If you look at any top 100 movie list, universally and without fail you’ll see the James Cameron-fueled scarefest Aliens. It represents the highest point in the franchise, it’s the go-to movie when you think about the series, and it has the most memorable characters, environments, and quotable lines. To call it a deep pool of content from which to create an awesome game would be an understatement. Coming off of the high of the Borderlands series, industry favorites Gearbox were given the reigns of this beloved and storied franchise, as well as all of the original assets from the movies. Every element was there…could they give fans what they’ve always wanted, or would this end up being a painful chestburster?
The game kicks off with Corporal Hicks filing his report with command on what happened on LV426, his losses to the Xenomorphs, and his request for reinforcements. The Colonial Marines are dispatched on the USS Sephora. After almost 4 months in cryo they arrive to find the most curious of circumstances – the Sulaco has somehow ended up returning from Fury-161 to LV426, and command wants you to find out why. You play as Corporal Christopher Winter, a grunt in Rhino squad. Unfortunately, upon your arrival you find out that other Marines that responded ahead of you are now missing – things are about to get scary.
“You secure that shit, Hudson!”
The environments in Aliens are pretty unique and immediately recognizable. The flashing orange/yellow lights, the drone of the computer as she calls out damaged infrastructure or warnings to inhabitants, the signature sound of the titular characters, the slimy texture of the walls in the nesting area, and the report of the rifles immediately bring awesome memories of a fantastic movie flooding back. Aliens: Colonial Marines captures some of these things perfectly, and others miss by such a wide margin as to be shocking.
Working directly with Fox gave Gearbox full access to the sound effects and music used in the movie. In those things, this game is absolutely flawless. The sound of the motion tracker, the sound of the M41A Pulse Rifle and the M56 Smart Gun, the hissing of the beasts themselves, the signature tapping sound of anything on a computer, and even the pop of the cap on the handheld grenade are modeled perfectly and if that were the end of the sounds in the game it’d get 100% in that category. Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen join the cast, giving solid performances, but the supporting cast are somewhat schizophrenic in their delivery. They shout at nothing and give deadpan replies when surrounded by threats. They’ll scream one moment and then be calm the next. They spout nonsense I never heard while I was in the military like “Shit in my breakfast” or use technical jargon either incorrectly or entirely too often. I’m sure the voice was intended to be conditional, but the conditions seem to be broken or inconsistent. Add on top of that when the game decides to interrupt one speech with another, cutting it off abruptly and it all seems a bit untested.
“We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks.”
As I played through Colonial Marines I kept having a feeling of nostalgia. Put simply, the game mechanics in this game are from 15 years ago. With a nod towards more modern shooters, the player ranks up by completing challenges like a certain amount of kills or other combat conditions. Unfortunately these are put in such a random and nonsensical order that you’ll get a prompt to “Kill 20 enemies with the primary fire on a rifle” long after you’ve likely killed hundreds in that fashion. Somehow those don’t count – you’ll have to take out another 20 to get the 500 XP bump.
Upon levelling up you’ll get a commendation point or two towards your upgrades. These allow you to purchase upgrades for your weapons including expanded clips, alternate fire weapons like a shotgun or grenade launcher, or even silencers. Your targeting reticule is a blue dot in the center of your screen when aiming, but bafflingly buying the red dot upgrade simply changes the color of that dot. How that got through testing without feedback is eyebrow raising. Going up in rank unlocks additional weapons and upgrades including assault rifles, battle rifles, cosmetic skins, and more. You don’t buy, pickup, or otherwise obtain the weapons – they just appear in your pack when you reach the appropriate rank. In fact, other than some exceptions like the Smart Gun and the Sentry Turret, you really don’t pick up anything other than health, ammo, armor, and collectables. This means that when you go up a level you can simply use a selection wheel and pull these weapons out of your pack.
The “Special Projects” (collectables) are split up into three types – dog tags (I found Wierzbowski!), audio logs, and legendary weapons. The legendary weapons are slightly more powerful versions of the guns you already have, but these were dropped by characters in the movie. Examples include Corporal Hicks’ shotgun or Gorman’s pistol.
