Aliens Online was a massively multiplayer first person shooter released on the GameStorm subscription service. Players could choose to wield a pulse rifle as a member of the Colonial Marines, or stick to the shadows as one of H. R. Giger's iconic Aliens. Gameplay pit the two species against each other in a standard team deathmatch with limited respawns. Players could fight in one of five initial maps, with multiple games running simultaneously and selected from an in-game chat area and browser.
Maps ranged from a loose reproduction of the colony from Aliens, to a derelict spacecraft with an Alien hive in the lower levels. Every map had cramped air ducts or sewer pipes that the Aliens could speedily, and usually securely, make use of - with hatches that allowed the player to drop onto unsuspecting marines and rend them with claw and tail attacks.
Marines carried a selection of long-range firepower based on the weapons in the film. A lone marine only had access to a pulse rifle, pistol, shotgun, and motion tracker (deployed like a weapon, and not part of the HUD). Up to four marines could also band together in a fireteam, unlocking heavy weapons like the flamethrower and the auto-tracking SmartGun. Members of a fireteam could also open minature "helmet cam" windows for each of their teammates, and see a feed of what that player was seeing.
Kills and victories resulted in experience points, which were permanently tracked by character. XP milestones granted stat-increasing ranks to marines, making veteran soldiers tougher and deadlier. A similar system also existed on the Alien side, with XP points granting the ability for one player per open game to play as the Queen - a bigger and tougher Alien requiring teamwork to take down.
Online gameplay for Aliens Online was shut down on May 29, 2000.
Upon starting the game, players selected their side and entered into a central lobby with a themed UI for their faction ("Staging" for Marines, "The Hive" for Aliens). The lobby tracked multiple games running concurrently on different servers, with near-live updates to remaining lives for each team, or the status of objectives. Players could not spectate matches, but could clearly see who was winning and by how much before joining a map. Players could also chat cross-faction in the lobby, send private chat messages to particular players, or set up private chat rooms (called "Tables") and invite players into them for planning or creation of Marine fireteams.
Maps were multi-level installations thematically appropriate to the film (abandoned colonies, space ships, etc). Every map had a "drop zone" where Marines spawned, and a Hive containing the Alien Queen (player-controlled Aliens spawned randomly throughout the map). Game types generally required the Marines to move through the complexes and reach the Hive, though the reasons for doing so varied.
Marine lives were tracked through "billets." Each Marine death subtracted from the same pool of billets, and when all billets were exhausted, no Marines could respawn and no additional Marines could join the match.
Alien lives were tracked similarly, but tied to artificial intelligence driven NPCs. If the Alien side started with 250 drones, then 250 drones were present in the game world and controlled by the A.I. Alien players entering the game inhabited the body of a random drone, and jumped to a new drone after death. This gave Marines a numerically superior enemy to fight no matter how many Alien players were in the mission, and also allowed Marines to lower the number of Alien players by tangibly chipping away at their pool of lives (whereas Marines were always controlled by players, and Marine billets only removed by killing a Marine player).
Matches were strictly Marines vs Aliens, with no possibility for Marine vs Marine games. Both sides granted varying amounts of XP to players who successfully killed members of the opposing faction. Both factions granted different bonuses for reaching specific XP milestones, though XP was strictly tied to rank. Players could not spend XP to customize their characters.
An interesting note is that Aliens Online had no hard limits on the number of players inside one map or instance. Due to the time (most players still using dial-up) and the relative youth of the Internet infrastructure, lag was a constant problem in all games. Despite this, it was possible to have up to 200 active players inside one map - with the game still playable and relatively free of issues. Community-organized game nights regularly took advantage of this, especially toward the final year of the game, and packed maps full of teams competing in weekly matches.
There were only two sides to choose from, but fundamental differences between them made each a separate experience:
The Alien side emphasized speed and stealth over direct attacks. Aliens moved noticeably faster than Marines, and ran without making a sound. Maps were designed with various tunnels and air vents to allow Aliens to move around relatively unhindered, and players could lie in ambush at various access points. Aliens saw the world through red-tinted vision, and had the advantage of seeing every NPC, player, and enemy marked on their minimap - making them excellent hunters.
