Genre: First Person Shooter Developer: Gearbox Software Publisher: Sega Classification: MA15+ Release Date: 12th Feb 2013 Platforms:
Average of 3 Ratings
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There are three types of games when it comes to long-gestation cycles: those that fade into vapourware; those that are released and prove that long development cycles can work; and those that should have faded into the night.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is the third and most disappointing option, made all the more substandard by back-of-box bragging rights to the fact that it is a canonised sequel to one of the most beloved film sequels of all time: James Cameron’s Aliens. On paper, Colonial Marines should be the first big shooter of 2013. As Aliens fans would well know, Cameron built on Ridley Scott’s Alien legacy through escalation—a formula that’s the veritable Art of War when it comes to Hollywood sequelisation nowadays—giving sci-fi fans more Xenomorphs, an even harder Ripley protagonist and, best of all, the United States Colonial Marine Corps.
Unfortunately, when it came time for Alien 3 to hit big screens, the Colonial Marines were an apparent thing of the past; a disappointing oversight considering how well their high-tech presence worked against the low-tech supremacy of the Xenomorph horde. Fast-forward to now, and Gearbox Software—the same developer that kicks all kind of co-op arse when it comes to the Borderlands series—has finally released Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was announced as in-development way back in 2006.
Gearbox is sufficiently skilled and geeky enough that Colonial Marines should have been an easy win: a co-op shooter based on one of the most popular sci-fi franchises of all time. And yet, for every triumph in Aliens: Colonial Marines, there are a myriad of fails that are made all the more woeful depending on how much a fan you are of the series.
If you’re a fan, you’ll feel compelled to play through the campaign, in much the same way that you felt compelled to watch the divisive Alien: Resurrection or the further-dividing Prometheus. When the credits roll on the paltry six-hour campaign, though, you may even balk at how obviously (perhaps hopefully) Gearbox has left it open for a sequel. It doesn’t help that the pre-credits so-called “boss fight” is one of the worst in gaming history.
Ultimately, the biggest disappointment of Colonial Marines is the sporadic promises made in the moments it gets it right; again, bitterly offset by a con for almost every pro. The art direction delivers the goods in terms of nailing the look of the Cameron film. Expect plenty of dark interiors—even if you turn up the brightness—which creates fantastic tension during hallway firefights lit up by dynamic light sources, or simply when you’re haunted by the heart-beat-like beep of your Motion Tracker. The environments are fantastically lit with a deferred lighting system that would surely impress more if it was illuminating more than bland often-2D textures.
In the hopes of boosting tension, you have to choose Motion Tracker or weapon—a mechanic that’s closer to gimmick in a way that feels like the flashlight in Doom 3—even if you have a pistol in your other hand. To be fair, you can switch between weapon and Motion Tracker fast enough for this to not be a major concern, and it does add a lot to the co-op experience when one person is calling out increasingly shrinking distances as Xenomorphs stalk your group. Just find a VoIP system more reliable than the in-game one, as it’s patchy across multiplayer modes.
Sound design deserves a lot of respect, as it’s a core part of the mostly solid pacing of the game that transforms what could have been an otherwise boring unarmed level into a nerve-racking tension-fest. Weapon sound effects are spot on, and music is sufficiently nostalgic or ripped from the score of Aliens. Voice acting is, for the most part, top notch and the dialogue is well written, but this is often distractingly offset by abhorrent lip syncing and, well, the unnerving fact that the bulk of the writing outside of Colonial Marines “HUA” dialogue is unengaging and vanilla.
While the pacing of the campaign is pretty much spot on, the level design leaves a lot to be desired. A faithfully recreated Hadley’s Hope locale on the surface of the familiar LV-426 will make Alien geeks dribble more than the titular aliens, but faithful recreation doesn’t necessarily make for compelling gameplay. There are a whole lot of corridors in Colonial Marines where enemies tend to attack from the front. Even when you encounter sporadic external environments, you’re still being funnelled from point A to B, facing off against AI that really isn’t up to scratch.
Friendly AI has an annoying tendency to walk in front of your line of fire; enemy human AI (yup, they’re in there) are the easiest foes of the game, despite the fact they’re armed; while the bottleneck design of outdoor locations tends to offer Xenos no choice but to charge at you head on. A Xeno stands little chance of survival at range when it’s rushing up against an upgraded Pulse Rifle.
Speaking of upgrades, a universal XP system lets you earn and spend points across single-player, co-op and competitive multiplayer. On one hand, this is a nice touch as it stops multiplayer from feeling overly grindy—even if Colonial Marines have an immediate edge as they can earn points in the campaign, whereas Xenos can only earn them in multiplayer—and grants access to the familiarity of weapons you’ve chosen as favourites throughout the campaign. On the other hand, it tends to make you an overpowered killing machine as, for instance, certain weapons such as the Battle Rifle have unlockable scopes that track Xenomorphs. Hell, you can even track them through walls.
On the campaign front, ammunition is never a concern. If you run dry on one gun, simply switch it out of one of four active weapon slots (two primary, one secondary, one explosives) and fire away. The fact that ammunition and armour are shared in co-op also negates ammo sharing, and you’ll never feel the urge to conserve ammunition. I completed the campaign in co-op on the hardest difficulty and, with the exception of a couple of sections, it was a walk in the park. Survival horror this ain’t.
Then there are the bugs that sporadically appear in the first half of the game and plague the second half of the game. These bugs aren’t Xenomorphs and they aren’t exclusive to the campaign, either. Multiplayer, which has the potential to be a saving-grace for the disappointing campaign, is an unfortunately clunky affair. You’re bound to have fun, particularly when battling against evenly balanced teams, but it lacks spit and polish which results in regularly tainted enjoyment.
There are spawning issues, a maximum of 6v6 players, certain Xeno attacks refuse to work in particular modes, VoIP drops in and out, and there’s no dedicated server support. One of the best modes, Escape (which tasks Marines with escaping from Xenos through a linear level), is limited to two maps, while there are no meaningful configuration options for hosting matches across modes. You can’t even control basic features such as the duration of a match.
With a communicating team, though, one walking back to back to cover all corners as Marines, or hunting from the shadows as a Velociraptor-like pack of Xenos, the Left 4 Dead-style formula is one of the best parts of the game. The cramped map design means there are plenty of ambush opportunities for Xenos, and certain spots that are more easily defendable for Marines than others. Thankfully, outside of standard team deathmatch, the other three modes are all objective-based and require Marines to move and work as one lest they be wiped out in a matter of moments.
As someone who rates Aliens as the best in the film franchise, Colonial Marines disappoints on the worst of fronts: it doesn’t need to exist. In fact, instead of adding to franchise lore—in a way that you’d expect a canonised sequel to do—it simply plays it safe most of the time and, when it does take a risk, it creates more questions. Sure, it’s a fantastic opportunity to ask what happened to the U.S.S. Sulaco, why LV-426 was never revisited and revisit familiar locales, but the plot of Colonial Marines—which should have been the highlight of a canonised sequel—doesn’t add anything significant to Aliens lore.
The saddest thing is there’s still a lot of fun to be found in Colonial Marines. As much as I loathed it at times, this was mostly due to the fact that when the game gets it right, it really gets it right. Last-gen graphics, poor quality control and sloppy writing further taint an enjoyable co-op experience that otherwise goes a long way to making the player feel like a Colonial Marine. There’s a lot of fan service and multiplayer is where the most fun is found, but it’s all too jarringly offset by the reality that a franchise of this pedigree hasn’t been given the polish and attention it deserves.