Need more Helmets
If that wasn’t enough, the enemies in this game are just dumb as a damned rock. The aliens rush towards you as might expect, but then immediately dart in other directions like my Jack Russell Terrier chasing after a leaf in my yard. Human troops lean out and over cover or blindfire (you aren’t allowed to do any of those) but then rush directly into predictable patterns that allow you to cut them down with a marginal amount of patience. Aliens and humans alike get stuck on the environment and both were seen levitating in mid-air on several occasions. Eventually you’ll get weapons that have some range to them, but the AI is more than happy to sit there and take bullets to the face without reacting, or your bullets will strike without result – it’s hard to predict which will happen. Bottle that up with the fact that your AI buddies will shoot at enemies all the way across the room while closer enemies walk right past them and you start to feel alone in a room full of people. When they are stacking up on a doorway to properly enter it like Marines would only to watch one of the other members of the team stupidly stroll in having already gone into that room and you can practically see the scripting. The only sign of brain power they have is when they omnipotently yell out “One remaining!” – something they couldn’t possibly know. Thankfully there is no concept of friendly fire, so feel free to just shoot through them at will.
“It’s very pretty, Bishop, but what are we looking for?”
This game has been in development Hell for some time. With false starts as early as 2001, in December of 2006 the folks at Gearbox got to work on this title. Unfortunately, not unlike Duke Nukem Forever, it is most noticeable in the graphics department. Textures are very muddy up close, rain on the screen looks blocky and square as it drops down the screen. Recognizable things like the laptop interfaces for the Sentry Turrets are an unreadable yellow mess up close. There are hints of familiar places like the hallway with the Remote Sentry pair or the plastic Weyland-Yutani Big Wheel bike from the deleted scenes of the movie, but so much of the game is simply ugly to look at. I would blame it on the engine, but the team is using Unreal Engine 3 with a custom renderer called “Red Ring”. Looking at some of the absolutely gorgeous titles that have used that engine, perhaps they should have left the rendering engine alone.
When you get further in the game, the graphical presentation gets more divergent. You’ll eventually end up on the planet surface and back into confined spaces. The aliens you encounter there are extremely detailed, looking disgusting and awesome at the the same time. Facehuggers are gross and perfectly rendered. That said, every face in the game in this game is so blocky and jagged that a friend visiting asked me if I was playing an original Xbox game. Ouch indeed.
There are a few graphical glitches on top of the bland and blocky textures. On one instance I got stuck with “Press X to retrieve dog tags” splayed on my screen permanently until I beat the level. Another time an alien got stuck inside of a box with only a claw sticking out for me to kill it. I also observed several instances where I could peek between the intersection of two textures to see the room behind it.
“Every meal’s a banquet. Every paycheck a fortune!”
When you take the bad scripting out of the equation, and you take the on-rails experience off the track, you get the multiplayer modes we have here. Sure, we’ve seen them in other games, but the locomotion and point-blank assassination options the aliens possess put that idea on it’s head. Given the pre-release nature of my copy, I wasn’t able to get many multiplayer games going, but the times I did play were a lot of fun. I could overlook the graphical mud in the face of fantastic gameplay. It’s just a damned shame that you have to rip out everything that makes this an Aliens game to get that to work.
“At least you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
I guess at this point you’ve realized that Aliens: Colonial Marines is going to easily make our list of games that could have been fantastic but somehow fell short. Sure, cutting open doors and welding them shut behind us evokes powerful memories of a great movie, but when you walk next to a light source and see square blocks making up the light cascade you can’t help but be disappointed. The linear nature of the game doesn’t bother me – in fact, it should have given us a tighter story, better narrative, and a chance to enjoy a universe every gamer is begging to play. I would love to see a sandbox or semi-open world with a heavy focus on narrative set in the Aliens universe, but somehow we just keep retreading the same “almost but not quite” experiences. Sitting here writing my review, it hit me – the only thing that remains consistent among all of these attempts is Fox. We will never know how much the developers were handcuffed by the studio and their restrictions on the IP, but I can honestly say I’m disappointed in Aliens: Colonial Marines. Game over, man.