Aliens dominated at close range, but were mostly defenseless at long range. Aliens had no ranged attacks and little armor; their only options at range were to escape or close the distance. However, they were unparalleled melee fighters, with fast and vicious claw swipes as their primary attack. The Alien's speared tail could be selected as a secondary attack, delivering raw power with a slower recharge. However, the tail was often glitched (sometimes crashing the user to the desktop) and not always available. A bite attack using the Alien's inner jaws was planned, but never implemented.
There were three playable Alien types - facehugger, drone, and Queen. The facehugger was the smallest and hardest to hit, but also the weakest. Facehuggers could only attack with a weak tail whip, but were still used by veterans for the sheer annoyance factor. Facehuggers also had a separate pool of "lives" than the drones, making them useful for scouting or support. The original design called for all new players to start as facehuggers before moving on to drone (similar to how drones rank up to Queen), but the difficulty of getting kills as a hugger resulted in this evolutionary step becoming strictly optional.
Drones were the standard Alien soldier, and the most common enemy for Marines. Player drones were fast, quiet, and deadly at close range. They could kill Marines of average rank in 2-3 claw swipes, and leap silently back into vents for a clean and stealthy getaway. Meanwhile, A.I. drones were stupid - frequently running around in one spot, and mostly used as target practice for Marines. There were no cosmetic differences between an A.I. and player-controlled drone however, so crafty Aliens would sometimes mimic behaviors of the nearly-defenseless A.I. drones before surprising unsuspecting Marines.
The Queen was the toughest Alien around, with greatly heightened armor and strength. Only one Queen was present on each map, and was controlled by the A.I. until taken over by a player high enough in rank. Players could earn the right to control the Queen by gaining experience from killing Marines. Once they had attained the rank, the first qualifying player to enter the match took over as the Queen, with the option to jump to a standard drone at any time. The Queen had no special attacks (just stronger versions of the same claws and tail), and her large size prevented her from entering air vents and some rooms. However, her armor allowed her to kill Marines easily (especially once Aliens could regenerate lost health over time), giving her some value. Her substantial XP reward on death also made her a frequent target of Marines.
The only rank past Queen was Empress. In-game, an Empress was simply a tougher Queen. Empresses also had the ability to create new matches in the lobby (otherwise maps were selected randomly by the system), though this feature wasn't always active.
USCM - Marines
Functionally, the Marines are the exact opposite of the Aliens. They excel at long range through their superior firepower, but feature no melee attacks. While not as defenseless at close range as Aliens are at long range (Marines can still crouch and shoot), they are still at a significant disadvantage if the Alien gets up close.
Marines had access to 8 weapons:
M41A Pulse Rifle
Pulse Rifle grenade launcher (selected with "2" key)
M56 Smart Gun (fireteam only)
M-240 Flamethrower (fireteam only)
Hand grenades (added later)
Land mines (added later)
The pistol and shotgun were considered "backup" weapons, since they were slow to fire and weak against anything stronger than a facehugger. However, earlier versions of the game included friendly fire for all weapons except the pistol and shotgun. It wasn't uncommon to pull shotguns when following other Marines in tight quarters (like air ducts).
Motion tracker in use
A 9th "weapon" is the Motion Tracker, as seen in Aliens. The tracker displays all movement signals nearby (friendlies, NPC drones, and player Aliens) in a 180-degree arc. The player must drop their weapon to bring up the tracker, and cannot attack while it is in use. Also, as the name implies, the tracker only detects motion. Sneaky Aliens could beat it simply by standing still.
Lone Marines entered the map with the Pulse Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun, and Motion Tracker. To access heavier weapons, Marines had to join a fireteam, where they could replace the Tracker with the Smart Gun or Flamethrower. Fireteams were squads of up to four players who entered the mission together. They were designed for clans or players intending to play as a team, but teamwork was not enforced through game mechanics. Members of a fireteam could activate small "helmet cam" windows for each of the three other members, allowing them to see that member's view in nearly real-time.
Helmet cams active
Marines carried an inventory of ammo clips for their weapons and four health packs. Health packs were bound to a hotkey and replaced some of that Marine's health. Health packs could not be used on friendly Marines. Weapons could be reloaded at any time, but this would discard any bullets left in the used clip. If the player ran out of bullets for all weapons, (not likely, but possible) they were left defenseless. Additional clips and health packs could be picked up off the corpses of slain Marines.
