Aliens: Colonial Marines Review
Written : Friday, February 15, 2013
By: Lee Bradley
Five minutes into Aliens: Colonial Marines the game makes a mistake from which it cannot recover, a mistake so fatal that you may as well eject the disc, toss it in the bin and forget that it ever existed. Let me tell you about it.
You are Corporal Winters, a member of the US Colonial Marines sent to investigate a distress signal broadcast from the USS Sulaco orbiting LV-426. Something catastrophic has happened on the ship, says the message, and only Corporal Hicks, a damaged synthetic human, a small girl and a civilian named Ripley have survived.
It’s your job to investigate.
On board the Sulaco it’s immediately apparent that something is wrong. The walls are thick with organic matter dripping a thick, sweaty mucus. The ship’s corridors look like an oesophagus or a rib cage; internal and somehow alive. Strange noises come from the shadows. Turning a corner you see a fellow marine, bound high on the wall in a webbed, bone-like cocoon. He’s alive, barely conscious. You take out your hand welder and attempt to cut him free. But then a monstrous beast appears from nowhere.
Xenos everywhere! It's ok. They're crap.
The Xenomorph is an unsettling figure. With its smooth phallic head, inner jaws and whip-like tail, it remains terrifying despite its iconic familiarity. It drips with dread.
But within milliseconds of presenting you with one of film’s most horrific creations, Aliens: Colonial Marines ruins everything. The Xenomorph pins you to the ground, leans in to finish you off and... well, you wrestle with it. You wrestle with a Xenomorph, bashing a button in order to push it away.
Xenomorphs are the most dangerous predators in the galaxy, deadly killing machines designed for murder. They can rip you in half and eat your face before you even know they’re there. But in Aliens: Colonial Marines they’re about as scary as having your face licked by a puppy.
Immediately the fear that should drive your every move, the threat against which you should survive, is gone. And with it goes any hope that this is the Aliens game we’ve been waiting for. In place of a fearsome hunter, we get something that whelps when you punch it in the face.
Later, in a poorly implemented light stealth section, you have to sneak past another breed of Xenomorph that can only sense movement. With your weapons gone and your ability to engage in any kind of combat removed, it’s a great chance to ratchet up the tension and increase your sense of vulnerability.
Don't worry. You can wrestle your way out of close encounters.
Instead what happens is a Xeno senses you, you stop moving and it tip-toes slowly past like a grandad nipping downstairs to make a cup of Horlicks without waking his missus. It’s comical, far more likely to make you laugh than feel endangered.
Indeed, the Weyland Yutani troops you’ll come up against - just normal soldier dudes with guns - are far more threatening. And really, they shouldn’t even be there. It’s a shame, a great waste of a great licence. Unfortunately, however, its just the beginning of a series of problems.
Throughout, the game fails to create any sense of atmosphere. The raw elements are there; a mysterious enemy, a squad of marines out of their depth and struggling for survival, a familiar environment made otherworldly. Yet it wastes any opportunity to create a sense of place or drama.
The original Dead Space took these ingredients and made something special, with a ship that was alive with ominous shadows, terrifying noises and threats around every corner. Aliens: Colonial Marines, meanwhile, just chucks waves and waves of Xenomorphs at you in a world that looks like a mid-price console release from 2007.
And as all of this happens, immersion murdering prompts and unlocks pull you out of the experience and remind you that this is just a game. Splashing things on-screen like “Special Projects challenge you to find Legendary Weapons from the Aliens film, Marine Dog Tags and Audio Logs” may be informative, but they ruin any chance of atmosphere.
The story is nonsensical, poorly told, awfully written and woefully acted. Winters and his fellow marines are merely gung-ho jocks, shouting "Ooh-rah!" and swearing a lot with no perceptible shock or surprise at what is going on in front of them. In James Cameron’s film, the marines may be meatheads, but at least they are rounded enough to show fear and dread.
One character’s storyline, involving being attacked by a facehugger, is fluffed so badly that it can only be a joke. A desperately unfunny one, but a joke nonetheless.
It's hard not to love the Pulse Rifle.
Even the design of the game screams mediocrity. You’ll spend much of your time defending a squadmate as he or she attempts to open a door. Again and again it happens, with herds of Xenos bounding brainlessly towards you as you wait for yet another bloody door to be opened. It’s the laziest kind of level design.
