When compared to the high budget Alien films and the effort put into designing the universe it is set in, Aliens: Colonial Marines seems more like a poor 80’s B movie and touts all the staples that you would think of: poor lighting; bad sets; rigid, poorly animated special effects; sound issues and a story that makes no sense but would be enjoyable if the ride itself were fun. Unfortunately, Aliens: CM is functional but not fun.
I am going to preface this entire review by saying that I am not an enthusiast of the Alien series. I have seen the films but I do not consider myself a fanatical follower of them, otherwise I would’ve likely have got more annoyed at Prometheus than I did. However I do enjoy them and can see the distinct problems with this game when compared to the source material.
I started up the campaign to be greeted by grainy, spotty, low resolution footage, a quality that is used for all of the pre-rendered cutscenes in the game, with obnoxious lighting that covers everything. Those of you that have seen Aliens might know that the Sulaco, the ship that featured in the film, was last seen floating over Fiorina-161 in Alien 3, instead we are returned to LV-426. This is where we are in for our first pitfall in story telling. I couldn’t tell if this was intentional or not and was done to provoke a certain kind of style but the game does a lot of thematic hand waving and ignores plot holes. Infact a character genuinely asks why the ship is there rather than its location in Alien 3 and you are told “It doesn’t matter”. This becomes a theme in the game with a lot of the events of Aliens being overlooked or ignored in favour of the games story in a strange attempt to bridge the story between Aliens and Alien 3. The cutscenes are all done using ingame assets to an extent and you can tell. Eyes don’t move on characters and their faces look expressionless and void.
We’re thrown quickly into the deep end here, there’s no build up or tension created in regards to what happened to the ship, almost immediately we are thrown into hordes of disposable xenomorphs that are mowed down as if they are a mere nuisance; substantially different from their movie counterparts. The xenos don’t even move fast to compensate for this they slink out of vents and from the sides of walls at a horrifically slow pace and even have the decency to stand still momentarily before pouncing so that you can unload a few bullets into their torso. Alien AI is debatable at the best of times, I noticed a lot that rather than try and flank and ambush you they would take the quickest route to you with their awkward janky animations that make them seem like they have no joints in their bodies at all, they’d start off the walls then immediately descend and then run in a straight route towards you, or when you are in a group and they are attacking one individual rather than finish off attacking this person they would turn around, face you and charge at you. Not that marine AI is much better, towards the end of the game you have to go on a fetch quest to find a group of marines that have stayed behind. I found one alone in a room firing at a wall because there was an alien one room over. Another I found was sat in a closed room alone firing at a wall and as I walked into the room a xenomorph pounced him. Obviously this was a scripted event intended to happen and the xeno was sat behind the wall.
Something to note is that apparently someone on the development team didn’t think that aliens were enough of a foe to keep the game interesting. The addition of generic marines turn this from an alien based horde shooter into another modern day FPS, with the addition of ranking up and equipment upgrades you’d be hard pressed to not think you were playing a title that Infinity Ward had created at a twenty four hour game jam when pressed for ideas.
Gearbox have been quoted time and time again talking about the quality of the game and how they will deliver a completely explorable world that’ll let you experience the grand locations of Aliens. This is a lie. Everywhere in this world is practically the same. The game is full of bland interconnecting corridors that all look identical, the generic red and blue lighting on the grates makes the environments feel static and unemotive and scenery looks poor due to low resolution texturing. In initial interviews Gearbox were quoted as being very impressed at what they were doing with dynamic lighting effects and that they were completely forgoing baked lighting, meaning that if an alien passed through a light source you’d see their shadow and the light in the room would change if blocked out. There is no such thing in the final game; every area is a dank dark pit which lacks personality. Even those areas which are reconstructed from the movies lack any real identity. The most that identifies these areas is one item lying around such as a doll’s head, because you know, Newt had a doll.
For a game that has such linear progress it is depressing that it is still possible to get lost. Most of my confusion came from the fact that as previously mentioned every single corridor looks the same with little waypointing to push you on. You often find yourself walking around a series of chambers in a circle until you pull out the games most misused tool, the movement radar. Implemented properly this could have been used excellently to build tension and keep the player on edge whilst tracking xenomorphs but due to poor AI and bad map design it is used primarily for two things: Alerting you there are enemies nearby with a brief ping to alert the player that they are entering a combat zone and pointing you towards your next objective.
Characterisation is lost on the title too. Each of the marines is somehow both without a personality and completely unlikeable. Without a personality I wondered how it was possible for me to dislike someone rather than find them boring but the details lie in the dialog sadly. Each character attempts a range of one liners that just fall flat. Your introduction to the character Bella is dealt with through a one linear and pretty much summarises how important she is to the whole story. When your character asks your team mate what the “thing” is between the two of them he replies in a mature way and convincing way “a sex thing”. Whilst the characterisation of the marines in Aliens may have painted them as dumb brutes initially eventually you learned more and more about each character and you began to like them, with these marines there is no such luck as you progress through the game their actions convince you more and more that they are as amoral as their antagonists, Weyland Yutani Corp.
In various interviews Bella was painted as a character the players would really feel for, the writer was quoted saying that it was like the story of “a mother losing her child”, however it looks like this was heavily exaggerated as were most things to do with this title. Bella’s introduction is late into the first chapter of the game and at this point we already know Bella is going to die – she has been facehugged overscreen and immediately alerts us and since it is likely that you are an Aliens fan if you have been an early adopter of the title you know what this means (or if you have even a slight knowledge of pop culture). That’s just it though, that is all the introduction we are given to Bella and apart from our loving background from O’Neil we know nothing more about her and we are given no reason to care about her whatsoever making her presence only as a means to shift us from set piece to set piece. She acts as a background character for most of the campaign and you are given occasional reminders that she is still alive when you are asked how she is doing. Seemingly joyfully grunting her way through levels it was hard for me to believe there really was anything wrong with her at all. At several times throughout the game I forgot what I was even doing in regards to Bella.
Aliens: Colonial Marines got some things right at least. You can point your gun, the gun fires and sometimes lets off sounds and sometimes doesn’t. When you point your gun things sometimes die, sometimes your bullets go anywhere but at the enemy. Sadly one of the best parts of the game actually strips your weapons from you, this is the one part of the game that actually manages to make you feel on edge since you are crawling through dark sewers avoiding any light in order to not be seen by a larger xenomorph but this is over fairly quickly and immediately are thrown back all your big guns.
At point I confess that I read back over this and realised it can read like a list of faults but that is only because the game has so little going for it. The multiplayer is not worth playing and the co-op campaign is forced poorly on top of the main game, merely adding extra players into the mix on top of the already existing NPC characters.
The core elements of Aliens: Colonial Marines are functional but the aforementioned flaws in story telling, presentation and so on are the major issue with the game. This is the next generation Duke Nukem Forever; it took forever to come and when it did, it was a sloppy mess.