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Alien, or more specifically the sequel Aliens, is regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of all time. Before the name was overused in those utterly terrible Alien vs. Predator films, the sight of even just a handful of Xenomorphs usually meant game over for anyone else in the room. Then you have the spider-like Facehuggers that still manage to freak me out on a good day, their long twisted tails wrapping around victims’ necks as they are forced to ingest an alien egg. But by far the most famous scene belongs to the Chestburster, eating its way out of a poor human’s chest and making a glorious bloody mess in the process. The Aliens franchise is dripping with numerous gripping and memorable moments all wrapped up in an atmosphere that would be difficult to not recognise, and it’s because of this that Aliens: Colonial Marines fails so miserably. While trying to create the videogame fans of the series deserve, Gearbox Software have overlooked a host of technical aspects that not only make this shooter a drag to play, but a disappointing homage to one of the all time great science fiction franchises.
Aliens: Colonial Marines follows the story of a group of marines sent to investigate the U.S.S Sulaco, the ship taken by Ripley, Hicks, Bishop and Newt after the events of Aliens. Seen through the eyes of Corporal Christopher Winter, it doesn’t take long for the marines to realise that something rather horrendous has taken place on the ship, with a host of dead marines littering the hallways, unexplained chest injuries and all. Considering a lot of the action in the film took place on a colony on LV-426, the existence of the Xenomorphs is still not common knowledge to most, allowing you to truly experience the Colonial Marines’ horror at first encountering them. Well, you’d think so at least, and it’s from the get go that Aliens starts taking some awkward steps. While there is a sense of fear at the beginning of the narrative, the characters never really engage with what is happening around them. I mean, this is the first time they’re encountering slim, black things crawling all of the walls, acid blood spraying from their bullet wounds and yet they don’t seem to care for a second. The first time you see a Chestburster emerge from a squadmate’s chest is soured by the fact that Winter doesn’t even acknowledge what he sees, rather focusing on the mission at hand.
It’s because of this and much more that the narrative in Aliens: Colonial Marines falls flat. Despite being official canon and a direct sequel to Aliens, the story refuses to acknowledge its source material and use it to its own advantage, instead forcing you to trudge through mission upon mission with waypoints dictating your way forward. There’s a bit of conspiracy thrown into the mix and the loss of close team members, but the disappointing character development and voice acting ensure that these moments go by without any real emotional attachment. Thankfully though, fans of the Alien franchise might just find a few little nods here and there that should ensure a smile or two. While the story falls flat, the service to the fans does not, with iconic locations and evidence of conflicts from the films appearing exactly where you would expect them to. In this regard Gearbox has done fantastically with the source material, introducing players once again to the iconic power loaders, Bishop’s lower torso and more.
Players can also stumble upon iconic weapons that made their debut with prominent characters in the films. Hicks’ shotgun, Ripley’s flamethrower and more can be found and equipped, once again giving fans the service they deserve. Sadly though, the rest of the gameplay does little to embrace what the Alien franchise is all about. Even with Aliens’ shift towards more of an action genre over straight up horror, the atmosphere was always tense, movement slow and marines very death prone. No such thing exists in Aliens: Colonial Marines, but it’s not at all surprising. Shooters can be slow paced, but it’s hard to keep players interested if they’re not actually shooting anything, especially when the atmosphere is as stale as the one Colonial Marines creates. At one point players had no HUD, forcing you to depend on visual elements to relay information to you, such as the ammo counter on your pulse rifle and the pings from your motion tracker. In a way, I would rather have played an Aliens game like this, because it truly makes players feel like a Colonial Marine in a rather uncomfortable situation. Sadly, there’s a HUD and it’s only one of the design choices that ends up working against the atmosphere in Aliens: Colonial Marines. It may sound weird that a HUD makes such a difference, but when coupled with all the other problems present in the single-player campaign it only adds to the woes players will encounter.
First up, you probably will never need to use you motion tracker after the first hour or so of playing, because it’s at about this time that you realise you can actually do just fine without it. Why? Well when the best strategy Xenomorphs can employ is simply charging towards you, you don’t exactly need a device to tell you where they are. Not only does this rip a rather essential part of the game’s immersion factor out, it highlights probably the worst aspect of this entire shooter; the A.I is absolutely horrendous. More times than not, Xeno’s will simply stand up on their hind legs and charge straight at you, take a few swipes, retreat for no reason and repeat the same pattern over and over again. Well, when they can. Xeno’s often got themselves stuck when climbing above or under surfaces, sometimes stopping completely for extended periods of time for no apparent reason. This is a glaring issues especially in the opening few hours, when your only enemies are the “Soldier” Xeno’s from the films. Later on new variants are introduced that serve as a welcome change, but even they have A.I issues of their own. What’s more, human enemies suffer from a lack of intelligence as well, rarely moving when flanked and sometimes completely ignoring you while they sprint past and try to take off your partner’s head from a few centimetres away. It’s jarring to have enemies act in such an irregular manner, making the gameplay feel somewhat old.
