Let’s get this out of the way, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game. It looks old. The core shooting is mediocre, at best. The animation is stiff; and characters and enemies clip through the environment on a regular basis. The narrative is a poorly written fan fiction. And the tacked on multiplayer is an unbalanced mess. If this hasn’t scared you away then you might find something to like in Aliens: Colonial Marines, maybe.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is presented as a direct sequel to the events of Aliens , the beloved sci-fi action film directed by James Cameron. Players will control Commander Winter, a Colonial Marine dispatched as part of a 300 man battalion to investigate and recover the U.S.S. Sulaco after receiving a distress beacon call from Corporal Hicks. The Sulaco is positioned in orbit above LV-426, the planet where Alien and Aliens both take place. Why it is not positioned in orbit above Fiorina 161, its last known location, is shrugged off with a gruff aside. Brushing aside the dangling plot thread, the premise is golden. What Aliens fan wouldn’t want to explore the Sulaco?
Even with the game’s technical problems consistently working against the player to destroy atmosphere, I found myself enjoying the atmosphere that Colonial Marines establishes early on. Nothing quite beats pulling up the motion tracker and catching a rogue blip, or blips, on the screen, entering a room and the blip immediately disappearing with only a dangling air duct left as evidence that something was there. Of course we know what is there. This is an Aliens game. We expect to see xenomorphs and the first time one appears, slithering out of a dark corner above your head, it perfectly captures the feeling of dread one should feel when facing off against it. The sound effects, everything from the blip on the tracker to the high speed hum of a pulse rifle unloading rounds, is perfect and it hits just the right spot. Unfortunately that moment is short lived and most of the rest of the game devolves into a sub-par shooter, where swarms of xenomorphs with brain dead AI rush at the player.
But players won’t just be facing off against an army of xenomorphs, there is also human opposition to take down. Winter and company quickly discover that they aren’t the only ones poking around the Sulaco as they stumble across a Weiland-Yutani observation station very early on. It seems WeiYu had intercepted the distress call, rushed to Fiorina 161 and commandeered the ship, returning it to LV-426 to set up a research base for bio-weapons. So now instead of just having an army of brain dead aliens attacking you, you’ll have lobotomized soldiers with more armor than a standard xenomorph. That’s right, most of the human enemies are harder to take down than the biological weapons WeiYu is trying to cultivate.
While it doesn’t make any sense and spits in the face of the established canon that these xenomorphs are unstoppable killing machines, what exactly is a game developer supposed to do? Aliens is an action movie where people shoot guns and blow stuff up and while I am simplifying it to its most base components, when making a game based on that movie in particular that is what is expected. Yes, xenomorphs shouldn’t be able to be killed with just a pair of shotgun blasts and using a melee attack against one should mean near instant death to the player. However, putting players against a swarming enemy that they can’t rightly kill doesn’t exactly sound like a good game either, meaning everyone is mostly in a lose-lose situation.
But while the core design philosophy, flawed as it may be, behind Aliens: Colonial Marines might be the best gamers will ever get out of a game based on Aliens, this game does plenty more to slap fans of the series in the face. As mentioned the game’s narrative plays out like a poorly written piece of fan fiction. Worse than that though is that it seems like a butt-hurt fanboy, upset over the direction that Alien 3 takes the series, might have wrote it. Core plot points from the end of Aliens and the opening of Alien 3 are either completely ignored or conveniently stepped around.
The biggest of these issues is the setting for the majority of the game, LV-426. At the end of Aliens, the reactor core explodes with Ripley and company narrowly escaping the blast and returning to the Sulaco. The explosion should have obliterated the settlement, yet here in Aliens: Colonial Marines you’ll be running around it like nothing happened. No further destruction to the buildings. No mention that the environment is highly radioactive. Nothing. It is just ignored. And then some major revisionist history happens, as a character long thought to be dead is re-introduced. When asked how he is even here, the character responds with something along the lines of, “That is a story for another day.” As a fan, this disregard for series canon dating back 20+ years is highly disturbing and really took me out of the game.
What is a shame though, is the fleeting moments when it all comes together. Moments like using the motion tracker, or trying to escape a sewer system while completely unarmed, or hopping into a load lifter and fighting a xenomorph. Or the fan service bits scattered throughout the game, like finding Hudson’s Pulse Rifle, or dog tags from fallen marines, or just hearing the swelling musical score or the iconic sound effects. These moments capture the spirit of Aliens and make one wish for what we’ll probably never get.
And that is the core problem with Aliens: Colonial Marines. It is a game filled with unfulfilled promise. Still when it comes down to it, it is just a bad game. Sloppily produced to be sure, but not offensively so. If you happen to find yourself with a copy of the game, there is no need to run screaming to the hills. Check your expectations at the door and use that high powered shotgun to pick xenomorphs off from 50 yards away. You might surprise yourself and actually have fun with it.
Review Note: This review was based on the Xbox 360 version. The game is also available on the PC and Playstation 3.