Aliens: Colonial Marines – Review

Title   Aliens: Colonial Marines
Developer  Gearbox Software
Publisher  Sega
Platform  Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, Wii U, PC
Genre  FPS
Release Date  12th February, 2013
Official Site

Fans of Aliens have had a tough old time of late when it comes to videogames.  Despite their best efforts to bring it back in a big way, Sega’s acquisition of the license has failed to reap the benefits, thus far.  Rebellion’s archaic Aliens Vs Predator was incapable of cashing in on its untapped potential, Obsidian’s supposedly near complete Aliens RPG was canned, and the practically unheard of but actually not at all bad Aliens: Infestation was a DS exclusive.  And so all eyes reverted to Gearbox Software and their long delayed Aliens game to deliver the goods, a game announced first and yet last to arrive, almost five years to the day after it was officially revealed, and even longer since it was first announced.

Back then Colonial Marines was billed as a squad-based FPS where players could issue context sensitive commands to their AI partners, or fight the universe’s most perfect killing machines with friends in four player co-op.  Sounds like the ultimate Aliens game, I’m sure you’ll agree, and the studio’s shooter pedigree boded well for the game’s future.  Unfortunately, as such a protracted development time would suggest, the game Gearbox promised bears very little resemblance to the game they’ve delivered.

Firstly, the squad commands have been axed, replaced by repetitive action with predictable scripting.  And secondly, it doesn’t even look half as good as those now dated initial screenshots (genuine or otherwise) hinted at.  The only thing that’s stuck is four player co-op and the first person perspective.  Everything you hoped an Aliens game would be from the studio behind Brothers In Arms and Borderlands remains a thing of the mind.  It shouldn’t come as much of a shock.  Ever since it resurfaced back at E3 2011 things have looked bleak, to say the least.  If anything, the final game is even worse than what that underwhelming demo suggested.  And yet, purely because it’s Aliens, you just can’t help yourself from having a look, from giving it a go, and if it wasn’t for Gearbox’s faithful recreation of the source material’s mise-en-scène there wouldn’t be much else going for it.  It goes without saying only the most religious of Aliens fans need apply.

Indeed, the game’s sole highpoint is its respect for the fans.  As a piece of fan service it hits the mark spot on: the PING of your Motion Tracker and the BLAM of the Pulse Rifle (still the best sound effect for any gun, ever) is lifted directly from the 1986 movie, concept artist Syd Mead collaborated with Gearbox to help design previously unexplored areas of the U.S.S. Sulaco and Hadley’s Hope, while original cast members Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn reprise their roles as Bishop and Corporal Dwayne Hicks respectively.  Gearbox’s dedication to providing a sensory authentic Aliens experience is commendable and the only thing that elevates Colonial Marines from being the bland, forgettable and subpar shooter it would be without it, because in all other respects the license is terribly mishandled.

Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s highly influential films are a masterclass in suspense, taking approximately an hour before letting audiences clap eyes on a single Xenomorph and even then only showing you H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creations when need be.  What little pacing there is in Colonial Marines is jettisoned into outer space seconds after you take control, an explosion rocking the Sulaco and sister ship Sephora, taking the brooding atmosphere with it.  That is, of course, if there was a brooding atmosphere to begin with.  Only minutes later you’ve unloaded Pulse Rifle rounds into your first Xeno in a hopelessly unexciting close encounter, and the noticeably non-existent build-up of tension applies to the entire stretched out six hour campaign.

Whereas Cameron’s flick dishes out quotable lines and iconic sequences one after another, Gearbox are only content with referencing them, reluctant to serve up any of their own.  When you think the game’s defining moment is about to make an entrance you’re disappointingly left hanging.  The touted Make a Stand moments feature only as part of the standard action, usually while another character fumbles around trying to open a door or hack a computer, and the opportunity to set up sentry turrets and weld doors shut make blink and you’ll miss it appearances.  These instances really needed to be like Gear of War 3’s Horde 2.0, with players fortifying their positions with sentries, sealing doors and vents, and maybe using the odd power loader to fend off relentless waves of Xenomorphs.  Instead, standoffs lack any dynamism, the dwindling number of Xenoes onscreen at any one time rob them of intensity, and their lethargic death animations leave the already so-so blasting even less satisfying.  In the film, a burst of Pulse Rifle fire would tear an alien apart in a shower of acid and icky chunks; here they pathetically flop back and splurge out a bit of green goo, itself never deciding to eat away at your health or not.

Gearbox really needed to go on a bug hunt of their own.  Screen tearing and texture pop-in run riot, characters walk and talk as if they’re articulated action figures, and aliens sometimes spawn out of thin air, because coming out of the walls they certainly are not.  Less forgivable is the lazy story that’s been shamefully ham-fisted into the Aliens canon.  How is the Sulaco floating above LV-426?  Why isn’t Hadley’s Hope a colossal crater?  Come the end credits you’ll still be none the wiser, and even Gearbox go so far as to acknowledge even they don’t know what’s going on.  When the plot should be explaining how events came to be they ignorantly shrug it off.  Don’t know!  Don’t care!

