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.
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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.
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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.
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The heartbreaking thing about Colonial Marines is the persistent sense that it doesn't want to be a linear shooter at all. Every now and then you get a glimpse of the systems-driven Aliens game that could have been - half-implemented mechanics that jut out of its landscape like derelicts. Movie-derived ideas like placing sentry guns to lock down corridors and welding doors shut arrive at predetermined moments, when they'd be far more interesting as a dynamic part of regular play.
As it is your time is spent running from objective to objective, pulling the trigger whenever a shiny xenomorph or enemy mercenary pops out in front of you. Use of the motion tracker is primarily an act of roleplay - with a bottomless ammunition supply and invincible companions, you don't need it. Higher difficulty settings up the stakes a little, but they do so by increasing the health of your enemies which has an equivalent detrimental impact on the feel of your weaponry. The mercenaries are the biggest curveball - they're notably more dangerous than aliens, requiring careful use of cover, and the range at which you engage them makes the spray-and-pray nature of most of your arsenal feel like a liability. When battles take place between all three parties you are effectively encouraged to target the other humans first, which strikes me as profoundly backwards both in terms of the fiction and the mechanics that should support it.
The campaign is at its best when it changes the rules of engagement. A mid-game mission sees you stripped of your weapons and lost in a sewer as you're stalked by a new type of alien that hunts by sound. It's not especially difficult, but it does achieve a level of tension that the rest of the game lacks. Another highlight is a sequence where you're asked to establish a perimeter around the original Aliens command centre in Hadley's Hope. The relative freedom to explore lets you appreciate the devotional level of environmental detail in the manner of a museum, rather than as a rollercoaster. These moments make up less than ten percent of the experience. You'll be fending off waves of xenomorphs with your pulse rifle within the first fifteen minutes, and that's the pace the game maintains.
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The behaviour of the xenomorphs is laudably unscripted, an apparent attempt to ensure that no two encounters against these familiar foes play out the same way. Unfortunately, the AI is all over the place. Aliens pop out of vents and pop back in again, get stuck on the ceiling, fall off walls and run in circles. Eventually they'll give up and rush at you, open-armed, until you gun them down. It becomes quite sweet, after a while. A few hours in I got caught in a canned getting-murdered-by-a-xenomorph animation and it made me jump. The fact that these banana-headed morons could be scary struck me as a fun novelty. Then I remembered what game I was playing and the depth to which Colonial Marines demystifies Giger's monster became vertigo-inducingly clear.
Colonial Marines' atmosphere is likewise compromised by its heavy multiplayer focus. Its HUD, a throwback to the eighties tech of the movie, is just as likely to bombard you with level-up notifications as it is to draw you into the experience. You can unlock and modify a persistent set of weapons across both the campaign and multiplayer, which leads to some of the game's most bizarre foibles - despite being limited to two weapons and a sidearm, you can swap guns in and out, ammo and all, at any time. Remember that bit in Aliens where the ammo counter on the pulse rifle flashed zero and the marine summoned a fully-loaded automatic shotgun out of thin air? No, me neither.
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A co-operative mode for up to four players is available for the entire campaign, but its impact is not especially profound - or at least, it improves the game about as much as co-op improves just about anything.
Instead, Colonial Marines is most successful as a competitive game. Its versus mode splits players into teams of marines and xenomorphs across four modes, ranging from regular team deathmatch to objective capture, survival, and a Left 4 Dead-style game type, Escape, where the human players have to escape through a long, linear stage punctuated by defence sequences. These last two modes are genuinely enjoyable. Mechanics that never really cohere in the campaign - such as having to shoulder your rifle to use your motion tracker - come into their own when you're coordinating with four other players to fend off enemies who are hunting you intelligently.
There are, nonetheless, issues. Xenomorphs are controlled in the third person and it's very easy to become disorientated or stuck while attempting to move on the walls or ceiling. Likewise, the alien classes are deeply gamey - the vanilla one, the fast one, the exploding one, the ranged one - in a way that plays against the fantasy of being the universe's apex hunter. As does the fact that you can unlock a giant rhino horn to stick on your banana-head.
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There are only two maps each for Escape and Survivor mode, with a further five shared between the other two game types. The paucity of environments is something that Escape particularly suffers for. The lack of AI-controlled enemies and the fact that each ammo cache contains the same equipment from session to session makes raises the concern that multiplayer Colonial Marines lacks the staying power that Left 4 Dead's randomisation provides. The first time my squadmates and I reached the final section of one map, we survived through a mixture of improvisation and skill. Every subsequent time, we arrived with a plan: two guys rush the objective while the other two grab the sentry gun that we knew would always spawn on the other side of the yard. It's disappointing to find repetition setting in within the first few hours of play. Even when the game does make use of its dynamic systems, it could do so much more to captialise on them.
Colonial Marines ran well on max settings on a Intel i5 760 system with a Radeon HD 6970 and 8Gb of RAM. Graphical settings don't go especially deep, but you can alter the field of view from the main menu. The game paints a few striking pictures - Hadley's Hope in the shadow of the burning atmospheric processor, the Engineer vessel underlit by searchlights - but suffers from some very low-res environmental textures up close.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is deeply underwhelming. Neither staged carefully enough to be scary nor dynamic enough to be exciting, it succeeds only where other players are capable of breathing life into it. There are better linear shooters, better asymmetrical multiplayer games, and better Aliens sequels, and your love of the motion tracker and pulse rifle would need to be profound to surmount those obstacles. I really wanted this game to be good: having played it, I still want to play the game it sometimes gestures at being. It's one to study, maybe - but it isn't one to bring back.