It’s arguably one of the most iconic science fiction franchises of all time, influencing generations across almost every medium - be it books, films and interactive media like gaming, its acid blood filled hands are all over them. Etched in history, infinitely quotable (not so much the fourth movie) and so rich in science fiction DNA that the the lure even tempted original Alien director Ridley Scott to revisit the Alien universe last year with the underwhelming, and frankly poor Prometheus. It’s a science fiction gold mine, a licence to print money if you will and there have never been so many franchise fans.
Enter Gearbox and our good friend Randy Pitchford, partially forgiven for producing the wretched turd that was Duke Nukem Forever as his team brought us the co-op party frenzy that was Borderlands 2. The studio had been given the rights to expand upon the alien story, filling in the gap between Aliens and Alien 3 along with being able to call upon some of the original voice cast. Thus effectively allowing Gearbox to produce a fully fledged, 20th Century Fox endorsed sequel to Aliens using the medium of a videogame. Pretty big stuff indeed, huge expectations would most certainly come with this and as it’s such a big deal surely Gearbox would give it everything and produce something truly special, finally delivering on the promise that an actual decent Alien based game could exist.
Thinking of itself as the ‘proper’ sequel to Aliens, Aliens: Colonial Marines sets itself up for a huge fall and within minutes of the start of the short campaign spectacularly takes that fall. As the ‘adventure’ begins you are part of an elite marine squad about to descend upon LV-426 to assess what happened to the original batch of marines seen in the movie Aliens. Oddly the distress message came from one of the main characters that died in Aliens and the Sulaco is back above LV-246 instead of being on Fury, where the third film kicks off. To confuse matters further one of the pointless characters even asked how the hell the Sulaco is back at LV-246, no-one knows, we can assume it’s just magic but we all know it’s more than likely going to be explained through a franchise breaking plot twist later in the game. Throughout the quite dreadful five hour campaign it becomes increasingly apparent that all of the talk around the campaign, the expansion of the Aliens story and that a game could actually be a true sequel to a movie was just total PR hype and nonsense. Being polite the game is just a rehash of the Aliens story, you are effectively re-living the movie but this time there are Weyland-Yutani soldiers to contend with along with the alien queen and her scuttling brood.
The gung ho nature of the characters doesn’t really help, “chicks and dicks” being spouted in the first few minutes pretty much sets the tone for all the macho nonsense that follows. The narrative coupled with the script at times make you want to turn the volume down - there is no-one to root for, there is no-one to care about throughout the entire game and the plot is non-existent. Quite how you can be given the ability to create a gaming sequel to a famous movie and come up with what is effectively a handful of rehashed (and in places franchise breaking) ideas is astonishing.
There have been many games with wafer thin story lines but despite that have succeeded through gameplay and general production quality. Whilst it certainly helps to have a decent story, or in this case any type of story would have done, it’s not the be all and end all of a game. Sadly in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines the empty dumb story is the least of our worries. Boring, repetitive and frankly uninspired gameplay throughout, it hand holds you through to comedy boss battles and a rushed, barely comprehensible ending. An ending which amazingly is open ended in the hope of a sequel - the cheek!
For the sake of balance there is a thirty minute or so period where the game isn’t either baffling your brain with plot holes or making your eyes bleed with its dreadful graphics engine that is actually rather good. These aforementioned thirty minutes take place early on in the campaign, tension is very well created as your elite squad are gradually exposed to the Alien threat. The utilisation of the iconic sound effects from the movie as well as hearing the ping of the motion tracker does a fantastic job to ramp up the tension early on. It looks reasonably good and at first feels like it could be a Dead Space contender for thrills and kills. Sadly after the initial series of reveals the campaign settles in to being a very dull first person super soldier romp through respawning enemies, dumb AI and more screen tearing than your eyes could possibly endure in a long session.
As mentioned games with poor storylines and crass macho humour have worked before though, Bulletstorm was a riot as a result of the nice aesthetic and the Gears series is plot wise just nonsense but the gameplay and game engine push past such things. In Aliens however, there are few or no redeeming features. Graphically the game is a complete mess; consistent screen tearing is at times nauseating, any form of movement turns the screen into a complete mess, there is rampant texture pop in which is frankly astonishing as they are for the most part low res textures and the animations, particularly the revive animation in co-op, is hysterical.
The gunplay is generic, dull and difficult to enjoy - feedback is almost non-existent and amazingly often not even animated, aliens jumping out at you hang in the air briefly while you try to shoot them down, they then literally disappear. Glitching is far too frequent and in too many places simply game breaking. At its most laughable when playing in four player co-op the final battle culminated in a game ending glitch, followed by a graphical glitch rendering the impact of the last scene totally redundant. In no way is the product finished and if a patch is intended then it would need to be GBs of data, more of a complete code swap out than a patch really.
As mentioned four player co-op is a possibility in the campaign and everything is better in co-op, even Aliens - kinda. There is much enjoyment to be had with friends as you work through the campaign routinely mocking it at every turn and one could argue that co-op hasn’t been this much fun since The Expendables 2. Playing the game on the hardest difficulty ‘Ultimate Badass’ is recommended as the game actually puts up a challenge in this mode, albeit one that thinks ‘difficulty’ is cheap blind one shot kills but still, at least it’s a challenge while you slog through. Problem here though is that co-op is completely tacked on, clearly evident in the way the interactions take place with one character, co-op buddies cannot even see what is going on in some key cut scenes as they are not that individual. As a result of the tacked on nature the game isn’t built to handle four players in certain situations and environments, add to this that the hardest difficulty turns friendly fire on and all of a sudden the biggest threat to you is the mate that cannot help but steam into a room with a flamethrower, or the other guy who loves grenades. As poor as it all is though, if you get the right four players you will push past the sadness the game consistently makes you feel and laugh your way through the adventure.
The multiplayer goes someway to redeeming the package with the usual batch of team based modes as well as some newish ideas. Modes include your standard team deathmatch, extraction (king of the hill like), survival (no respawns) and escape. Escape is by far and away the most interesting of the bunch, pitting a team of marines against rushing aliens, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint in an attempt to...you guessed it, escape. Whilst a newcomer playing will be baffled at first and borderline distraught when put into the game as the woefully underpowered aliens there is some fun to be had in multiplayer. Mainly as there isn’t the dreadful AI to worry about and the famous tracker is of actual use, unlike in the campaign where it is outright pointless throughout. Ranking up through multiplayer (or campaign play) rewards you with a myriad of gun enhancements that earlier Call of Duty games would be proud of but it does feel a bit odd upgrading the iconic pulse rifle with a laser scope and a silencer. At the very least the multiplayer gives the impression that some sort of effort was made within the package to make that an enjoyable aliens experience, even if it is overshadowed by the bigger picture.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a poor game made worse by the extensive hype that the game mustered over its six year development. Demo footage bares little resemblance to the final product, talk of taking the franchise to new and interesting places are not evident, the product is simply poorly thought out and the implementation is shockingly bad. As a boxed retail product for the PS2 it would have been reasonable, as a triple AAA hyped to death title on the end of life current generation of consoles, it’s a complete embarrassment.