I’ve had many friends wish they were in my position — or offer their assistance — when it comes to reviewing video games. Much rarer is the opposite reaction, where friends demanded beers as compensation for forcing them to play a video game.
This is the dilemma of Aliens: Fireteam Elite, a three-person co-op shooter from the San Jose-based team Cold Iron Studios. Out this week on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series-era consoles, Fireteam Elite‘s biggest drawcard and its failing is all in the franchise.
Aliens is a franchise fundamentally defined by its atmosphere. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is built around classes, combat ratings, replayable missions, difficulty modifiers and, oddly, a lot of cover.
In Ripley’s world, the humans are saved by the superiority of their firepower, constantly on edge from the claustrophobic corridors, cleverness and agility of the xenomorphs. In Fireteam Elite, humans are the aggressors, mowing xenomorph down like cattle.
It’s a fundamental disconnect between Fireteam Elite and its own franchise, and one of many letdowns.
Fireteam Elite starts you out on an abandoned refinery, where you’re looking for a scientist trapped on board. He’s been overrun by xenomorphs, as you’d expect, and so you and two other friends (or bots) launch a rescue mission from your nearby hub ship. As you travel through, you can find pieces of intelligence that trigger NPC conversations with your fellow officers, CO, and more.
But for the most part, the story in Fireteam is about as necessary as the backstory in, say, Left 4 Dead. Cold Iron Studios has structured the main campaign missions in an almost identical fashion, running players through large, relatively linear levels. Occasionally you’ll have a handful of Xenomorph runners drop down from the vents or scurry in on the sides of a vent; sometimes you’ll even find a prowler waiting to pounce around a corner. (Sometimes the prowler’s AI bugs out, however, letting you run right up to them without them noticing your presence.)
But for the most part you’ll be fighting off waves of xenomorphs or synths — like the Working Joes — across the game’s four main acts. You’ll fight these battles typically in rooms with lots of cover and plainly obvious chokepoints. That provides plenty of opportunities — and obvious locations — for setting up mines, turrets and the defensive lines necessary to survive. In practice, that means you’re generally always dealing with enemies coming towards you. When a xeno does spawn behind you, Fireteam generally throws out an audio cue, voice-over line or a notification on your radar.
It’s a game that always gives a fair fight, at least in your first couple of runs through the campaign.
The Fireteam adventure starts by creating a character and picking one of four classes — Gunner, Doc, Technician and Demolisher. Each class has two particular weapon slots (like heavy, rifle, close quarters weapons etc.) and two abilities specific to that class. The Doc, unsurprisingly, is a support-type that can buff teammates and drop an AOE heal. The demolisher is more focused on consistent damage, with a frag grenade and an overclock ability that buffs everyone’s reload speeds. The Demolisher has more direct damage options, like an equippable rocket that is super useful against stronger xenomorphs, while the technician specialises in dropping sentry turrets and helping control space.
Those abilities either recharge over time — faster after you unlock certain perks — or they have a limited amount of charges, like the sentry turret. You’ve also got access to a single medkit, with more found throughout the levels at select points. There’s ammo crates, a necessity given the endless swarms of xenos that die within seconds, and actual crates with consumable items, cosmetics and, occasionally, an attachment of some kind.
Fireteam‘s progression is individual to your class and weapons, which can really pad out the game’s length if you want to switch weapons a lot or try multiple classes. Future class levels unlock extra perks which can be added to a grid, with more spots on the grid unlocking over time. You can equip core perks from multiple classes if unlocked, but it’s generally not until you hit level 3 in a class that you really start to assert some choice over the character you want to play.
Guns work a little differently. As you gain XP with a particular rifle/handgun/shotgun/flamethrower, you can unlock stars which give you small benefits to various attributes like handling, rate of fire, or maybe weak point damage. Much larger buffs are available through the three attachments you can equip: optics, magazine and muzzle. Some of these you’ll earn as rewards for finishing a mission, while others you might simply buy with the scrip earned from each mission.
All of these bits and bobs contribute to a “combat rating”. Fireteam has a recommended combat rating for each particular mission, which naturally escalates dramatically once you graduate from the standard difficulty.
It’s a bit arbitrary though, in a system reminiscent of Anthem. I had two attachments for a shotgun that both had a combat rating of 20. One improved my range and reload time by 25 percent, while another improved its weakpoint damage and range by 20 percent. The latter, however, had a bonus where your reload speed was 25 percent faster if your magazine was empty. Given that you’re reloading almost exclusively in Fireteam because you’ve run out of ammo — that’s how many waves you have to deal with — the latter effectively had three perks to the former’s two.
The live service trappings of Fireteam‘s system are fine — you can see the Cold Iron’s roots in MMOs like Neverwinter at play here. Big Number Go Up isn’t necessarily a natural fit with the Aliens franchise, though, but that’s where the challenge cards come in.
