

A facehugger leaps at the player-created marine Img: Cold Iron Studios

This variety is accompanied by a distinct series of environments that showcase the Aliens universe as a whole, ranging from classic to modern films, as well as Alien: Isolation. While the first campaign consists mainly of corridors, I was impressed by the open areas, statues, and massive walls infested with crawling aliens that awaited me later in the game. Setting foot in the last few levels of Aliens: Fireteam Elite, where scenery reached new heights and enemy variety came together to push back our attack in satisfying ways, felt like a day and night difference compared to the first few levels.

Despite all of the annoyances I’ve mentioned, these later campaigns felt genuinely special, and made my time investment feel worth the grind. But an abrupt ending with an unsatisfactory conclusion quickly erased my enthusiasm to either replay levels or dig too far into the uninspired Horde mode.

I was left wondering what Alien: Fireteam Elite wants to be. Fans of the films — the wider Alien universe as a whole — will be satisfied with the small details scattered around the campaigns. But they won’t get much of a new story in return. Levels can be impressive in terms of imagery, sure, but the lack of exploration does not give them enough room to shine. Aliens: Fireteam Elite wears its influences on its sleeve. But while it’s trying to stand on the shoulders of giants — Left 4 Dead and Aliens itself — it can’t quite make the climb.

It’s been eight years since the disastrous Aliens: Colonial Marines, but its shadow still looms over Aliens: Fireteam Elite. The game presents a solid foundation that manages to surprise in a few respects, but doesn’t quite take the plunge in full. I was hoping this iteration on the Aliens universe would finally be the one unafraid to take risks. But I’ll have to wait for the next attempt to find out if it’s not just a hopeless wish.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite will be released on Aug. 24 on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Cold Iron Studios. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.