New Xeno types fit in better, with tank, ranged and, for want of a better word, zombie (xombie?) archetypes making their franchise debut.  As familiar these classes may be to the gaming landscape, they do make sense here.  Take the Spitter as an example.  If they have acid for blood, then why shouldn’t they be able to spit acid from a distance?  Shame the AI isn’t capable of diddlysquat.  When you can root yourself to the spot, aim down your sights and pick aliens off from afar as they struggle to navigate the scenery you know something’s not right.  These are supposed to be the cleverest and deadliest killers known to man, and they’re ferocity and strength in numbers in the films should mean you’re constantly on the move, frantically backpedalling while desperately spraying and praying with bullets, naturally in short controlled bursts.  When they’re not getting caught up on a table or aimlessly scuttling across the ceiling in confusion they’re more than happy to run straight into your crosshairs, arms wide open like a slobbering, mutilated Teletubbie.  Perhaps there are no intelligent life forms out there in the universe after all.  One thing’s for sure, though.  Fighting aliens is considerably more fun than fighting Weyland-Yutani troops, who are used even less sparingly than Dead Space 3’s Unitologists.  Once they land a grenade at your feet you’ve got no chance.  Frustrating, to say the least.

So how do the titular marines stack up?  Not well to be honest.  They’re AI is markedly better, so much so you can get away with letting them do all the legwork at times, but otherwise it’s poor characterisation, atrocious dialogue and grade-A bad acting all round.  Winter, O’Neal and Bella aren’t a patch on Hudson, Hicks and Vasquez, and when they inevitably do snuff it one by one there’s no sense of loss, with one particular character death scene so devoid of emotion or effort it’s almost laughable.

Campaign co-op is the last line of defence, and would normally be any bad game’s saving grace.  Not so here.  If anything, it further highlights the game’s blatantly overlooked design issues.  For one, levels are too narrow to hold four players and multiple AI partners simultaneously, frequently resulting in overcrowded disarray, and their straightforward layouts render the Motion Tracker pointless.  By all means make us feel claustrophobic (this is Aliens, after all) but at least give us some labyrinthine hives and corridors to spread out and get lost in.  Spaces do gradually widen out when the action relocates to the outdoors, but there’s no reason or means for players to specialise.  Smart players would want to organise their squad to have all bases covered: one player up front focusing on heavy weapons (dibs on the Smart Gun), two taking the middle ground with Pulse Rifles and shotties, while the last takes on a supportive role, calling out targets with the Motion Tracker, running in to revive fallen players, and maybe turning the heat up with a scavenged flamethrower when necessary.  Gearbox can do smart co-op play – Borderlands 2 proves this – so why isn’t it the case here?

Things fare better in multiplayer, but a limited supply of maps and modes prevent it from reaching its true potential.  Escape is the standout mode, tasking four players to survive an A to B trek across an elongated map as marines, while another four players attempt to stop them as aliens.  Marines unfairly have the upper hand though, not only because they possess some serious stopping power but also because alien players are hampered by imprecise controls and dodgy collision detection.  You’ll stalk your prey from a distance, waiting patiently for the opportune moment to strike, only for your perfectly timed pounce to be halted mid-air because you’ve collided into an object which the aiming arc not even a second ago clearly avoided.  It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve learned to take extra precaution playing as an alien and coordinate your attacks with teammates, multiplayer can be a minor timewaster.  Mind you, the taken for granted wave-based survival mode is conspicuous in its absence, seemingly held back as DLC.  Surely this mode was born for Aliens, was it not?  That we have to wait and pay for it post-release, something that really should have been on the disc in the first place (perhaps it is – just saying) is almost an insult.  Come on Gearbox, you’re better than this

  • Looks and sounds authentically Aliens
  • Multiplayer will keep you occupied, for a while
  • Early-gen graphics
  • Overuse of human enemies. Grrr…
  • Contrived and inexplicable story
  • Serious misunderstanding of what Aliens actually is

When all is said and done, as disappointing Colonial Marines is, it is possible to come out the other side having had a reasonably good time. Be warned: your levels of enjoyment hinge purely on how highly you regard James Cameron’s all-time classic. If you’re likely to geek out over being able to find the lower half of Bishop’s synthetic body laying even more lifelessly in the Sulaco hanger bay, to unload an entire clip of Pulse Rifle ammo into a drooling Xenomorph before it punctures your skull, and to step into the very room where Hudson made his last stand (you can still hear the screams) then Colonial Marines comes with a cautious recommendation, because it’s the closest you can get in gaming form to re-enacting those iconic scenes. If, on the other hand, you want to play a good game with any old aliens in, then stick to Halo 4, wait for Crysis 3, or pray that Creative Assembly’s upcoming Dead Space rivaling Alien game can do the brand justice, for all our sakes.

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One Comment

  1. Lorna Lorna says:

    Great review and, for me, covered all the bases that I was concerned about/had heard about. As a huge fan of Aliens, I had been looking forward to this one for a long while, although seeing it at E3 a few years ago made me suddenly uncertain. Now I know that I wouldn’t splash the cash on this one, sadly. Although there are huge things to draw me to it, such as Michael Biehn on VO duty and the fan-nod locations, etc, there is just too much to tip the balance the other way. What a shame.

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