A few months ago in a crowded, sweaty hall in London I played the multiplayer mode of a rather promising looking shooter called Aliens: Colonial Marines. In my fleeting moments with the game, I observed a tense and nervous fight between humans and Xenomorph, an exhilarating dance of flash-lights and teeth. It was great. My hopes were thus understandably high for the full release. To match this anticipation would have been a mean feat; to come close would have been credible. But, I have been disappointed. I am not disappointed because I am a fan of Aliens. I am not even disappointed as a gamer. I am disappointed that this cynical, lowest common denominator has been released to a general public with the greatest of faith in what is a terrific license. They must have known Aliens: Colonial Marines is as bad as it is, but yet it was released anyway. That is unforgivable.
Any excitement or faith in the quality of the game is quickly sapped away as soon as you turn it on. The blandest of bland menu screens greets the new starter as the camera pans across a startlingly bland spaceship akin to a fan mock-up of Red Dwarf, but worse. The campaign mode seems a good place to start. Wrong. It may seem hyperbolic, but Aliens' campaign mode is genuinely one of the worst single player experiences of this generation. There are no redeeming features. Like guns? Great. Like Aliens? Excellent. Like corridors? This is one for interior fetishists as you move from one copy-and-paste grey sci-fi room to another. Fifty Shades of Grey would be technicolour in the world of Colonial Marines. If I was the lead protagonist I would let the Aliens eat me to remove myself from the monotony of the environment. At least the inside of a Xenomorph might have some vibrancy, some life to it. Everything just feels cheap, with extremely poor production values. This is not the only time this accusation will be levelled at Aliens, as it permeates every aspect of this dysfunctional game.
Perhaps the most criminal aspect of Aliens: Colonial Marines' single player is the lack of drive apparent throughout. The Aliens references scattered across the 5-6 hour campaign appear more as a placation to fans rather than as a creative use of the license or to have any genuine purpose within the narrative. Exhibit A: Probably the most famous scene in the franchise, the obligatory 'Alien-through-the-chest' moment is staged with staggering disinterest; it happens relatively early in the game during a set-piece, and is dismissed as if such a thing is an every day occurrence.
The narrative meanwhile meanders along like a distracted pensioner, every so often pointing out something it believes is interesting or an 'emotional moment' with all the physicality and charm of Richard III's skeleton. At no point does the campaign reach anything like a head of steam, momentum, or any other such descriptives of forward pace; quite consistently, it ends with the flattest of bum notes, but mercifully it doesn't take too long to get to this point. Like the player, it appears that Gearbox/Timegate/whoever the hell designed this mess lost patience with the campaign and wished to put it down swiftly.
Noticed something missing from this lambasting of the campaign? Maybe something gameplay related? This is deliberate. The gameplay is barely worthy of note. It can be summed up thus with this quick recipe:
Ingredients: 1x protagonist; 2x followers; 6x enemies; 1x pea-shooter; 1x room/corridor; 1x shade of grey.
1) Enter room; followers will stumble ahead and into line of fire.
2) Wild enemy appears! Is it a) a Xenomorph or b) hu-man mer-cen-a-ry?
a) Shoot away! Your gun may have the destructive power of a blind man's stare, but the Aliens will melt in its fire.
b) Shoot away! Your gun may have the destructive power of a child's spittle, but these highly paid goons (on the ship for whatever reason) will hide in the middle of the corridor, ducking into your bullets. You go hotshot!
3) Repeat ad-nauseam.
The guns are consistently a problem in Aliens: Colonial Marines: in your hands they rip through even the toughest of enemies (none are actually tough) in seconds; in the hands of the mercenaries, they scatter off you like raindrops on an umbrella. Xenomorphs likewise offer no distraction; they crawl onto ceilings and die at your feet, weak and feeble incarnations of what should have been a scarce and terrifying foe. If whichever developer actually helmed this project had played on the series' claustrophobia and actually included only a handful of Xenomorphs in the game, perhaps featuring in randomly generated assaults (e.g. like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3) then we could have had a terrifying, original and invigorating shooter. One section, where you are unarmed and sneaking past Xenomorphs, almost gets this feel right.
Things improve when you switch over to competitive multiplayer. Teams are split into Aliens or Marines, with customisable load-outs for the Marines and set characters for the Aliens (think Left 4 Dead – you will a lot). Team Deathmatch is as you would expect, while Extermination (capture the flag-esque) is relatively entertaining in short bursts. As per the rest of the game, the multiplayer is ruined by inconsistencies and poor production. The levels are bland and dull, with only the cramped inside areas creating anything like tension or excitement. Guns are too powerful despite their lack of satisfying punch, and more often than not Marines will win the games easily just by huddling and firing before the Aliens can get in range. Aliens are more fun to use, with more varied attack patterns and the ability to climb up walls. However, which walls are climbable is unclear, meaning that you often end up dry-humping an unclimbable wall being gunned down easily. Again, there are good ideas here behind the bugs, lag and woeful display, but any good will for the game, or the wish to actually play the damn thing quickly diminishes as you realise that, like the rest of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the multiplayer is perfunctory and performs only at the minimal requirements expected of a video-game.
I imagine the presentation of Aliens: Colonial Marines to be much like a tea-party at the house of H. R. Giger, the Xenomorph creator; weird, emotionless and full of Aliens. Graphically, Aliens: Colonial Marines offers nothing in the way of aesthetics or technical prowess; it is a colourless mess of shoddy textures, identical enemies and clipped edges and is extremely rough around the edges. Character models are dull, featuring all the expression of a middle-aged botox-hued Californian. If expression were possible in those cold, dead faces then perhaps there would be some feeling to the characters had they not also been voiced by actors apparently auditioning for a breakfast cereal advert. The menu screens meanwhile are horrible, convoluted messes of bad font and dark textures, almost warning you away from any temptation to play the game. There is music, but it's an entirely forgettable score.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is awful. Painfully, gut-wrenchingly awful. It wouldn't be half as bad were it not for the glimmers of hope, the unexplored ideas that could have lifted this game into the fabled echelons of the mediocre. Dynamic lighting, and tough and sporadic Alien enemies with an emphasis on survival horror could have made this a terrific use of the license. Instead, we're left with the embers of a fragmented development process, terrible production values and a clear lack of enthusiasm for the project. The multiplayer is an improvement, but this is more due to the mercy of it not being the campaign rather than any innate qualities of its own. In any other game it would be unacceptable. But Aliens: Colonial Marines is not any other game. Colonial Marines is a lesson in hope and disappointment, on clear ideas and careful funding, on outsourcing and the cynicism of releasing such an abomination upon its keen customers. It is a lesson to be avoided at all costs.
This review of based on a PlayStation 3 version of Aliens: Colonial Marines.