The synergy between character classes is one of the things that makes the battle against hordes of xenomorphs exciting in Aliens: Fireteam Elite. With the start of the game’s first live content season, developer Cold Iron is adding a new brand of Marine to the battlefield: the Phalanx class.
We got a chance to go hands-on with the Phalanx ahead of its release and see what it adds to your fireteam. As the name suggests, the Phalanx Marine sports a deployable shield that turns it into a front-line fighter, acting as your team’s tank. The shield can block melee damage and incoming shots, allowing you to better survive some close encounters with both alien enemies and the synthetic soldiers that populate the campaign. It’s a trooper that’s great for drawing fire and attracting a crowd, so the rest of your three-player squad can avoid being overwhelmed and pick off enemies with a little more space to breathe.
The Phalanx’s primary ability is a shield you can toggle on and off, pulling it out to block damage and putting it away on your back–there’s no cooldown on this thing. When you pull the shield out, it allows you to absorb attacks without getting hurt, so long as they’re coming from in front of you. That incentivizes you to hold down chokepoints and wade into narrow corridors. As lead systems and combat designer Chris Matz explained, the shield is particularly great for taking on the synthetic enemies in Aliens: Fireteam Elite–the shield specifically makes it a lot easier to deal with gunfire, giving you the ability to be a little more mobile while fighting bad guys who shoot back.
While the shield is good at dealing with bullets and attacking xenomorphs that are ahead of you, attacks from the side or behind, acid damage, and some explosions will still hurt. You’re vulnerable anywhere the shield isn’t–but if you can funnel your attackers into a place where you only fight them head-on, you’re able to seriously downgrade their ability to damage you, while putting you in prime position to blow them apart with CQW guns like the shotgun. Your passive ability, Bulwark, increases the damage your weapons do for every attack you block with your shield, so there’s a big incentive to try to keep it deployed as much as possible.
Using the Phalanx’s shield can be pretty effective, but as Matz told us, it comes with drawbacks. First, you can only use hand guns and close-quarters weapons with this class, since you only have one hand to operate your guns. You can shoot from behind your shield, but your movement speed is downgraded significantly while the shield is deployed. That can make it tough to respond to threats coming at you from the sides or behind, but sprinting or dodging automatically folds the shield up, making it possible to quickly escape when something like a xenomorph warrior comes roaring toward you.
Controlling crowds and keeping enemy attention is the Phalanx’s bag, and your second ability by default is the Shock Pulse. It stuns and damages enemies in a radius around you, and creates a brief window in which any enemy that hits you is stunned, as if your skin is electrified. That makes it great for those moments when you’re unexpectedly surrounded and your shield isn’t helping. The Shock Pulse can also be tweaked to either hit enemies harder with the initial burst, or to lengthen the time and increase the effectiveness of the stuns enemies get when they hit you. Coupled with the shield, the ability is great for allowing you to walk into danger and take lots of enemies out of the fight at once, so you and your team can mop them up before they become a problem.
Phalanx is the first new full character class to come to Aliens: Fireteam Elite, and is free to all players as part of its first live game content season, which drops on September 8. Matz said there will be more content like the Phalanx, as well as new guns, across additional seasons. But while the Phalanx came together soon after the initial launch of Fireteam Elite, it was an undertaking to make it–so don’t expect a new character class to drop every single time there’s a new season.
“We worked on this game for quite a while and at one point in time, we had way more kits that we were trying out, trying to figure out what worked and what made sense, and we had some things that really didn’t work or make sense,” Matz told GameSpot. “…Phalanx was actually one that we had earlier on in a really rough prototype version, where I just hacked a shield onto him 100% of the time, just floating in front of him, and we had no way to turn it on or off. And we were like, ‘This is really cool–but we need a whole bunch of new tech to actually make it work right.’ We were going to need a bunch of new animations because if he’s got a shield out, a whole bunch of our [weapon] reloads don’t work. And so Phalanx was actually a lot of work. We had him fun and functional really quickly, but to actually make him a shippable class that wasn’t super janky, we had to do a lot of work to get all of that in there.”
