The legacy of the iconic and instantly recognizable movie Aliens is both a gift and a curse to the game Aliens: Colonial Marines. The premise is so video game ready – the look and attitude of the original Space Marines (don’t try to argue the case of the “Starship Troopers” book here), scary monsters, imaginative technology and settings, the insidious schemes of an evil corporation. Think of how many games feature one, more, or even all of these elements. The richness of the source material is a double-edged sword, however. There’s pressure on the game to deliver settings, story, sounds, scares, tension, dialogue, and thrills that match a certain Aliens sort of tone.
With that context in mind, I’m sad to report that Aliens: Colonial Marines leaves much to be desired. I think with the expectations associated with such a famously influential franchise behind it (especially one with such a ready-made premise for video game development), this game is the sort that tends to get more hate than it actually deserves from the critics. Here’s the truth: the game is okay. But with a name like “Aliens,” okay just isn’t going to cut it.
Moderate disappointment starts right off the bat with graphics. I recoil from the notion that mind-shattering graphic fidelity and physics are a must for video games, especially when focus on the eye candy comes at the cost of all else. But Aliens is a universe that defined a generation of sci-fi, specifically its incredibly distinctive look and feel. Aliens is one of the best examples I could possibly imagine for which the graphics treatment in a video game needs to be on the ball, but Colonial Marines is frustratingly inconsistent. Environments are riddled with aliasing and resolution issues, resulting in off-putting, jagged color shading. Sometimes, there is text written on a surface that has no excuse to be low-res, but appears fuzzy and pixelated. Similar jagged edges plague shadows, which, by the way, don’t seem to react like they should when you shine a flashlight directly on them. On top of that, some surfaces don’t react to direct light at all. Sometimes, water drips onto the floor without puddling, as though it’s falling right through it; other times, it’s a detailed puddle with wavy reflections and tiny splash animations. To be fair, I’m told the graphics hold up much better on the PC version than the 360 one, but it sure looked to me like Colonial Marines was generally outclassed by other games.
Although graphics are certainly a must for an Aliens game, they’re not everything. Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t really save the day, either. Again, it isn’t super bad, but it’s just not very good, either. Both enemies and the challenges thrown at the players are average, bland, and vanilla shooter fare. They’re not broken, but Aliens can’t be bland, dammit! The titular creature first appeared in a movie that starred just one of it, mainly because it’s one of the most creatively horrifying movie monsters ever. It walks, crawls, and creepily skitters! Sharp teeth! Tongue-mouth! Acid blood! How much more nightmare fuel do you want? How did this game manage to make them un-scary? The xenomorph hordes rush and lunge at you like Left 4 Dead zombies, vulnerable to melee and your incredibly overpowered shotgun. Firefights in which they threaten to overwhelm you are more about “bullet whack-a-mole” than “secure the perimeter.” I was hoping for something a bit more tactical and methodical, but the nature of the fights rarely changed. Never did I really feel like I was being hunted by an apex predator, just clawed at by mindless drones. The Aliens vs. Predator PC games from back in the 90s were better at capturing that particular sort of dread.
There are so many instances where I wish Gearbox had gone a different way with the game. Although you can only equip two guns at once, you can carry all of them and change up the ones you have equipped quickly enough. Why not make the player actually choose weapons wisely from limited resources, especially with a multiplayer-focused game? It’s not like it really matters, though, since you could probably get by fine without ever changing from a pulse rifle/shotgun combo. They designed different types of Aliens, but they’re rarely encountered. The game focuses on throwing the standard warrior at you. Why not take a page from Left 4 Dead‘s book and throw in some special types that present specific challenges that change based on structural environment and available weapons? There are human enemies, too, but firefights with them are the kind where you can just scope in on a guy you know will eventually pop out of cover and pick them off one by one. The most fearsome standard enemy in the game is actually an armored soldier with a smart gun. The trick to killing him is to shoot him a lot.
