Aliens: Colonial Marines
After years spent in development hell, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines has arrived and like a malfunctioning dropship, has crashed amid a critical firestorm. Sifting through the smouldering wreckage of potential and ire of offended fans – there’s not much that’s salvageable. If you can somehow suspend your anger whilst playing, there are some enjoyable moments to be had but the negatives far outweigh the positives.
The game throws you into the mix as Corporal Winter, a colonial marine engaged in a rescue mission sent to the planet LV426 months after the events of Aliens. Firstly, and of fundamental importance – the xenomorphs look like they’ve ripped straight through from the world of celluloid into the game. At a distance, they move convincingly, scale walls like spiders, glide across ceilings and hiss horribly – but in close and upright they’re prone to stumbling in a humanoid manner which makes them easy targets. On the hardened difficulty, they can severely wound you with a single attack and finish you with ease if you’re unable to recover in time. As you progress, you encounter different alien mutations with specialised attacks (spitting acid, exploding, stealth-attack) which add some variety to the conflicts. As the aliens’ blood is akin to molecular acid, dispatching them at close range is best avoided lest you take searing liquid damage. This is a unique trait amongst video game enemies and further sets them apart from traditional, and quite unwelcome, foes like the Weyland-Yutani mercenaries you’re also pitted against.
“The W-Y mercs display about as much tactical prowess as a xenomorph egg”The squads of commandos sent in to slaughter witnesses and the cross-dimensional beings in Black Messa in Half-Life (a game well over a decade old) were special. I remember being shocked at the level of artificial intelligence displayed as they battled with Gordon Freeman; flushing him out with grenades, laying down suppressing fire whilst flanking him and generally putting him in a hurt locker. Those guys would absolutely humiliate the mercs of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’d be like Sun Tzu going up against Earthworm Jim. The W-Y mercs display about as much tactical prowess as a xenomorph egg and the repetitive shootouts you’re forced to engage in, sometimes lasting for entire levels at a time, soon grow stale.
The combat itself is inundated with problems. Faster players will benefit from increasing the controller’s sensitivity, as the default setting is like trying to aim in slow motion. Besides constantly strafing into your line of sight, moving through you, bumbling about and suddenly disappearing – your fellow squad mates are awful at killing things. Considering they’re colonial marines, their marksmanship, tactical positioning and killer instinct leaves much to be desired. As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, the enemies, both human and alien, will always seem to target you specifically, even if your squad mates are easier to engage/fire upon. Considering the aforementioned shortcomings of your squad, this irksome aspect leads you to conclude you may as well just be gunning it out alone.
“Your fellow squad mates are awful at killing things”
The game’s arsenal is quality, with all of Aliens‘ stable weapons featuring as well as a challenge to collect special ‘legendary’ versions such as Hudson’s pulse rifle and Vasquesz’ smart gun. There’s a level-based experience point system fuelled by kills and challenges (get 10 headshots with a pistol, etc.) that allows you to upgrade your weaponry effectively. Ammo and health can be annoyingly difficult to pick up on the fly and near fatal whilst in combat – you have to almost fully aim at the item before you can grab it. The motion tracker is present but can’t be used simultaneously with a weapon so is not always on – removing the pulse-rate increasing tension it effortlessly created in 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator.
“I’m not sure it was worth upsetting the series’ passionate fans”
Although the events in the game are officially considered canon by 20th Century Fox, the poor scripting, shallow characters, plot holes and dull narrative will lead many series’ fans to strongly refute this. I understand much of the narrative is intended to allow you to re-visit locations from Aliens, but as bland metallic spaceships, dark facilities and barren landscapes are extremely common in games already, I’m not sure it was worth upsetting the series’ passionate fans, especially as you’ll play through some of them twice. The aliens’ hives are suitably creepy – oppressive secreted resin graves for your implanted comrades, where camouflaged xenos blend into the walls and burst out like eight-foot trapdoor spiders.
Besides the hive sections and a welcome stealth mission, there’s little real atmosphere found in a game that should be full of it. Tension is built, however, by the orchestral score. The music, by far the game’s strongest asset, is cinematic in both scale and quality. The sound effects in general are excellent and another of the game’s few positives is that, to fans of the series, the report of pulse rifles is akin to hearing feel-good music. Scares are few and far between and once the short campaign is completed, there are no real highlights or challenges that stick in the mind. A couple of boss battles fall short of the excitement mark, especially the game’s finale which feels rushed and insubstantial. Overall the game is a big disappointment – often frustrating, dated and has little in the way of reward or replay value.