At any stage, players can choose to play a consumable card just prior to starting a mission. Varying in rarity, these cards work much like the corruption cards in Back 4 Blood where you can get extra credits or rewards for fulfilling particular requirements. Some of those can be fairly mild, like bonus experience for finishing a mission without anyone going down or extra credits for completing a mission with a malfunctioning radar. There’s one card that spawns an invulnerable xenomorph drone, who charges and stalks you around the level. Others mess with the damage and ammo output of your weapons; some simply task you with killing a certain amount of synths with headshots.
One card, however, was legitimately agonising. In one session, a mate jokingly played a card that would cause our guns to occasionally jam until manually reloaded. But Fireteam‘s idea of a gun that “occasionally” jams is what most people would consider a major defect. Not one of us went longer than 60 seconds without our guns jamming at least once, and on several occasions every single fight our guns would jam within two or three reloads.
It turned a cakewalk of a mission into 20 minutes of constant frustration, best encapsulated by the deep, resigned sigh you can hear in the GIF below (sound on).
One area that Fireteam does nail is the sound. The guns and screams of the xenos are all on point, and the ambient music and sound do a good job adding what atmosphere they can. The game’s final act also takes place in the same location as the first, but the area is covered in an xeno infestation, creating a much creepier Alien-esque look that’s far more befitting of the franchise.
The game’s performance — save for a few hitches and understandable pre-release frame rate drops in the most intense scenarios — was pretty admirable. I didn’t suffer any crashes throughout my time with Fireteam Elite, and there were no lobby issues in co-op either. The game doesn’t support DLSS or AMD’s equivalent technologies, but Fireteam ran relatively smoothly at 4K on an RTX 3080 and a Ryzen 5900X — although, given I was recording most of the time, I did bump the resolution scaler down to 85 percent for performance.
But Fireteam‘s true weakness isn’t the audio, the visuals or any of the usual hangups plaguing co-op shooters. It’s the aliens themselves, or more specifically, how they’re designed.
When you run from one corridor to another, you’ll notice vents, obvious corners and various holes that Fireteam will use to spawn waves of xenos behind you. Sometimes this catches you off guard, especially in the later levels, but for the most point you have to be deliberately sprinting through the level to get caught off guard.
The bigger issue is larger rooms, like the one seen in the GIF above. There’s multiple obvious pathways for xenos to rush, but the enemy AI dictates that they usually favour one or two at any given time, rather than swarming all of them at once. And when xenos climb across the ceiling or along a vent to charge you, they’ll typically drop onto the floor at the exact same spot — meaning you can just prefire the one location rather than frantically flicking your mouse or controller around.
Waves will usually attack you in this path-like fashion, focusing on a particular lane, switching to another, then switching back, and repeating until the room is clear. Occasionally ranged xenos like the spitter will mix things up, but for the most part everything is trying to close the distance, and you’re simply pumping enough ammo into anything that moves to prevent them.
Even tougher enemy xenos, like the drone, warrior, crusher or Praetorian that appears in the final act, follow the same behaviour. They all charge at the nearest human, relying on enormous tranches of armour to withstand constant combined fire. If you haven’t cleared enough of the wave beforehand — and you usually will have, because you’ll hear a massive sound just before the larger xenos charge — then things can get tricky. But typically you’ll be in a scenario where one player can dodge and the other two can spam their abilities and guns non-stop.
I couldn’t help but think of Outriders as I played Aliens: Fireteam Elite, if only because it understood lessons that Fireteam so badly needed. Outriders suffered from crippling launch issues, server problems, and constant performance quirks. But it shipped with an interesting enough gameplay loop, one that provided enough interplay with the loot and the character’s abilities to justify pushing through all the issues.
Fireteam doesn’t have that variety, but it also doesn’t have a lot of the horror that makes Aliens special either. If there was a deeper loot system, or more engaging interplay with the character’s abilities, or even a more extensive co-op campaign to explore, it might make up for some of the dated design and overly simplistic enemy AI. The final campaign levels mask this somewhat with a more expansive, open design, but it’s fundamentally a trick. The xenos are still running at you in relatively straight lines — they’re just a little harder to see.
As it stands, Fireteam Elite feels more like a co-op shooter wedged into the Aliens universe, rather than a true Aliens experience. You can unbalance the odds by applying absurd difficulty settings and over-the-top challenges, if you want. But Ridley Scott — and Creative Assembly with Isolation — made Alien special because of what you couldn’t see. Fireteam simply doesn’t instil that same sort of fear, and turning iconic xenomorphs into bullet sponges doesn’t cut it either.
After 10 hours with the game’s campaign and a few more hours messing around with bots on various difficulty settings, I was happy to move on. Some soldiers may love the look and potential challenge enough to stay on the Endeavor a little longer. But for most, Aliens: Fireteam Elite doesn’t bring enough new ideas to the genre to warrant the $59 entry price.