Aliens: Colonial Marines review
Late in Colonial Marines' campaign you find yourself fighting through the xenomorph-haunted hallways of Hadley’s Hope accompanied by a smartgun-toting jarhead called O'Neal. He’s the model of a shooter sidekick: a bottomless well of bullets and exposition who always knows what the plot requires him to know and occasionally - just occasionally - needs you to watch his back while he hacks a door. The two of you turn a corner in time to see an anonymous marine get hoisted into a ventilation shaft by a xenomorph’s lunging tail-spike.
O’Neal gasps. “What the shit was that?”
“Well, Private.” You might wish to say. “It’s an alien. You know, from the movie Aliens. We have killed hundreds of them. Earlier I watched two of them circle you impotently, swiping at you and making those adorable little chittering noises. You turned them into paste with your smartgun, shrugging off their acid blood like it was hot apple pie filling. Besides - the same thing happened last time we were here.”
O'Neal's throwaway response bothered me. The game’s designers must surely know that it doesn’t mesh with either the player’s or O’Neal’s experience so far. The best explanation I can come up with is that 'what the shit was that?' sounds like the kind of thing someone might say in an Aliens movie - and as far as I can tell, ‘sounding a bit like an Aliens movie’ is the alpha and omega of Colonial Marines' narrative ambitions. It's a tiny example of an instance where the game sells its own story short in order to resemble the movie it is attempting to succeed. It's not the only example. Not by a long, long way.
Colonial Marines desperately lowballs its bid to be seen as the ‘true’ sequel to James Cameron’s movie. This is straight-to-video Aliens pastiche, an act of repetition rather than expansion. It’s by no means alone - this is territory it shares with the majority of subsequent Aliens fiction - but it’s clear from the game’s eighties-throwback opening titles that it perceives itself as being something purer. It isn't.
Gearbox evidently have a tremendous love for the films, but it’s the kind of love that suffocates. Over the course of the ten hour campaign you are dragged through meticulous recreations of every significant location you can think of - the Sulaco, Hadley’s Hope, the surface of LV-426, the ancient spaceship. Colonial Marines’ greatest desire is to show you things you’ve seen before, regardless of their narrative status or significance. Hadley’s Hope may have vanished in a forty megaton nuclear fireball at the end of Aliens, but, well, it’s fine, thanks for asking.
These aren’t the operating parameters of a sequel, they’re the parameters of a Universal Studios Tour. Aliens: Colonial Marines couldn’t be more of a themepark ride if it spat out a polaroid at the end. For a sense of what that picture might look like, take a look at the blank stares on the faces of the game’s eponymous marines as they gun down yet another xeno, or the placid gurn of a man allegedly experiencing alien-baby-plus-sternum related trauma.
There are some dumb characters in Aliens, but it isn’t a dumb movie. The way the marines address one another stands in deliberate contrast with the forces surrounding and controlling them. There’s none of that context in Colonial Marines - it’s all space marine nonsense, all the time. Aliens has already been strip-mined by the videogame industry: if Colonial Marines was going to avoid vanishing into the mix, it needed to have something to say, and it doesn’t. Its attempt to explore the relationship between the Weyland-Yutani company and the military is ham-fisted in the extreme, taking Carter Burke’s reptilian corporate maneuvering and repackaging it as - deep breath - enemy mercenaries who wear corporate-branded baseball caps over their balaclavas and who fight the marine corps for some reason (?) to do with profit (??) derived from engineering new kinds of xenomorph (???). Your guess really is as good as mine.
The game’s key interaction with Aliens canon is an egregious retcon whose hand-waved explanation is so thin it made me laugh out loud. Key sequences are underwhelming or fail outright due to scripting errors - including, for me, the one immediately preceding the game’s limp climax. As a narrative-driven shooter, Colonial Marines is a swing and a miss - it simply doesn’t have the nerve or spectacle to compete at the level it’s being pitched at.