Feel that? That’s the calm before the storm. Enjoy this, because by the time March comes along, hot new games will practically be coming out of the walls. Last week was all about Dead Space 3 (here’s what Brittany thought of it), and this week we have the similarly themed Aliens: Colonial Marines. Both are the third entries in acclaimed sci-fi horror franchises that feature co-op, a delightful blend of human and alien enemies, and they even start you off in outer space before crashing your unsuspecting ass on a nearby planet about a third of the way through.
Despite being awesome, the Aliens franchise hasn’t seen much success throughout its numerous attempts to enter the realm of bit, bytes, pixels, and sprites. Oddly enough, the first three films had a combined total of nine adaptations — two for Alien, four for Aliens, and three for Alien 3. Resurrection only had one, and I’m sure that had nothing to do with it being an abysmal film. Outside of Rebellion’s AvP and a handful of handheld and mobile games, the series hasn’t had much of a presence in video games in the last decade.
That’s what makes this game so exciting. It’s the first serious attempt to create an Aliens video game in some time. Colonial Marines is being heralded as a “true” sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens. Comparing your game to a film with a legacy like the one Aliens has simmered in for the better part of two decades now is brings with it some lofty expectations. Nay, let’s call them astronomically high expectations, and ones that will come from the most critical of fan bases: the film geeks. Sega and Gearbox has kicked the ant hive, or maybe it’s a beehive, and fans will very likely tear this game apart.
Let’s start with me.
Let’s not bury the lead here: if this is a sequel to Aliens, it’s about as well crafted as the film its trying to replace. It isn’t bad by any means, but storytelling isn’t Colonial Marines’ strong suit, even though it makes a few notable efforts in that area. For example, one of the marines on your squad wakes up with a Facehugger lying dead next to her. She says her throat is sore, but it’s no big deal. Toss her a throat lozenge so we can be on our merry, you say — okay, not really. Everyone is surprised when they find out she has an alien inside her, and this ends up becoming a pretty big deal. The only problem is this exact same plot device has been used numerous times now, so it’s lost its luster.
The first three chapters take place in two spaceships that are orbiting LV-426 — that’s the name of the planet for non-Aliens nerds — your team has been dispatched to explore the seemingly abandoned U.S.S. Solaco, which naturally, has been overrun by those pesky Xenomorphs. Oh, and soldiers hired by the Weyland-Yutani corporation (again, if you’re not a huge fan of the films, think of them as the Umbrella Corporation in space). There are lots and lots of soldiers. One might even say too many soldiers.
The problem I have with fighting soldiers is it’s too obvious their only purpose is to break up the fights with the aliens. You wouldn’t see a dozen drawn out gunfights in the films, because that would have been boring, and it’s boring here. It also doesn’t help that as a shooter, Colonial Marines doesn’t control as well as you would expect from a Gearbox-developed game. Movement feels slow and unresponsive, and since you can’t take very many hits, battling Weyland’s hired guns can lead to many frustrating deaths.
The game becomes significantly more enjoyable after you’ve crash-landed on the planet, because that’s when the gunfights become more sparse and the alien fights more bountiful. It’s also where some of the game’s more memorable moments take place, including your first time using the Smart Gun, an almost Condemned 2-style chase sequence with a particularly nasty Xeno, and a deeply unsettling sewer section — possibly the only good use of sewers in a video game — that has you navigating around blind kamikaze Xenos.
Did I mention you’re unarmed over the course of those last two sections?
Colonial Marines does some really interesting things. It’s obvious the folks at Gearbox are fans of the films, because its influences are everywhere. Most of the time this is a good thing, but occasionally it can hurt the experience. Take the art style, for instance. It looks a lot like the movie. Very dark, with an abundance of blues and grays. That looks great in a film, but it grows tiring over the course of a 10-12 hour game. You’re granted an occasional visual reprieve every now and then, like when your team visits the Weyland labs to try and save the infected (impregnated?) member of your squad, but they’re few and far between.
It also struggles with some polish issues, in that it really could have benefited from more of it. There is a lot of screen tearing, stretched out textures, characters clip through and get stuck on objects in the environment, and it has one of the most bizarre rain hitting the screen effects I’ve ever seen. You know when you’re playing a game and it’s raining, so you look up to the sky and see the water slide down the screen? That happens here too, only it looks like someone’s smearing a dollop of lotion on a thin layer of saran wrap that covers your visor. It’s really weird, and it’s only the rain. If you walk under a leaky ceiling, it looks normal. No idea what’s going on there.
Visually, a little extra development time could’ve done this title some good, but aurally, it’s beautiful. The sound effects, many of which have been taken straight out of the films, sound amazing. The pulse rifle and motion tracker sound especially good, even if it’s only because of how iconic they’ve become. The voice work is also pretty great, even if I would have liked to hear more banter during some of the quieter moments. The soundtrack is one of the highlights, and we have the immensely talented Kevin Riepl to thank for that. It manages to sound an awful lot like the films while being unique to the game and it adapts to what’s going on on-screen remarkably well.
There are a few ideas that get introduced but I don’t feel like they’re ever really taken advantage of. Simple ideas like the tool you have with you at all times that can cut open or weld doors shut. It’s used a few times, but not often enough. The other fun Aliens toys like the Smart Gun and turrets you can place down to provide extra cover fire also aren’t used as well as I would have hoped. It’s a little disappointing, but at the same time, it makes the few times you do use them even more enjoyable.
The best thing about the campaign is that it can be played with up to four people. That ought to make those gunfights more bearable. Like F.E.A.R. 3, everything you do in the campaign is scored and ranks your Marine career, which in turn unlocks new customization and load-out options for the multiplayer.
The character customization isn’t exclusive to those of you who want to focus on your career as a colonial marine. It also extends to the Xenomorphs, and I have to say, I was very surprised to see the depth of customization in both categories, but especially so with the Xenomorphs. Your options include the Soldiers, which are your basic Xenos, the more agile and tough to shoot Lurkers, and the acid-firing Spitters. They represent a taste of what you’ll have to fight in the campaign, but there’s even more variety there.
After spending some time with the multiplayer over its various modes, I learned that I am awful at each and every one of them. Team Deathmatch was particularly brutal, as I died 5-6 times for each kill I achieved. In Extermination, the marines have to defend a point from the Xenos — think of it as this game’s equivalent to King of the Hill. I was pretty bad at that too. I did a little better at Escape, where the marines are tasked with escaping a map, but I can attribute that to all the time I spent in Left 4 Dead. The last mode is Survivor, and it’s essentially a wave survival mode. I’ll admit I’m a little burned out on those.
The bar might have been set pretty low, but that doesn’t keep Colonial Marines from bounding over it like a slimy, alien Gazelle. It’s incredibly successful as an Aliens game, but less so in continuing the story of the films in an interesting way. It does some fine work there too, but if you go into this looking for a continuation of the films I’m afraid you may leave disappointed.
The Final Word: While not without its flaws, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a wild and gory thrill ride that should satisfy anyone looking for the hot marine-on-Xenomorph action that only Aliens can deliver.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was provided by the publisher.