On paper Aliens: Colonial Marines sounded absolutely ace. A direct continuation to one of the most influential and timeless science fiction films of the last fifty years signed off as official canon by 20th Century Fox, developed by Gearbox Software, one of the most renown and rejoiced gaming studios of this generation.
Colonial Marines should have been great. Living and breathing Jimmy Cameron’s universe, a perspective on the future that countless, countless games, novels, and films still unabashedly rip off to this very day, should have made for an engrossing interactive experience that its imitators could hardly match because, instead of playing loose homage to the 1986 film, Colonial Marines had free reign to tap from the source.
I’ve been a huge fan of this franchise since early childhood; my immediate, almost unconscious response to “What’s your favorite movie?” is always “Aliens” without hesitation, and I’ve been excited about this game for a very long time. By the time this review posts, you’re likely to already have heard the sordid truth. It hurts me to say that Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn’t just miss the mark, it makes a vapor cloud the size of Nebraska fifteen miles away from it.
An Express Elevator to Hell, Going Nowhere Fun
Missing after the disastrous events of Aliens, our story picks up as a new cavalry of US Colonial Marines are dispatched to investigate the mysterious reappearance of the U.S.S. Sulaco, once again in orbit over its original destination, the infamous LV-426. In the solo campaign, you’ll control Winter as he and his squad enter the hull of the doomed warship.
Walking through the same hallways Apone and his platoon occupied, seeing the very same cryotubes Ripley slept in on their voyage through space (in her undies, twelve-year-old me would urgently point out), the liberal usage of the original film’s distinct sounds, not to mention the fantastically replicated score…It’s fan service that plays on all the right chords, striking the nostalgia note with exacting precision.
But it barely took twenty minutes for Colonial Marines to show its old, cracking bones. I’d be an inch away from applauding the craftsmanship it took to mimic Syd Mead’s original designs as I made my way through the Sulaco, but the first thing sure to hit your eyes wrong is the severe lack of environmental polish. We’re talking blurry textures, murky coloring, and an overall prevailing flatness in the graphical quality that rivals some of the worst budget titles lining the bargain bin circa 2007. Character models hit a higher standard (just barely), especially the meticulous xenomorph designs, yet humans suffer from jarringly stiff, Ken doll animations, and aliens alternate between erratic flailing and statuesque posing as they glide across the floor toward you.
Unfortunate looks can be forgiven, but harder to absolve are the near constant glitches and spotty collision that pop the bubble of immersion every time you run across one. I’ve seen xenos magically phase through all manner of things: walls, doors, railings, NPC’s, the ground, me a couple of times. Very early on, the game manages a particularly tense sequence where you’re alone in a sinewy, viscous nest, your motion tracker emitting that ominous, single-noted blip as something close steadily gets closer. It wasn’t even two rooms past this promising encounter before I was treated to one of cinema’s greatest and most frightening monsters awkwardly leaping from the ceiling and helplessly trapping itself on the level’s geometry, hemorrhaging any tension this game attempted to build.
Just Another Bug Hunt
Even eye-stinging graphics and atmosphere deflating bugs could be overruled by enjoyable gameplay, but for every high A:CM reaches, it’s instantly brought down by a sinking low. Controls are workable but your in-game avatar feels clunky to move around. Shooting mechanics are adequate – boldly underlined by expert sound design; the hollow sputter of the pulse rifle is dead-on – but weapon balancing is a mess across the board. For inexplicable reasons, hip-firing is more accurate than the iron sight on your pulse rifle as aiming it down causes Winter to uncontrollably rotate his gun in a circle. Shotguns are apparently just as good as sniper rifles in the future given their godlike range. Just about the only weapon that nails it on the head is the Smart Gun and its cool assisted aim function yet its over-powered nature means you only get to use it a handful of times.
Entire locations from the films – the inhospitable LV-426, the desolated Hadley’s Hope colony, even the Derelict from the original Alien – are recreated over the course of the campaign but only serve as bland, static backdrops to the incessant corridor shooting that makes up the bulk of the game’s design. I’m not against mindless shooting, it’s a first-person shooter, after all. The mindless shooting on display here just isn’t very good, though. Enemy A.I. works only insofar as to force aliens to beeline right up to your face until you kindly put them down (if you shoot the right spot, they explode in much the same way nothing ever would). Worse, they hardly put up much of a fight. For the deadliest species in the galaxy, these xenomorphs act outright suicidal.