Marines customized their characters using any combination of eight possible heads, torsos, and legs (four for each gender). Marines also had four classes to choose from - Infantry, Heavy Weapons, Medic, and Scout. These classes gave bonuses to a series of RPG-style stats meant to improve the player's skill with particular weapons, or the amount of healing per health kit. A character's class could not be changed once created. The actual return on these stats varied, but overall, were not terribly important.
Rank, however, boosted a player's effectiveness significantly. Compared to the Aliens, Marines had an elaborate system of military-style ranks, with each one granting more health to the player. Ranks beyond Corporal required some dedication, and ranks beyond Sergeant required serious grinding. The tradeoff was near-invulnerability at the Gunnery Sergeant and Master Sergeant level ("rank tanks").
Aliens Online featured eight total maps, cycled through at random across multiple game instances:
Agro V-345Z (agricultural complex)
USS Coronado (space ship)
Station Zeta-4 (space station)
MR-456 Mining (mining colony)
Military Base (added in v2.12)
Waste Facility (added in v2.12 )
Undersea Base (added in v2.12)
All maps were enclosed arenas with multiple pathways allowing for circular movement. The exception to this are the Mining and Waste maps, which required a linear progression through three towers (and underlying tunnels) to unlock the door to the next tower. The LV-426B and Agricultural maps also featured outer doors which could be locked, denying shortcuts to particular sections until unlocked again. Design was not limited to hard right angles, and frequently featured slanting walls, overhangs, or irregular geometry in the hive sections.
All maps featured a multi-leveled design, including tunnels and overhanging air ducts for the Aliens. Aliens could leap high enough to enter these with impunity, while Marines could only access them from ladders at specific hatches. With the obvious exception of the space maps, all maps contained indoor and outdoor areas, with seamless transition between the two. Agro and Waste featured water areas that slowed players down and generated noisy "splashing" when moving through them.
All maps featured working doors, wall-mounted switches, and translucent windows. Lighting effects were limited, with areas of different lighting levels, and lights that could flicker but not fade. Marines carried portable flashlights with a limited radius, that could be toggled on and off. Aliens saw a uniform light level at all times. Marines and Aliens could also look up and down at a maximum 45-degree angle, mostly allowing Marines to look up at vents for attackers, or Aliens to look down and wait to pounce.
S.C.A.R.E. (which is not believed to actually stand for anything) was an offline "training area" for Marines. Marines could load any available map and explore it, facing only computer A.I. drones. Marines could use all weapons in this mode, making it useful for trying out weapons or understanding the layout of the maps. Aliens had an equivalent called "Genetic Memory." A.I. Marines were present in this mode (and only this mode), but would not attack.
S.C.A.R.E. is noteworthy beyond the shutdown of Aliens Online, as it is now the only way to interact with the game's maps. A configuration file can be altered to load without looking for connections to the GameStorm network, thus allowing the curious roam through all the maps in S.C.A.R.E. mode.
Getting AO to work in OFFLINE MODE:
Directions for offline S.C.A.R.E. mode:
Go into your Aliens Online root directory and find the file named "main.dat".
Open main.dat in Notepad and look for the heading "[socket]". Under that, you'll see some protocol listings.
Change "protocol=aries" to ";protocol=aries" (adding the semi-colon prefix). Now add "protocol=single" (no semi-colon). Save the dat file and run the game.
Version 2.21 removed S.C.A.R.E. and Genetic Memory.
Aliens Online originally released with only one game type (Eradication). More were added with patch 2.21, expanding the basic team deathmatch into variants of capture-the-flag and last man standing.
Eradication - Simple team deathmatch. Wipe out the enemy faction's supply of extra lives.
Timed Eradication - Adds a time limit to keep things moving along (addressing a common community complaint)
Capture - Marines must enter the hive and collect a limited number of eggs, then take them back to the drop zone. The Marine carrying the egg moves slower and cannot attack. Aliens can also pick up and return, or hide, the eggs.
Demolition - Marines must carry explosive charges from the drop zone to marked areas of the map. Marines carrying charges move slowly and cannot attack. Aliens cannot interact with the charges, or disarm them once planted.
