There’s probably never been a movie licence more perfectly suited to being made into a videogame than Aliens. It features great characters, a kick-ass arsenal of sci-fi weapons and some of the scariest, most phallic enemies in H.R Giger’s nightmarish Xenomorphs. It’s influence is felt in almost all modern first person shooters; games like Halo probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Aliens. With a competent studio like Gearbox on board, and the blessing of 20th Century Fox to make a canonical game, we were expecting something that would help us relive our glorious memories of Aliens vs. Predator. How then, did it go so very wrong?
Set immediately after the events of Alien 3 (and also filling in the bits between that film and Aliens), Colonial Marines kicks off with you playing as a faceless Marine grunt by the name of Christopher Winter, sent on a search-and-rescue on the ill-fated U.S.S. Sulaco spaceship. Joined by other space marines who, in spite of Gearbox’s best intentions, are also hollow and one-dimensional, he’s tasked with a number of inane “fetch and/or kill” missions that purely serve as an excuse to get the player from point A to point B, all while shooting as many Xenomorphs or humans in the form of nameless, faceless Weyland-Yutani soldiers.
Close encounters of the turd kind
Right from the onset, there’s very little in the game that impresses; its graphically rather dated with blurry textures and beset with animation glitches that make the game’s 5 year development all the more apparent. You can tell this game was designed and conceptualised half a decade ago – because it even feels old-school. There’re ammo and health boxes everywhere, no cover system to speak of, no player choices and nothing to remind you that this is 2013. All that, coupled with the fact that your fleshy shell is soft and squishy and just two bullets or a claw attack away from death means you’ll die a lot regardless of the difficulty, sending you back to the last checkpoint to die again. After playing something like Halo 4, the whole thing seems positively antediluvian.
Even the first encounter with a Xenomorph in the game is disappointing, devoid of anything remotely approaching tension – largely due to the fact that nothing within the world seems to have much weight to it. In fact, my first alien encounter was bugged; the QTE prompts failed to show on screen, leading to my instant and repeated death. It wasn’t until I restarted that I knew I had to mash on a button to escape having my entrails ripped out. What little immersion there is is completely broken by one of the game’s most inexcusable misgivings; run too far ahead of your squad mates and you’ll see them re-materialise in front of you in a wavy purple haze. Their AI is unforgivably bad – and they’ll happily get stuck behind walls after completely failing to shoot the Xenomorphs that seem to ignore your squad-mates and make a beeline straight for you.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get much better from there. The lack of tension pervades throughout. I had hoped, based on my experiences with Ubisoft’s excellent ZombiU that Colonial Marine’s motion-sensing ping-tracker would add an almost overwhelming sense of dread to the game, making you question yourself, and whether turning the corner right now would be a smart move. Instead, it almost seems like it was added as an afterthought. Sure, you can bring up the tracker to help gauge where the next onslaught of Xenomorphs might be coming from, but it’s audible even when not equipped – making it so much easier to just shoot at everything that moves.
And that brings up the next complaint; though there’s a veritable armoury of available weapons, they too have no weight or grounding to them and just lack any sort of agency. You get the iconic Pulse Rifle, assault and battle rifles, a couple of shotguns, a flame thrower, an enemy-tracking SMART gun; everything you’d expect. They’re upgradeable too; as you level up within the campaign you earn the ability to unlock new attachments, like an under-barrel shotgun or grenade launcher, laser sights or capacity upgrades – but none of them feel like they matter much.
The game does open up a little more once it moves from the Sulaco to the human colony Hadley’s Hope; a familiar setting, as it where most of Aliens takes place. Here’s where Gearbox’s obvious love of the franchise can be seen in the attention to detail; Aliens fans will be delighted to spot all the references and carryover from the films. Another bit of fan-service comes in the quest for Legendary Weapons; armaments once belonging to important film characters that you can find in the game, often where’d you’d expect them to be; they’re fun to find, but don’t really offer much more than the standard weapons. And then Gearbox pisses away all of that sentiment by inventing silly new types of Xenomorphs; spitters, noise-sensitive exploding things and the crusher, a large rhinoceros-like creature with a particularly tough exoskeleton.
It’s unfortunate that Gearbox’s love doesn’t translate to it being a good game. Instead, it’s a clichéd, stereotypical bravado-laden, gung-ho corridor shooter that’s mildly fun but never engaging, with a diluted narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yes, you can play it co-operatively, but even the addition of friends doesn’t do much to make it enjoyable. There’s one element to the game that does feel a little modern and that’s its experience system. Everything you do in the single player campaign adds to your XP, all of which carries through to the multiplayer’s four modes – so you won’t be left at a disadvantage when you jump in to a game with actual human beings for the first time.
Oorah to Ashes
Of the multiplayer modes that ship with the game, Team Deathmatch and Escape will likely be the ones that are played most. Deathmatches are complete and absolute mayhem. Playing as the Xenomorphs allows you wield as a range of penis-shaped aliens who are able to see the marines’ heat signatures and act accordingly, but both marines and aliens die with just a few shots, so kills happen at a rather rapid pace. Thankfully respawn times are short, but you’ll often rematerialise right in the middle of a raging battle, only to die again.
Survival has you stay alive with your team as long as possible, with deployable sentry turrets to make your life easier and lastly there’s Extermination which has marines trying to destroy clusters of Alien eggs. Escape’s probably my favourite of the multiplayer modes, as it’s objective based. Marines will invariably have to move across a map to an extraction point doing things along the way, while the Xenomorphs try to prevent that from happening. There’s more in the way of multiplayer coming via DLC, including a “bug hunt” mode that sounds awfully like Gears of War’s “Horde.”
The multiplayer’s decent, and the reward of ranking up and unlocking new things as you progress It’s not exactly deep and won’t dethrone Call of Duty eleventeen as the multiplayer shooter of choice, but it is fun. For about fifteen minutes.
Aliens: Colonial Marines stings of bitter disappointment; fans of the franchise will dually be delighted by the fan service, but appalled at the misappropriation of the licence and the liberties taken with the new Xenomorphs; while those just looking for a suspenseful horror title will find little more than a run-of-the-mill corridor shooter. It’s Duke Nukem Forever all over again.