But at least it’s not broken, unlike many of the more open levels. In these sections, it’s possible to just run past everything until you reach the next checkpoint, but if you do the game struggles to keep up. Dialogue queues at strange times, characters that were behind you suddenly teleport in front of you. It’s a mess.
In one case I sprinted through a group of attacking Xenos only to find that the game had forgotten to load the rest of the level. Instead I was greeted by an empty grey nothingness. In another section the game seemingly forgot to load in the enemies. I could hear the noises, but there was nobody else with me in the environment. After restarting the level they reappeared again.
During what was supposed to be a climactic battle towards the end of the game my mission was to survive an attack from a particularly large and iconic enemy. It was supposed to be a fraught set-piece. However, I was a long way from the action and there was a dropship between me and the beastie in question. So instead of being engaged in this perilous encounter, I just watched as my enemy’s head bobbed up and down in the distance.
To add to the comedy, a few minutes later the enemy came bounding towards me. As tall as a house, it could have eviscerated me in an instant. But instead it ran straight past me and head butted a wall. Repeatedly. Before smashing through and disappearing.
That said, generally speaking the final third of the campaign is its best section. Where before there were only in-game dramatic sequences, suddenly we get proper cut-scenes, and the levels improve in quality. It’s still just a dumb shooter, but it’s at least one with a sense of urgency and impact. Couple that with responsive, satisfying combat and the Pulse Rifle noise lifted straight from the Aliens film, and it’s at least passable.
Indeed, there’s great fan service throughout, beyond just the Pulse Rifle noise, with explicit nods to both Aliens and Prometheus included. And those Legendary Weapons, despite the awkward way in which they are introduced, are kinda cool. The achievements are handled in much the same way, with numerous references to lines or event from Cameron’s 1986 film. It’s a nice touch.
Xenomorph chiropractors: heavy-handed.
Where the achievements fall down, however, is with the inclusion of a few that necessitate grinding. There’s one for killing 2179 Xenos, another for reaching Rank 60 and you’re unlikely to grab them without spending a decent amount of time in the game’s rather average multiplayer.
Far less offensive, yet not much more fun, than the main campaign, multiplayer offers up modes in which teams of marines face off against teams of class-based Xenomorphs. In Escape mode marines attempt to scarper through a map without being taken down. In Survivor mode the marines have to secure a location against quick-spawning Xenos. In Extermination you have to destroy a series of eggs without getting your face munched on. And in Team Deathmatch, well it’s Team Deathmatch.
With the class-based Xenos - Lurker’s can leap from the shadows, Spitters can shoot acid, and Soldiers can take extra damage - the multiplayer most obviously references Left 4 Dead in its design. However, thanks to clunky Xeno controls and balancing issues, it falls nearest to Dead Space 2’s ill-fated attempts. Not the worst aspect of the game by any means, it’s still lacking.
And the truth is, by the time you’ve blasted through the eight hour campaign, you won’t want to spend any more time with the game at all, let alone begin a multiplayer career. A massive waste of a fantastic opportunity, Aliens: Colonial Marines should be fired out of the nearest airlock. Game over, man. Game over.
With sound effects lifted straight from James Cameron’s 1986 movie, like the brilliant Pulse Rifle scream, the audio should be great. Unfortunately, however, the voice acting is simply awful, some of the worst we’ve ever heard.
With shoddy, low-res textures, screen tearing, pop-in and facial animations that look like the characters have been injected with a pint of botox - Aliens: Colonial Marines would have looked average six years ago. In 2013, it looks cheap and nasty. Disappointing.
Gunplay feels nice, but the level design undoes the entire experience. Being able to sprint past entire sections of the game is unforgivable and the repetitive locked door stand-offs are dull, dull, dull. Painfully bad.
The campaign has so many flaws that no degree of fan service can save it. The multiplayer, meanwhile, is passable but won’t keep its claws in you for long. While Aliens: Colonial Marines ticks all the boxes, the execution is poor.
Some brilliant nods to Aliens, including in-game references and quotes, as well as some easy to get but fun challenges, make for a decent enough list. The grinding achievements, however, should never have been included.
Building a game around James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi classic should be the recipe for a tense, action-packed shooter bursting with atmosphere and scares. Instead we get one of the biggest disappointments in recent years. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a shameful, at times broken, and consistently woeful waste of potential.