Stranded - Marines start in a locked room with a timer counting down. When the timer expires, the doors open and no further Marines may enter the game. Marines must make it to a marked evacuation point on the map, with no respawns allowed. Marines that arrive at the evac point early must hold it until all Marines arrive, or until the stragglers are killed.
Retrieval - Marines must locate a data core on the map and return it to the Drop Zone. The data core is a reskinned demolition charge, and applies identical penalties to the Marine carrying it. Aliens originally were allowed to pick up and move the core, but this led to griefing by placing the core in air vents Marines couldn't cross (such as over the Coronado bridge).
About the game play:
Originally, Aliens had free roam of the entire map at all times - including the Marine spawn points. The most notorious example was Coronado, where Aliens could drop down from air vents placed directly over the spawn rooms and kill Marines as they loaded. Maps were redesigned to plug the most egregious holes, and a period of invincibility was added to Marines as they entered the game.
Land mines were also added as a way to give Marines the ability to secure their own drop zones. However, even moderately-ranked Marines could survive the blast of a mine, while Aliens could not. This led to Marines dropping mines at their feet when attacked, which instantly killed their attackers - a tactic disparagingly called "Gormaning" (after Lt. Gorman's decision to blow a grenade rather than be captured in the film Aliens).
Marine ranks significantly increased the survivability of any player, while the Alien side had no equivalent. Gunnery Sergeants could survive up to ten claw strikes - many more if also healing with kits - while most weapons killed any Alien in one to two shots. Higher Marine ranks actually became less respected in the community. "Honorable" Marines were expected to re-roll a character (since actual skill was independent of rank; i.e. a Private could fight just as well as a Master Sergeant), while high ranks were assumed to be griefers.
Marine ranks could also be achieved through grinding, while Alien ranks could not. The A.I. drones used to fill out the Alien ranks were easy targets for dedicated grinders, and the reward were ranks sturdy enough to nullify most player Alien tactics. This led to a number of "Drone Chasers" that would enter empty missions and grind on the A.I. drones - often leaving once they killed the Queen, or dropping immediately if a player Alien arrived.
The dreaded Smart Gun
The Smart Gun was a particularly hated weapon for its instant tracking abilities. Any Alien in range would promptly be targeted by the gun, and a simple click of the fire button would waste them. The gun was intended to be in limited supply by being linked to fireteams, but Marines would regularly form "public" fireteams just for the SGs. Lag also caused obvious headaches for an instant-tracking weapon, and likely made the gun more overpowered than intended. And while Smart Gunners were still vulnerable from behind, the added effect of a highly ranked character gave plenty of time to simply turn around and wax any sneaky Alien. It was later tweaked to have a minimum distance (so it literally wouldn't fire at Aliens in melee range), but could never shake the reputation of being the early equivalent to the "noob tube."
Aliens Online featured a tight, social community, perhaps owing to its focus on cooperative play over competitive (same-species clans literally had no ability to fight each other). Many clans featured internal military ranks and a defined hierarchy. Some clans devised formations and tactics, with shorthand commands given in the chat window. Fan fiction was fairly common on both the official and clan-hosted message boards.
Community nights were not uncommon, and became more organized toward the final year of the game. The Encounter night was organized by the community and monitored by system ops, and regularly drew hundreds of participants. Spokesmen/Generals for the Marine and Alien side were chosen, and picked the next battle according to an out-of-game map. Each planet had multiple installations on it, and winning each map won control of the planet. Encounter ran for two "seasons' (with one Alien win and one Marine win) before Aliens Online was closed.
Some notable clans from Aliens Online:
Divine Right - [DR] Marine KIllers - M*K
Team Kindred - [K] Alien Mafia Family - *AMF*
Alien Killers - A*K Illegal Aliens - IA
Long Range Recon Patrol - *LRRP* Drop Zone Killers - DZ
Veterans - Team Kindred
ALIENS ONLINE R-I-P
When GameStorm was sold to Electronic Arts in 1999, EA examined the lengthy GameStorm catalog and made decisions regarding which games to continue supporting. Aliens Online didn't make the cut. The servers were permanently shut down on May 29, 2000. Subscribers were mailed a free copy of Ultima Online and a one-month subscription as a parting gift.
Despite reaching v2.21, Aliens Online never officially made it out of beta.