The other element at play was finding the right way to make the Phalanx feel useful and powerful, but without sacrificing the overall feeling that Aliens: Fireteam Elite works so hard to capture–that you’re a strong and capable Colonial Marine who may or may not be just moments from being overwhelmed by a swarm of aliens. Having that shield is great, but it won’t stop everything coming at you. You can block some but probably not all explosive damage with the shield, and it won’t keep acid from messing up your feet should you walk through some. It also won’t protect you from enemies that grab you like the Warrior or the Prowler. You still need to keep your head on a swivel, and when things get rough you’ll sometimes need to stow the shield and get out of harm’s way, just like the other classes do.
As with all the classes in Aliens: Fireteam Elite, the Phalanx is best used in conjunction with a diverse fireteam backing you up. Its ability to tank damage and zap several enemies at once are great when paired with the Doc class, which can throw down a Trauma Station to keep the Phalanx healed to absorb even more punishment. A high-damage class like the Demolisher or Gunner is a good addition for killing enemies quickly to make sure the Phalanx doesn’t become overwhelmed. As the Phalanx, we found that it’s very easy to find yourself thinking you’re in better shape than you are, and to be so focused on dealing with one set of enemies that you forget about another set coming up on your flank.
We got a good sense of how the Phalanx will work on something of a base level, but as with everything in Aliens: Fireteam Elite, there’s a lot of depth in customizing the class to work exactly as you want it to. Though you can’t alter the Phalanx’s shield with perks, you can adjust how its Shock Pulse works to work with your playstyle, and pairing it with different character classes and weapons can help you further refine your strategy.
That refinement, and the way all the different elements of Aliens: Fireteam Elite can kind of snap together like Legos, is what’s most interesting about adding a new class like the Phalanx. Matz also noted that four new guns are coming to the game with the first content season: a laser pistol modeled after weapons seen in the original Alien, and a new assault rifle, minigun, and sniper rifle. The laser pistol in particular adds a new wrinkle to the game: It has unlimited ammo. That’s a big deal, as ammo consumption and conservation is a major part of the calculus of staying alive in Aliens: Fireteam Elite. The drawback for the laser pistol is that it comes with one less attachment slot, making it slightly less customizable than other weapons, and that it overheats if fired too much, forcing you to adjust your playstyle.
Adding elements like the Phalanx, the laser pistol, and the sniper rifle allows Cold Iron to give players more options for how they approach the game, Matz said. Those options might not work in every situation, but that’s exactly the point.
“One of the things I say a lot internally is, my least favorite response to any new thing that I’ve thrown out, whether it’s a perk or a gun or a kit, is ‘Yeah, it’s fine,'” Matz said. ‘Yeah, it’s fine’ is the worst. I’d rather have half my team say it’s so awesome, and the other half say it’s the worst. Our goal for our game is to give players the freedom to find the thing that they want to play and they really enjoy doing. And so we’ve found a lot of that, I think, and it looks like our player base is starting to feel that way too. They’re finding the things that are the niche they want to hit. And some of that is about providing an overall niche for a player of, ‘This is my comfort class,’ and some of it is, like on this mission, I know I want a sniper rifle because those [enemy] snipers are obnoxious. So I’m going to bring one so we can just wreck them. It won’t be that useful in the first half of the mission but in the second half, it’ll really shine.
“I don’t really want someone to say, ‘I use these two guns every single time in every single mission.’ I’m sure there are cases like that, and if you pick some of the more middle-of-the-road guns, you can do that, but I’m much happier feeling when players are like, ‘I’m gonna bring these two guns for this mission and these two guns for that mission and I’m going to swap out my attachments, and blah blah blah,’ because whatever it happens to be, this is the best way to maximize it for that,” he said.
With the Phalanx class and the new weapons, Aliens: Fireteam Elite adds new possibilities for players to make those calls and combinations. It’s also pretty fun letting a wave of xenomorphs bear down on you with your shield out, waiting for them to get in close so you wreck all of them for a change. Look for Aliens: Fireteam Elite’s Season 1 and the Phalanx class to go live on September 8 on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.