It’s the countless Weyland-Yutani mercs you run into that offer up a semblance of a challenge, bobbing in and out of cover while tossing grenades at you. That’s not to say I haven’t seen lapses in their A.I. as well. Oh, no, I’ve definitely walked in on mercs unable to do much more than stare at me blankly before I took the freebie kill. That, and poor collision means they have the miraculous ability to shoot through my cover. Thanks to their inability to scale walls, though, you won’t see quite as many malfunctioning humans to aliens. But when you’re given license to put fucking aliens in your Aliens game, why the hell should I be fighting mercenaries in the first place? Unfortunately, you’ll get to ask yourself this question a lot dredging through the campaign.
Besides segmenting the action with a truly inordinate amount of door opening and distracting item hunting, the game throws several set pieces your way that might have amounted to legitimate thrills. Again, the highs are dropkicked by the lows. One sequence has you treading weaponless through a sewer full of dormant xenos that react to the slightest sound. Thanks to an affliction of blindness (even though the bugs are eyeless to begin with), you just have to stay completely still until they mosey away in the same fashion a man cradling a dump in his pants would, eliminating any real consequence and scare factor the scene holds (moments later, turning on generators causes the blind bugs to dance in front of the noise maker until they explode…Ridley Scott would be so proud). Another set piece has you jump into the famous powerloader and fend off a giant xeno. On paper, brilliant. In execution, sluggish and imprecise and really a frustrating waste of time – the same way I’d describe most of this game.
Happy to Disappoint You
By this point passerby are already scared off from this game. Which leaves the rest of you; true blue Aliens fans. Let me be blunt: Canon or not, don’t mistake this poorly conceived game as the platform for a good Aliens story. Despite some very awesome ideas – like a makeshift research station built around the Derelict, which Weyland-Yutani calls “Origin,” in an appreciable nod to Prometheus – the hideous leaps in logic, throwaway concepts, and, at times, canon shattering revelations dropped throughout the four to five hour campaign do little to serve the Aliens universe. Some just plain tarnish it.
A:CM breaks the cardinal rule established since the very first film: make me care about the characters. Instead of the slow build up the films are known for, we’re thrown into the action with a small assortment of cursing jarheads given quirky lines in place of characterization. I couldn’t find a single marine’s motivation to be any deeper than “‘Cause we gotta! For the Corps!" There was a reason Ripley was the revolving factor in the original stories and it wasn’t because she said "Oorah!” the least. I’m confident the bulk of Winter’s dialogue could have been deleted from the script without detriment to the plot.
Unlike the films and, actually, unlike most modern video games, Colonial Marines can’t even muster a proper ending. Moments after wading through a boss fight with an alien queen – instead of a climatic brawl, the fight ends when you successfully push four buttons (which takes less than a minute) – the game suddenly ends with a cliffhanger so contrived and so devoid of suspense, it would’ve been more resolute to simply cut to black in the middle of gameplay.
The Worse Species
Ditching spotty A.I. and the confines of the hackneyed campaign, Colonial Marines’ competitive multiplayer holds some good times…so long as you’re a marine. Huddling in the dark with your squad while trying to predict an unpredictable enemy is the framework the rest of the game should have ran with from the get-go. A small helping of online modes shake up the competitive offering, including one standout that involved completing objectives while enemy xenos attempt to put holes in you. At best, It’s tense and rewards cohesive teamwork.
Playing on the xenomorph camp, however, the experience falls to pieces. Controlling xenomorphs is klutzy and laughable. Immediately, I found the xenos’ multi-terrain advantage to be their greatest weakness. Mounting surfaces is a hassle; simple obstacles like railings and boulders become barricades as you’re left open to soak up what little gunfire it takes to turn you into a green explosion. Considering how long it takes to beef your xenomorph up into something deadlier than target practice, the majority of your playtime will be spent dying. With a game this fundamentally flawed, I don’t see anyone with half a sense taking the licks needed to enjoy a poor man’s Left 4 Dead.
Paired with drop-in/drop-out co-op that damages an already fractured campaign by annoyingly zapping you between locations when a teammate moves a few feet ahead, even the higher points of the game’s multiplayer aren’t enough to score a recommendation.
Oorah to Ashes
The game doesn’t just feel dated, it feels unfinished. What hurts the most is that, buried beneath jagged layers of mediocre design and broken mechanics, the DNA for a good adaptation of James Cameron’s classic, my favorite film, can fleetingly be seen in Colonial Marines. But in an age dominated by first-person shooters, a bad one sticks out like a sore thumb.
I’m not here to judge or exonerate this game’s deeply troubled development cycle, nor blame or excuse the game’s quality with allegations of outsourcing. The final product, however it came to be, is what it is, and as it stands, if I were Gearbox, I’d be incredibly ashamed to have my company’s name attached to Aliens: Colonial Marines.
[Aliens: Colonial Marines was reviewed for the Xbox 360, a terrible choice if you haven’t already made it. The game is also available for the PlayStation 3 and PC; a Wii U version is sadly still in development.]