I keep pace close behind O’Neal as inky black shapes spill across the ceiling above us with liquid grace. Sprays of fire from his Smart Gun give the Xenos a brief pause, but their terrifying advance continues. We reach a sealed door that O’Neal stops to cut through while I hold our position. Four of the alien terrors drop down in front of me as I heft my grenade launcher and squeeze the trigger, expecting to send the Xenomorph attackers back into the pit of Hell whence they came! The explosion that follows leaves me dead on the floor when I clip into O’Neal and detonate the grenade inside him.
Five attempts, five failures. Less than an hour into Gearbox Software’s Aliens: Colonial Marines and defeat already weighs heavy. Here’s the short version: this is not a good game.
Everyone Can Hear You Scream
Aliens: Colonial Marines is positioned as a canonical entry in the franchise created by Ridley Scott. The story is very much a direct sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens – a film regarded by most as one of the best movie sequels of all time – but it is further informed by the events of subsequent films as well, including the recently released Prometheus. Given all of that, you might expect that a great deal of care was put into ensuring that this game’s narrative manages to at least hit the low bar set by Alien: Resurrection.
You’d be wrong. So very, very wrong.
There are Xenomorphs here. So too is there the ever-present menace of Weyland-Yutani, mucking things up as it always has for people who don’t know any better. Space marines spouting one-liners, acid blood, the iconic hum of pulse rifles. Check, check, check. Purely on a surface level, Colonial Marines walks, talks, and shoots like an Aliens story. One critical element seems to have been forgotten, or perhaps ignored, however: any sense of connection to the themes that drive this series.
There are motifs aplenty. Familiar riffs on Alien lore that are obvious enough to make even a passing fan take notice. Xenos burst from chests at story-appropriate moments. The visual blueprint established by H.R. Giger in the original continues to reign. Misdirection and corporate intrigue drive many of the key events. Unfortunately, the beating heart of Alien and its successors is nowhere to be found.
There’s no effort put into exposing the scared child beneath the toughened soldier’s veneer, no creeping sense of dread over a smarter, faster, and more dangerous enemy. The use of a male protagonist is a betrayal of a fundamental focus on kickass females throughout the series, and the facehugged character of Bella is a pale, inadequate substitute. As an Alien-inspired story, or even an Aliens-inspired story, Colonial Marines fails to live up in every conceivable way.
Game Over, Man
Okay, fouled up story. No big deal, right? Games don’t necessarily have the greatest history with narratives, and while one would hope that a canonical sequel set within the Alien universe would deliver, exceptions can be made in the name of fun. Right?
Nope. Aliens: Colonial Marines mucks that up too. At times while playing this game it was tough to let go of the fact that this is a title that was originally announced back in 2008. In fact, from moment one onward, the game does it’s best to remind you that it is, in fact, the product of a five-year (or more) effort.
At the most basic level, the graphics on both PC and console are sub-par. Lighting effects lean in the direction of impressive, but the textures that are lit up lack detail. This issue is most apparent when it comes to character models and faces. The quality of the animation would have resulted in raised eyebrows at the start of this console generation; it’s flat-out unacceptable now. Some of the wider vistas look okay, but nothing holds up on close inspection.
This holds true for the Xenos as well, which look positively “off.” New flavors of Xenomorphs fill out a more diverse cast of enemies than the movies ever offered. There are some cool ideas here, to be sure. Acid-spitting wall-crawlers that snipe you from shadowy corners. Stumbling, blind Boilers that run at a target and explode when they detect movement. The fearsome Crusher, twice as large as any Xeno we’ve seen previously, with a name that doubles as an apt description of its hard-headed combat strategy.
None of this pans out in practice. Xenos move with a degree of jerkiness that is borderline comical. They constantly clip through walls, floors, and ceilings. Rather than using their agility and sharp tactical minds to flank around and attack from multiple sides, they fall into the same pattern of “rush the noisiest, closest marine and attack until dead.” Strangely, there is a painfully awkward stealth section to the game that establishes that the Xenomorphs sense movement, so if you freeze they won’t know you are there. This rule is shattered the first time you try in combat though, as the aliens will swerve around your useless AI controlled companions and come right at you.
