On the one hand, you have to respect the level of care that went into the attempt at bridging the first three wildly disparate “Alien” films in “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Down to the authentic pulse rifle sounds, attempts to name-check just about every location, character, and memorable visual from those films (with a cursory nod to “Prometheus” thrown in late in the game), Gearbox Software clearly wanted to evoke fans’ nostalgia for this universe.
On the other hand, nostalgia’s really all this clunky and unpolished shooter has going for it, offering a visually lackluster (at best) experience both in the campaign and online in a floaty shooter that feels ripped straight out of 2005 that, most damningly of all, utterly defangs one of film’s great monsters.
When a distress call from Corporal James Hicks (“Aliens'” Michael Biehn) is discovered aboard the seemingly derelict U.S.S. Sulaco, a crew of Marines is dispatched to learn the fate of the ship and the company of soldiers aboard the vessel in its orbit above the rock LV-426. It’s not long before the Sulaco’s toothy cargo and a trigger-happy force of Weyland Yutani mercenaries respond to the Marines’ arrival, ultimately sending the action down to the planet below and an awkward, canon-bending tour of the “Alien” franchise with a couple of guest appearances by actors from the previous films lending their voices to what is probably the most abrupt and least satisfying ending to a game in recent memory.
Save for the presence of one character late in the story that–if canonical–would actually blunt some of the emotional impact of “Alien 3,” “Colonial Marines” is a thin meal if you’re looking for some kind of extension or revelation about the universe in which it’s set. In fact, it plays out the Weyland-Yutani conspiracy stuff way more ponderously than any of the films, using that as the driving force of the action/tension without really giving us a reason to hate or fear them as enemies beyond the knowledge that they’re rote futuristic corporate douches. As Winters, one of the blandly tough Marines thrown into this whole mess, you’ll come across any number of reminders that the previous films existed, from the collectible dog tags of “Aliens'” fallen Marines (and their Legendary Weapons), to the inexplicable presence of the most visually-arresting setpiece of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Of course the Xenomorphs are here in ample supply (if not variety) but like that late-game “Alien” callback, they’re simply visuals that lack any of the resonance of the originals.
The most damning and frustrating thing about this six to eight hour shooter is how it repeatedly sets up encounters with a limited pool of Xenos and proceeds to make them the least threatening enemies in any recent game. These lithe, sleek killers are rendered ridiculous by terrible animations, rote and irritating by stop and and pop shooting galleries inside wide-open caverns and industrial interiors (from top to bottom, “Colonial Marines is an ugly, visually uninspired game which maddeningly looks somehow on par with or worse than the classic PC “Aliens vs. Predator” games). Quickly, the novelty of the rapid pings of new contacts on your motion tracker gives way to the grim certainty that you’ll be slugging your way through yet another same-old encounter for the next three to five minutes.
These creatures simply move in a way that’s non-threatening, and when they pop into sloppy green bits after you’ve picked them with any of the game’s air rifle-level feedback weapons, they feel less like the apex predators of the beloved film franchise and more like the knock off whack-a-mole bland enemies in the countless “Aliens” imitators. Instead of stalking you like the unholy blend of a lion and an insect, they lope into your field of vision, occasionally scrambling in awkwardly off of walls or dropping down from the ceilings. Occasionally, they’ll jump at you, delivering a series of drunken swipes in your general direction, but even the most challenging encounter means getting your back against a wall and shooting until nothing moves. I described elements of the game as perfunctory earlier, and nowhere is that felt more keenly than in the almost painfully limited number of enemy types (it seems someone thought it would be more fun to add a variety of human enemy combatants rather than spicing things up with more visually and tactically distinct Xenos). Besides a couple of boss encounters with larger, rampaging beasts–and one almost successful attempt at kicking up the tension with a quickly introduced and immediately forgotten class of exploding enemies–it’s either the standard-issue hunters or the irritating spitters, neither of which offer much in the way of challenge beyond sheer numbers.
Playing as the Aliens in the game’s broken multiplayer is no great shakes either. Offering a series of deathmatch and tactical modes, “Colonial Marines” borrows the same upgrade and customization system that’s become the rule in modern shooters, offering a limited number of skill upgrades for both the Marines and Xenos. The latter are represented by three classes, and it should be said that each controls equally terribly, trapped in an awkward third-person perspective, adding an unintended level of challenge into orienting your attacks against the somewhat more agile human characters. The promise of being able to run along walls and ceilings is undercut by the lack of actual ability to consistently ever really, you know, actually do that thanks to a curious combination of level geometry and poor character animation. Even the inventiveness of a mode like Escape–which sees a team of Aliens stalking a group of Marines attempting to reach multiple checkpoints through a level–is undercut when at any given time, your character can (and will) drop through the level geometry to their doom.
Even the most diehard “Aliens” fan will find little compelling about “Colonial Marines.” In the way that generations of games and films have cribbed from “Aliens” in both aesthetic and tone, “Aliens: Colonial Marines” cribs from those very games, giving us a copy of a copy with an “Aliens” skin. That it took five years (or more) to develop since its initial announcement should come as a surprise given how very little polish or attention seems to have gone into it. At this point, I’m running out of ways to tell you not to play this game, so let me say it flatly: even for the most forgiving fan of the series, even the most ardent shooter fanatic should really pass on “Aliens: Colonial Marines” because there is absolutely nothing here of value.
“Aliens: Colonial Marines” is available now on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC from SEGA.
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