Aliens: Fireteam Elite appears like a bit of a generic co-op shooter, but it isn’t without its merits. Cold Iron Studios is behind the game, which is a big license for a team’s first title. Granted, the developer is made of veteran talent that has worked on such franchises like Star Trek, Dungeon and Dragons, and Marvel, but that last one never got off the ground.
Senior Gaming Editor Michael Leri spoke to Cold Iron Studios CEO Craig Zinkievich about the game, how he approached adapting multiple franchises, the choice to go for an Aliens game instead of an Alien game, and his theory regarding the four main films in the series.
I know this game saw some radical changes when it was pitched to Fox as it wasn’t originally an Aliens game. Can you speak a little about what that original game was? And how closely does it resemble what you ended up with?
Craig Zinkievich: There wasn’t a pitch to Fox as much as… I guess it was. The Aliens game is brand new, from scratch. I think Fox had evaluated Cold Iron Studios and our team and pedigree and the systems and our ability to do awesome shooter, action gameplay based on what we were working on before. But we didn’t all of a sudden just go, “Let’s just skin this thing with Aliens.”
I think anybody would be just overjoyed to work on an Aliens game. We just cleared the table and started from scratch and were like, “What does this experience need to be? What do we want it to be in the Aliens universe?” And that was Aliens: Fireteam Elite.
You build off of tech that your company builds and the expertise that you have. But in terms of design and artwork and everything, we just lit everything on fire and started from scratch.
Fireteam Elite seems like a more co-op-focused affair over a story-driven one. Why did you want to go that route?
We’re huge fans of action and PvE games. We’re also gigantic fans of the co-op survival shooter genre. It’s just a great genre. When we started with 21st Century Fox, [we thought] of what sort of game do we want to make in the Alien universe? Alien: Isolation did an amazing job of getting that Alien, Ridley Scott horror movie vibe where you’re being chased down by this one monster over and over again.
We really wanted to make a bombastic, [James] Cameron-esque action movie Aliens fantasy that we really wanted to play and experience in the universe. Immediately, you start thinking about the moments where it’s like, “Oh my god, they’re in the room.” And then they just burst in. That is the co-op survival shooter. That’s not necessarily story. That’s just over-the-top action.
Yeah, it sounds more like emergent storytelling of what happens between you and your friends over a written, authored narrative.
Obviously, the game has its storyline and the four campaigns that all link together to tell this story of LV-895. But it’s awesome to, and you put it exactly right, have that emergent narrative where it’s like, “Remember when this happened?” And making sure that can get switched up time and time again is core to making it a really cool game.
It’s one of the reasons the Challenge Cards are the “What if?” scenarios. Like what if everything was a burster? What if we only had handguns? You get to play out all of those narratives as you want.
Each time you play through, the spawns are varied. There’s randomness in there and in some of the objectives. There are heuristics and software and logic working behind the scenes to watch what the players are doing to make sure there is constant pressure and moving people forward.
Is that like when xenomorphs are always stalking in some form?
Somtimes they come from behind but sometimes they jump right on top of you or ambush you or just make your life a little harder moving forward.
Why go down the Aliens route instead of the Alien route?
We really wanted to develop the fantasy of being a colonial marine with hordes of aliens coming at you and you having a job to do. And you get that feeling of being a total badass and you think you have everything taken care of, but then all of a sudden everything goes wrong. We identified that quickly that we, as game players, wanted to experience in the Aliens universe and thought it was core and we were like, “Yeah, let’s do that and make that a reality.”
You all have worked on other licensed properties like Star Trek and even the ill-fated Marvel Marvel Universe Online. What are your approaches to adapting licenses into video games?
I am incredibly lucky to have been able to work on Star Trek Online, Neverwinter Nights in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and a little bit of Marvel and now Aliens. All of these are franchises and universes that are really near and dear to my heart and ones that I am superfan of.
That is the thing I’ve been super lucky in, but also I think a core thing to translate a franchise well is to make sure that you’re making a game that you want to play in that universe. That’s what has driven all of those projects. That’s what drives the team here with Aliens: Fireteam Elite: trying to make the game that we, as hardcore gamers and superfans of the Aliens universe, want to play. You start there when you’re approaching a franchise. That wouldn’t work if it wasn’t a franchise I was super excited about, but I’ve been so lucky to be able to work on ones that I really do love.
Maybe if you make a Care Bears shooter, then a lack of passion might show.
Hey, hey, I might have a closet filled with Care Bears…
I think it’s also on the licensor that has a big huge license. They have to make sure and find devs who are passionate and super excited about their universes.
What do you think about the way in which xenomorphs are usually adapted for video games? In the films, they’re usually quite unstoppable or at least extremely oppressive but often cannon fodder in video games.
I think there was a good number of xenomorphs that got gunned down by M41s in the Aliens movie. If you go in unprepared, then a single runner from Alien 3 would be able to take out a full group of people. But you do play as a colonial marine. They’ve been running into xenomorphs for a couple of decades by 2202 when Aliens: Fireteam Elite takes place. They have weaponry that is ready for xenomorphs.
But they’re still not pushovers. They’re still going to throw numbers at you if they can’t get you with just singletons. It’s about who you’re playing and as colonial marines, you do get your M41 and Smartgun and a little bit of hope that gets you a little bit farther.
And there are a bunch of different xenomorphs in the game, too. The runners, the small ones, as hordes are easier to dispatch on the lower difficulty levels, given the hardware the colonial marines have. But then the bigger ones — the drones, warriors, and praetorians — those are not going to be pushovers no matter what so you have to be careful.
Why do you think it is so hard to make a good Aliens game? In your opinion, how would you say Fireteam Elite sort of breaks the curse, if you will, of Aliens games?
All franchises, when licensed, have ups and downs. Really, it goes back to what I said about how to make a franchise game good. We’re fans of the franchise. We’re fans of this genre of video game. We’re lucky enough to be making a game that we really want to play.
For us, that’s all we can do is. Cold Iron Studios is filled with the market with this game, filled with people chomping at the bit to play an Aliens co-op survival shooter with RPG elements on top of it. So if we can make something that we are happy with, that’s the best we can do there.
I know they are both classics for different reasons, but, personally, where do you fall on the Alien or Aliens side of things?
For years and years and years, I have had my theory. People ask me what my favorite Alien film is and I go into this tirade. I don’t actually have a favorite film because they’re all — in my view, this is me as a fan — different genres of films.
Alien is an amazing horror film. It’s beautiful and fantastic and Ridley Scott did an amazing job there.
And then Cameron comes into the same universe and makes this really tense, really visceral action movie where it’s an escape action movie that’s over the top.
And then Alien 3 comes along and I look at that as a little bit more of a drama than a horror or action movie, even though it has those elements. It still has xenomorphs and they’re still scary.
And then Resurrection is like the art film of the four. You can see it when you start looking at it. That’s where the director [Jean-Pierre Jeunet] comes from.
Nobody can ever pin me down. They’re different genres of films. I love them all and they all work great in their own genres.
It’s cool because the Aliens franchise is so much more complicated than that. It’s not all the same movie over and over again or the same genre. The question of what your favorite is a really good one, especially for this franchise.
Alien 3 may have been disappointing to some on the first watch but it does get better once you look at it through a different lens.
I think that when Alien 3 came out, a lot of people expected Aliens plus one. More xenomorphs, more over-the-top firepower. And that’s kind of the fantasy that we’re trying to provide with Aliens: Fireteam Elite: the next colonial marines movie. Alien 3 stands on its own if you think about it as something totally different.