Speaking of old, it doesn’t take long to see how the long development cycle has taken its toll on the gameplay. While some design decisions, such as the lack of regenerating health, seem odd in this day and age of shooters, it actually serves to add what little tension it can to the gameplay. Unfortunately, other elements around it don’t entirely complement this component nicely. Aliens: Colonial Marines is all too happy to fling a rather obscene amount of enemies at you at once, and with clunky movement it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the action. Additionally, it turns the gameplay into stale and monotonous “gallery” shootouts, forcing you to blind fire at charging Xeno’s purely because the sheer number of them thrown at you at any given time rules out any other strategy. Conversely, having a multitude of human enemies means that you’re going to be crouching behind cover a lot, but this doesn’t seem half as bad as when fighting Xeno’s since you can actually exercise some thought in these encounters. All in all though, the gunplay is rather weak. While it functions and isn’t broken in any way, it just feels boring. Your weapons don’t really feel as though they have a kick to them, with enemies more than happy to soak them up without any reactions. It all just feels dated at times, making you wonder whether this title would be better received in an older generation of gaming.
One aspect that is rather interesting is the persistent character progression and levelling system. Usually you’d expect to find these components in the Multiplayer portion of a game, but Aliens: Colonial Marines constantly tracks your progress, rewarding you with XP for kills and the completion of challenges. This however is also a double-edged sword. While it’s nice to be able to unlock customisation tools, weapons and more for online play in the single-player portion of a game, it just completely tears apart any immersion you could have in the campaign. Nothing is more confusing than your Marines whispering about how they’re fighting for their lives, only for a pop-up to remind you that you have unspent skill points, allowing you to magically spawn a brand new weapon out of thin air. Not only that, but the entire system is separate from the contextual aspect of the story, meaning you can switch your two primary weapons at any time with no explanation. While it’s easy to understand why such a system exists, given the persistent levelling system, it’s a bizarre design choice for the single-player campaign. Run out of shotgun ammo. No worries just toss away your shotgun and equip your flamethrower (which you just purchased out of thin air) and use that instead. Your Colonial Marine almost feels like a walking armoury, but hey at least he doesn’t have regenerating health like most of the other shooter protagonists nowadays.
While it may not always work contextually in the single-player campaign, the persistent levelling system does make the rather stale gameplay just a tad more interesting. Having three challenges active at once incentivises you to experiment with new weapons and progress through the campaign (which often needs an incentive to be done in the first place). Gaining experience increases your character’s level, which is split into two categories; Marines and Xenomorph. As you’d expect, the single-player campaign only lets you rank up the Marine part of your character profile, while your Xeno side comes to life in competitive Multiplayer. Increasing your level awards you with unlock points that can be spent on weapon upgrades and unlocks, character customisation options and more. While sometimes light on the weapons side, character customisation is rather extensive and entertaining, allowing you to fully express yourself in the form of a Colonial Marine with a very low life expectancy.
When you’re done kitting out your Marine you’re ready to dive into Colonial Marine’s most entertaining component; Online Multiplayer. While the single-player is a real drag, even when played co-operatively with a friend, the online multiplayer somewhat does a lot better for one simple reason; other human beings replace The A.I. If that doesn’t give you an idea about how much I hate the A.I, I don’t know what will. There are four rather familiar modes on offer, but the fact that you play each game as a Marine and Xenomorph makes for some interesting times. Even Team Deathmatch offers more thrills than the single-player, at least when you’re playing as a Marine. In these rounds, your motion tracker is your best friend, and having more intelligent Xeno’s hunting really does bring back the gripping and often scary atmosphere that the Alien franchise is known for. Being executed from above or being swarmed by a group of Xenomorphs is a frightening affair, and it’s exactly the type of thrilling atmosphere you’d expect from an Aliens game adaption. Unfortunately, taking a Xenomorph for a spin isn’t as exciting, with clunky controls and some bad animations making it more of a chore than a childhood dream come true. Even something as simple as crawling on walls is made into a frustrating task, with the camera often getting confused as to where you want to be looking. While novel, the multiplayer is still at its best when you’re playing as a marine, being hunted by players who have at least come to grips with the strategies that make the Xenomorphs so darn deadly.
I’ve already explained how some of the mechanics in Aliens: Colonial Marines feel like they belong in an earlier generation of games, but they aren’t the only things that feel dated. This title has been in development since 2008, and the overly long development time shows when it comes to the game’s graphics engine. Aliens: Colonial Marines looks like it should have released around three or four years ago to fit in with other titles at the time. Needless to say, it looks dated. Animations are stiff, textures are muddy, details are scarce and the overall quality won’t exactly put a smile on your face. Characters constantly chip through one another and visual glitches are a common occurrence, with your character sometimes falling through the geometry of the map you’re on, especially in multiplayer. On a more positive note the sound design is rather spectacular, again if you’re a fan of the films. All the sound is ripped directly from the films themselves, giving you a rather satisfying sound when you first fire off the iconic Pulse Rifle. Xenomorphs sound as menacing as ever, but I sometimes wish all the dialogue was in an alien tongue. The voice acting is consistently terrible, despite some of the actors reprising their roles from the films.
It’s a really tough pill to swallow, especially when you consider how long we were kept waiting, but Aliens: Colonial Marines is simply not worth any second of it. It’s by no means broken, but rather just a serviceable shooter with a familiar name on it. While the developers have tried hard to honour the fans in certain aspects, they’ve completely let them down in others, failing to deliver on the atmosphere that makes the Alien franchise to thrilling. With stale gameplay and nearly no atmosphere, it’s hard to recommend the single-player campaign, regardless of how short it is. While the multiplayer does have some perks, and is sure to entertain you for a couple of hours, it’s not nearly enough to save an ultimately disappointing package. You might find some enjoyment if you’re a diehard fan, but Aliens: Colonial Marines is simply a serviceable shooter with nothing entirely special to offer.