I had a co-op partner for most of the short campaign, and when he pointed out that my complaints about blandness were perhaps due to us playing on the default difficulty, we turned the difficulty up. As I expected, it didn’t really enrich the gameplay; we just died more. We didn’t do any worse after his headset ran out of battery power and he had to take it off – there’s not much coordinated teamwork required for a run-and-gun. There are precious few sequences that get exciting as the game calls for players to pursue specific objectives, and there is exactly one power-loader brawl with a big alien. Those moments do a decent job of mounting fast-paced pressure, but we could still more or less charge through, guns-a-blazin’, to accomplish our goals.
If there’s a single nitpick on which I would focus my frustration with this game, it’s the motion tracker. Most shooter games incorporate a HUD radar or motion tracker, an idea that the movie Aliens, for all intents and purposes, invented. Colonial Marines, in a genre-defying idea, doesn’t give you the benefit of a constant HUD motion tracker; you instead have to push a button to pull the gadget into your view – but you also have to shoulder your weapon. What a cool method to subvert an industry convention in a way that could be used to deliver true-to-form combat challenges, tension, and classic Aliens scares! Disappointingly, although this mechanic is built into the game, it’s very rare that you ever need to use it for anything. Why bother? I just have to wander around to bait whatever drone is in the area to taking a swing at me before my shotgun ends the encounter. The tracker never really helped me sneak past encounters or gave me vital warning of a lethal hunter nearby. Hell, the thing beeps once on your hip when a new threat approaches. I never really had to care where it was; it would make its presence known soon enough. After the novelty wore off, I rarely bothered with it again. What a waste of potential.
The game is not entirely ambitionless. The brightest spots, from a gameplay perspective, come in multiplayer, and I think I know why. It’s because multiplayer puts human brains behind the Alien combatants. Competitive multiplayer pits a team of marines against a team of Aliens, both of which can customize their loadout or class. From the perspective of the marines, you’re no longer fighting lame hordes of brainless warriors: you’re fighting four or five intelligent hunters that can stalk, ambush, pounce, or one-shot you from the shadows. That feels more like an Aliens experience, and the campaign could have benefited from taking notice. The marines still enjoy a tremendous advantage in firepower and almost always rack up more kills, but only Team Deathmatch is about kill count, and the teams switch roles for a second round. I keep throwing in (unfavorable) Left 4 Dead comparisons, but the Escape game type felt very similar. Marines must get from point A to point B and are occasionally obligated to wait in place for awhile, usually in a reasonable defensive position. The campaign’s idea of challenging the player in a case like this is a bum rush, but multiplayer makes it a neat game of cat and mouse for both sides, in which the cat sometimes abruptly changes roles with the mouse. If Colonial Marines has any staying power, it will be due to favorable developments in the multiplayer.
I’ve buried discussion about storyline and fan service, because while the most diehard of Aliens fans will likely get a kick out of them, they’re just not enough to sustain a mediocre game. I did get a kick out of nods to Alien and Aliens in the form of exact setting recreations or moments of, “So, that’s what happened to that guy.” The game’s characters and plot occasionally show sparks of interesting life, but tend to be pretty predictable. In fact, I think this sense of the predictable is emblematic of the game as a whole. Aliens was so creative in its day and invented, or at least popularized, a lot of the ideas that have become so fundamental to the video game industry that they’re now trite tropes. Colonial Marines, rather than show all of its many spiritual descendants that it’s their granddaddy and still the Man of the House in science fiction action, instead feels boringly derivative of all those things that actually derived from it.
I don’t claim to be the most objective reviewer. I really wanted Aliens: Colonial Marines to pull it off, to be great. I was rooting for it. But the more I play and think about it, the more I come back to the word “mediocre.” Not bad; just mediocre. Sadly, for a game with this pedigree, mediocrity might as well be failure. It’s unfair, in a sense, to have to live up to the legacy of one of the pillars of modern science fiction, but I think Aliens: Colonial Marines will get a shrug and a “meh” from Aliens fans and non-fans alike.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of the Aliens: Colonial Marines developed by Gearbox Software in association with Nerve Software and TimeGate Studios, published by Sega.