Aliens in video games have come a long way. In 1982, the first game based on the popular film franchise was released for the Atari console and appeared as little more than a sci-fi version of Pacman, featuring Ridley Scott’s space monsters instead of ghosts. The film Aliens, directed by James Cameron set the precedence for today’s gaming when a handful of friends watched the film and felt inspired to make a little game called Doom. Since then games have made use of many variations of the themes and creatures that HR Giger designed for the original Alien film. Therefore, in 2013 a lot of pressure has been thrust upon Gearbox to make an Aliens game that can sate the appetite of hardcore fans of the series… as well as gamers themselves.
Even more pressure has been placed on the company because of its recent success with Borderlands 2 and the publicity gained by Ridley Scott’s return to the Aliens universe in the film Prometheus. Still more weight comes from the fact that 20th Century Fox and Gearbox have dubbed Aliens: Colonial Marines the official sequel to The 1986 classic Aliens. Of course, it’s not the buildup and promotion that make an excellent video game. In fact when people expect too much it can help sink the title. Has Gearbox risen to the occasion, or buckled under the power of expectancy?
The story takes place when the fiendish Yulandi-Weyland Corporation sends militant agents to disrupt a familiar looking mission to LV-426 by the USS Marine Core. These agents manage to destroy the ship, conveniently landing you on the hostile world. You play Corporal Chris Winter and must try to survive along with several teammates. Right from the start, you must battle the trademarked Aliens species, as well as armed human assailants in order to do this.
Like most sequels, Aliens: Colonial Marines follows a very similar script to the film on which it is based. Slight scripting changes and the presence of enemy militia are the major elements in the game. In the conventional style of a follow-up film the game capitalises on the immortal horror coined by the Alien franchise. It essentially revolves around bizarre alien creatures attaching themselves to humans and using them as cocoons that they later rip through their chests. Along the way the player runs into various Easter eggs that evoke nostalgia around the Aliens movie. Unfortunately, this means that a major mainstay of the game is that it acts like a museum that holds monuments to the successes of a 1986 film.
In film, sequels are often damaged when the original actors and directors abandon the name, making for cheap soap opera styled films. A major problem is that the story is damaged by unappealing characters. Aliens was part and parcel of action films that flaunt gross Hollywood stereotypes, but somehow characters like the hero Corporal Hicks, cigar-smoking sergeant and comical relief personality Hudson were likeable, whereas the game struggles to do this.
In the wake of a film that I feel was quite radical, Prometheus, it is disappointing that there was no further tie in. Nothing new was said. What we are exposed to is simply a fan’s rendition of a film that they loved.
When it comes to gameplay, through much of the certainly linear game one gets the sense that you are in the seat of a horror ride. Aliens and sci-fi men constantly pop out that you must zap like in a Men in Black training exercise. The characters are far from engaging and it’s difficult to speak face to face with characters, let alone feel empathetic towards them.
In Gearbox style the strength of the game lies in being able to customise your weapons. You can outfit the classic pulse rifle with a shotgun or rocket launcher, reminiscent of the way that Ripley uses masking tape to attach a few weapons together to battle the Alien queen. The game includes a simple levelling-up system that allows you use a point to add one modification to a chosen weapon. You also unlock weapons when you level up. It’s great to be able to have access to a large array of weapons at once, but most of the time you are left wondering what to do with all this firepower.
You are generally accompanied by an array of moronic sidekicks that sometimes attempt to show you where to go and sometimes get rid of too many Aliens leaving nothing for you. Why are they present though? As the best parts of the game are when you are isolated and horrified!
One of the more enjoyable parts is when you don’t have a weapon and must use stealth to overcome exploding ‘Boiler’ Aliens and an advanced Stauncher Alien.
Graphically, although PC users will find that this is not as big an issue, console users will have difficulty understanding why the graphics of the game are so glitchy and seemingly unfinished. My initial reaction was that maybe the game looked like Borderlands 2, stripped of its cartoon render. There can be something quite enchanting about the bare textures, funnily enough because it allows the game to more accurately mimic the 1986 set and props of the Aliens film. It also alludes to a simpler time where games had a similar look and feel.
The problem with this of course is that today’s gamers want the sleek look and feel they’ve come to expect and enjoy. Alien Trilogy enjoyed critical success when it debuted in 1996, but then again today we expect a higher level of AI. Aliens: Colonial Marines suffers severely from a case of bad, unnatural animation, with symptoms of stiff polygonal faces and awful lip-syncing. This has led to a feeling that allies are unengaging and as inhuman as the creatures you are supposed to be fighting.
Highly obvious floating props and Aliens that seem to be tap dancing against the walls are the worst of the graphics enthusiast’s worries. Graphically the game is at its strength in depicting the setting for the film. In the Operating Room that Ripley, Hicks and Hudson barricade, outside on LV-246 and in the sewers where the most awesomely tense part of the game occurs. Another saving grace is the weapon design, which remains very faithful to the slick design of the Pulse Rifles seen in the 1986 flick, while creating some new toys to play with.
If anything the sound certainly sets the mood of an Aliens game. From the authentic sounds of the Pulse Rifle and shotgun, to the squealing sounds of the Xenomorphs, Aliens: Colonial Marines has definitely been forged with accuracy and not cheesiness. However, the sound occasionally suffers from looping which is a pity. Winter sometimes starts talking about things that you are not looking at which adds to the confusion caused by the problematic animation.
While online co-op is fun, it’s a shame that the storyline isn’t adapted to suit. Up to four of your friends can play online and two players can play split-screen together, a privilege of the console version that the PC version does not support. The cooperative play is hampered because the players do not replace your AI companions and you end up with a wild, undefeatable squadron of rowdy marines that parade through the game obliterating the helpless Aliens in their path, while players have to fight for room and for kills.
Competitive mode is the only area where playing an Alien is possible. It’s a little disappointing that you can’t play as the Aliens in the single player campaign. There is a deathmatch option, team deathmatch and ‘Capture the Node’ option. All of these modes are fun to play, although the game suffers from much of the same graphical malfunctions as in the single player campaign.
You definitely have to be a connoisseur of the Alien franchise to appreciate the subtle Easter eggs placed in the game that are charged with nostalgia of the 1980s classic. Graphically, the game feels rushed and you get the sense that the team was under too much pressure to make deadlines because it has had its fair share of development time. There is something to be said about how it has the look and feel of Aliens the film, emanating 1980’s sci-fi consoles and technology. You get the sense that Gearbox was making it for themselves to honour a legend both in film and gaming history, but unfortunately forgot that they have to please the customer as well. The old-fashioned style of the gameplay and graphics pay tribute to older games in the genre, whether this was intentional or not.
In its entirety Aliens: Colonial Marines focuses on trying to appease the hardcore Aliens fan while forgetting to please the player of a 2013 video game.
Lasting Appeal: 6/10
Predominantly reviewed on Xbox 360