Aliens: Colonial Marines review: Or how to waste a great licence
12th Feb 2013 | 09:00
Aliens are like Superman. You can't make a game about them without compromising the very thing that makes them so powerful. So the Man of Steel has a health bar and can be beaten up by Sub-Zero, and xenomorphs - described by Ash in Alien as a 'perfect organism' - can be killed in droves by a single Marine with a machine-gun. In the films they're cunning, merciless, and intelligent; here they're little more than dumb animals.
You don't actually see a xenomorph in Aliens for almost an hour. In
In fact, they don't even seem to understand Aliens. They think it's a film about guns, one-liners, and being 'badass' - a word you'll hear a lot here. But for all their bravado in the first act of the film, the Marines are absolutely terrified when they realise what they're up against. "How could they cut the power, man? They're animals!" The aliens are so unstoppable - so perfect that even an entire squad of highly-trained Marines can't survive an encounter with them.
Set 17 weeks after the events of Aliens, Colonial Marines is a whirlwind tour of familiar locations. You'll visit the stricken colony of Hadley's Hope on LV-426, the derelict ship from Alien, and the U.S.S. Sulaco, as well as new areas created especially for the game. The environment design is excellent, and the closest the campaign comes to evoking the mood of the films, with claustrophobic corridors and atmospheric lighting. The cavernous chamber in the derelict, where Kane first encounters the facehugger in Alien, is one of its most impressive sights - even if all you're doing is sprinting through it killing people with a big gun.
Yes, that's right - people. They've decided that xenomorphs, one of science fiction's most iconic, terrifying creatures, just aren't good enough on their own, and have brought in some generic FPS goons for you to battle as well. Evil mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani are conducting experiments on LV-426, and they've hired a private military company to protect their secrets - even though all their nefarious research equipment has their logo printed on it. Remarkably, the soldiers are even denser than the aliens, and display about the same level of AI complexity as those man-shaped targets that move from side to side on a firing range.
Aliens is an action film, and there's a lot of shooting in it - but also plenty of horror, drama, and moments of calm. This game can only dream of that texture: it's pretty much just constant killing.
There are a few attempts at variety - one of which we'll talk about later - but the majority of your time is spent holding down the fire button while aliens run at you. It's one of the most basic, one-dimensional first-person shooters we've played in a while, with no tactical depth to speak of. Smart enemies are absolutely crucial to a good FPS. When you hear the crackle of the Marines' radios in Half-Life, you actually feel threatened because you know you're in for a tough fight. In comparison, the hiss of an Alien here instils about as much fear in you as a gently purring kitten.
But let's talk about what it does right. Despite this cascading waterfall of negativity, there are a few things in Colonial Marines we do like. An early level sees you stripped of your weapons and forced to crawl through a basement full of what look like bizarre xenomorph statues. Occasionally one will spring to life, and you have to stop suddenly to avoid being spotted. They're blind and are attracted to sound, meaning you have to stay frozen as they creep past, inches from your face. It's only a brief level, but a fleeting glimpse of what a great Amnesia-style horror game someone could make with the Alien licence. Alas, it's not long before all the shooting starts up again.
Authenticity is another of the game's strong points. Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn reprise their roles as Bishop and Corporal Hicks, and Gearbox hired legendary sci-fi concept artist Syd Mead to design parts of the Sulaco that were never seen in the film. The levels are stuffed with references, in-jokes, and hidden 'legendary weapons' like Vasquez's M56 Smartgun. You'll also find a few bizarre easter eggs, dog tags of fallen Marines, and something we're convinced is a reference to Ridley Scott's polarising sort-of-prequel, Prometheus.
Speaking of guns, they're actually great; better than the limp combat deserves. They feel weighty and powerful, and the pulse rifle makes the same satisfying roar as it does in the film. The motion tracker is in there too, complete with its famous pulsing bleeps - but it's a gimmick. The aliens rush you the moment they see you, so you never really feel like you have to use it.
ASSHOLES AND ELBOWS
The fan service is entertaining, but it can also be quite grating. It's like the writers are sitting with you as you play, tapping you on the shoulder and winking knowingly every time they jam in a reference to the Alien mythology. The dialogue is terrible too. Really, seriously bad. They've tried to ape the film's notoriously macho military slang, but it comes across like a cheap imitation, and the actors' attempts to sound like hardened soldiers are unconvincing.
The story itself, predictably, can't compare to any of the films (yes, even the miserable Alien Resurrection), and proves to be instantly forgettable. Weyland-Yutani being evil and experimenting on xenomorphs has been a pretty common theme throughout the extended Alien universe, and explored by dozens of books, comics, and films over the years. Couldn't they have come up with something new? While promoting the game, Gearbox boldly said this was a 'true sequel' to Aliens - but, sadly, in the end it feels more like a straight-to-DVD spin-off.
Do the co-op and competitive modes right the wrongs of single-player?
The xenomorphs in the campaign aren't intimidating at all, but in multiplayer it's a whole different story. With humans controlling them, they actually begin to feel as ruthless, quick-witted, and unpredictable as their movie counterparts. Playing with other people, Colonial Marines is way more enjoyable. Across its various modes, one side plays as the Marines, and the other the xenomorphs, with entertaining results. Aliens can see Marines through walls, climb around the map, and sneak through vents, but have to get up close to attack; Marines can kill from afar, but have to use motion trackers to locate their hunters. As a Marine you feel the kind of fear the campaign promises, but fails to deliver. As a xenomorph you relish the powerful feeling of skulking in the shadows and picking Marines off one by one, impaling them with your spiny tail.
Escape is the best mode, although it's woefully underserved with only two maps out of the box (expect DLC). It sees the Marines progressing through a single-player-style level, clearing objectives - hacking doors, restoring power to elevators - as the xenomorphs attempt to stop them. The Marines get extra health and armour, but only one life. The xenos can keep respawning, and any Marine they take out becomes part of their team. There's a definite Left 4 Dead vibe in this mode, with safe zones between objectives stocked with supplies. It's nowhere near as polished or dynamic as Valve's game, but it's a decent attempt at creating something similar.
Marines have weapon loadouts that can be customised with the usual online shooter bits and pieces: scopes, extended magazines, paint jobs. Cleverly, XP earned in the single-player campaign carries over to multiplayer, meaning any weapons you've customised there can be brought over and used against real players. The xenos come in different flavours, including spitters, who can gob balls of acid, and have their own upgrades in the form of special powers.
Playing as the Marines is pretty self-explanatory, and uses standard FPS controls, but the xenos are more challenging. They're fun to use, especially in the larger maps where there are plenty of places to stalk and sneak up on opponents - but the climbing controls need work. Transitioning between surfaces - say, a wall to a roof - often doesn't work, and we found ourselves getting stuck numerous times, usually while under fire. Asymmetrical multiplayer is nothing new these days, but in the context of the Alien universe, it works really well.
There's a co-op mode that supports up to four players, but fighting alongside friends doesn't do much to improve the campaign. If you want to experience Aliens as you saw it in the movie, stick to the competitive modes. They do a much better job of recreating its most tense moments, and it makes the xenomorphs seem like a genuinely formidable foe, rather than rubber ducks at a shooting gallery. But even with decent multiplayer, Colonial Marines is still a major disappointment; one that stands in the shadow of Cameron's film classic. Game over, man.