Gun-toting Weyland-Yutani mercs-for-hire fill out the other half of your chief opposition throughout the game, presenting more of a familiar shooter-y challenge. Their tactics typically mirror those of the Xenos — focus on the loudest and closest — though they also, of course, tend to take cover and rely on their ranged combat capabilities. Character animations are similarly sub-par with these enemies; they move and behave like robots. There’s no sense of life or tactical thinking. They follow their scripting AI routines, even if that means guaranteed death.
Then there’s the quality of the controls. Here’s a telling anecdote: upon taking control for the first time in the game, I immediately dropped my controller with a disgusted look on my face at how floaty the movement felt. My first act in Colonial Marines wasn’t to start exploring this new story that I was still excited to digest at the time. Instead, I took a good five minutes getting the aiming sensitivity right. Moving through the world over the course of the 5-6 hour campaign never felt anything more than merely “acceptable.”
Combat is often an exercise in patience, especially at any difficulty setting higher than the low-end “Recruit.” Aliens: Colonial Marines features snap-to aiming that is somehow hideously broken. Hit the left trigger to aim down your sights and the snap-to will, bizarrely and without fail, position itself just to the right of the enemy’s midsection. This is presumably meant to make the stone-dumb enemies seem somewhat challenging, but it’s a quickly shattered illusion. This isn’t a difficult game, just a poorly made one.
That’s the thing too. There are some killer ideas here. Flashes of brilliance behind the spectacular failure. Whether it’s a towering Xeno suddenly emerging from behind a wall of steam or the giant leg of a Xeno queen slamming down inches behind you just as you spin around to face it, Colonial Marines occasionally taps into moments of true terror. If not for the across-the-board lackluster design, this might have actually turned out to be a quality interactive Aliens experience.
Sit for a moment and ponder the ridiculousness of that statement before moving onto the next section.
Suit Up, Marines
The only saving grace in Aliens: Colonial Marines – and this is still a stretch – is the online support. Drop-in/drop-out co-op for up to four players throughout the campaign is highly recommended if you should choose to take on this game. Not only does having extra humans in your game cut down on the number of checkpoint restarts – which are too few, and too distantly spaced – but it also gives you someone to laugh with at how bad everything is.
Be warned, however: online play also has a tendency to aggravate the game’s many bugs, and just with the Xenos. While playing in co-op, all of these things happened to either my partner or I: clipping into a wall and being rendered unrevivable after being downed; trading revives back and forth after being caught by a giant, unkillable Xeno in a death loop; one character floating in the air above everyone else as an elevator descends; the entire heads-up and gun hand disappearing for the length of a match; a multiplayer match starting with the camera somehow set to a tightly pulled in third-person perspective; so, so, so much more besides.
Support for co-op through the whole story helps to abate the disaster somewhat, but the lousy taste of this poorly made game never quite disappears. You’ll laugh with your co-op partners about how terrible everything is, but it’s strained laughter, tempered constantly by the reminder that this is a game you spent $60 on.
Things marginally improve in adversarial multiplayer. Team Deathmatch is joined by three objective-based modes that pit small teams of marines against equally small teams of Xenos, with a maximum of 6v6. Character progression carries over between campaign and online, so any gear or attachments that you’ve unlocked from playing through the story will be immediately accessible for marine loadouts on the multiplayer side. Xenos have a separate level progression that is unaffected by your campaign progress since you can only play as them in competitive modes.
Unfortunately, the Xenos don’t control well at all, leading to the feeling that multiplayer is woefully unbalanced. Maybe it’s a product of the fact that most marines start out with added loadout unlocks, earned from leveling up during the campaign. Or maybe it’s the fact that the Xenos themselves move too slowly, do too little damage, and vacillate between acceptable and dizzying control sensitivities whenever you switch to wall-crawling mode.
It would be easy to go on and on about the many failings of Aliens: Colonial Marines, but what’s the point? The fundamentals of this game are so terrible that there’s little value in nitpicking smaller missteps. It’s best if we just shunt Colonial Marines off to the same landfill now occupied by Duke Nukem Forever and fire up some Borderlands 2 instead. There’s serious talent at Gearbox Software, but it is nowhere in evidence here.
There’s got to be a story here, some series of events that set this awful effort on a path to release when it should have been re-tooled from the ground up or scrapped all together. Maybe we’ll even hear it one day. That matters little in the here and now, however. Despite a few golden flashes and a tolerable (at best) co-op game, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a heartbreaking failure and an insult to fans of the franchise.
Score: 4 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on both the Xbox 360 and PC thanks to copies provided by the publisher)