Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t the first game to be based on the much-loved Alien film franchise, nor will it be the last. It is, however, unique. Unique for just how much it gets wrong. Of all the games I’ve played that are based on the franchise, I have never come across such a washed-up, pale imitation of the real beast. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a spectacular failure that should be avoided by even the most ardent Alien fan.
If that sounds harsh, consider the way the Alien films slowly built tension. You could hear the Xenomorph. You could almost smell it. Seemingly it was around every corner, plotting its attack, yet never emerging. The drum was rolling, the pressure was building, and when that pressure finally burst the Xenomoprh struck in a kinetic moment of savagery. Colonial Marines emulates this by doling out hours of predictable shooting, robbing the formula of its subtlety. Ridley Scott’s Xenomorph was a powerhouse of evolution that relied on cunning to best its foe.
In Colonial Marines, you dispel wave after wave of them, scattering bullets into their flesh like they’re cardboard targets being served up at a shooting range. And criminally, as the game plods along, you’ll grow to detest the high-pitched rattle of the Pulse Rifle, a seminal weapon from the film franchise that has been dutifully recreated in the game. Colonial Marines might be attentive to the details but it certainly never captures the mood of the films: fear.
Don’t be fooled by the high quality image. This game looks and plays like crap.
It’s no secret that the game has been in development for over a decade. Frequently delayed, it’s endured a troubled gestation much like Gearbox’s other recent shooter, Duke Nukem Forever. Forever was full of anachronisms, and it looked dated too. Similarily, parts of Colonial Marines look as if they haven’t been updated since the day the game first entered development in 2001.
Some of the textures, especially during the early levels, look as if they’ve been ripped from the original Half-Life. Elsewhere, the game copies the ancient Counter-Strike, giving you a “death cam” that closely resembles the one found in the 2000 online shooter. Even a screen that faded gracefully to black would have been preferable. I simply don’t understand how Gearbox has the audacity to release a game in 2013 that wouldn’t have been considered fresh ten years ago.
I can forgive the odd blemish if the game is presented well as a whole. But Colonial Marines even fails to do menu-screens nicely, courtesy of a horrid font and a moving picture that hints at the mess to come. Beyond the menus and in the game proper, the levels look rough and jagged. The animation of your teammates is awful and they frequently clip through objects (my favourite being a teammate who vanished through a mining vehicle, only to appear on the other side). Cut-scenes are marred by screen-tearing and visual artifacts abound. All in all there’s a lack of polish that, in this day and age, is simply unforgivable.
There are times when the Aliens will glitch right through the floor. Pathetic
But if debating the cosmetic details of a game is too superficial for you, let’s move on. Ostensibly this is a team-based shooter, yet one where you have no control over your teammates. Rumour has it Colonial Marines was once envisaged as a squad-based game, say, in the vein of Ghost Recon. But that proved to be too much work. Instead you’re left with inane squad members who’ll run in tandem as if bound by invisible string. On moving elevators they’ll stand together as if they’re about to engage in coital bond, or are enduring a particularly cramped Home Affairs line.
Often you’ll lose them only to find they’ve magically re-appeared at your side (perhaps they really have gone off for a quickie). In one instance, I watched and waited for them to open a crucial door, only to realize the appropriate cues hadn’t been triggered. The door remained shut and I was forced to restart from the nearest checkpoint in order to continue. Furthermore, they’ll often stick behind cover you found first. In Colonial Marines, your teammates are a vestige of an idea that has been massively simplified over time. Whether this has been done in order to make the game simpler for the user, or cheaper for Gearbox, the net result is that they are an unnecessary burden on you.
The game also allows you to play the campaign cooperatively, but even this doesn’t give you a break from the stupid AI. When your friends join your game, they don’t take the place of your teammates. Instead, they simply bump up the numbers. But the cramped corridors of the Sulaco and Hadley’s Hope simply aren’t designed for more than one player, and you’ll spend as much time looking for space to shoot as you will actually shooting. Playing with friends also robs the game of any and all tension. A rare moment of stealth during the campaign, which succeeds in ratcheting up your heart rate, descends into farce when you’re playing alongside friends.
One of the only tense parts of this washed-out title
All told it’s one of the most amateurish packaged shooters you’ll play. At its best, Colonial Marines gets the window-dressing right, draping its levels in dark lighting. Sticky, acid alien blood drips from ventilation shafts and cocooned soldiers cry for help. Then, just as you’re doing your best to enjoy the world, an asinine achievement, such as “Coming Outta the Walls!”, pops up on the screen. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Is this a genuine attempt at a serious game in the Alien series? If it’s supposed to be taken seriously, why does the game throw unlockables at you as if it’s a jackpot machine spewing out coins? And why does the song at the end of each level sound as if it belongs in Gearbox’s earlier game, Opposing Force? It’s an absurd Marine Corps jingle.
Nor can Gearbox be bothered to hide their lazy approach to level design. It’s not uncommon to come across entranceways that enemies have emerged from that are mysteriously inaccessible to you. Yes, all games are elaborate, artificial playgrounds, but the good ones hide their inherent artificiality behind smoke and mirrors. Colonial Marines simply doesn’t bother.
Textures are often blurred, or simply not present. You won’t see this in the promo shots
If you tire of the campaign – and you surely will — Colonial Marines also ships with a multiplayer component. Online play gives you a reprieve from the inane AI and the campaign’s poorly designed levels. It also happens to be quite good fun as you hammer the triggers in the presence of human allies. The multiplayer is certainly better fun than the main story, yet it pales in the face of bigger and better online games.
Perhaps Gearbox should be commended for convincing the media that Colonial Marines is one of the biggest releases of 2013. Gearbox and Sega must surely employ the best marketing gurus in the business because Colonial Marines honestly looked as if it would be a hit. But in the end, its protracted development cycle has led to a mess of half-baked ideas.
At the very least, it’s faithful to the franchise
Alien fans might take offence at the way I’ve lambasted Colonial Marines. But they need only to play the game to realise it’s a shameless cash-cow using the Alien name to snare unsuspecting buyers. Of course, this necessitates that you actually go out and buy this game. I pray that you don’t.
Update: as a fine “F.U” to Aliens fans, here’s the original “work-in-progress” Gearbox demoed in October 2012. Everything is different. From the character animations, to the textures, to the lighting. Hell, it’s a different game, and a game that would have most likely saved this turkey from the dump.
Image: All Aliens images from Sega.com