It is hard to know where to begin with Aliens: Colonial Marines. This is a game so monumentally disappointing that it has actually managed to taint my feelings towards James Cameron’s 1986 classic film. Having been in development for over six years it is deeply sad to see a product with such a strong official licence ending up as an unpolished, frustrating mess.
After seeing a presentation of the game in 2011 delivered by Gearbox we were very excited and that showing immediately dealt with our fears about the troubled development history. However, that build of the title bears no resemblance to the finished product we were unfortunate enough to have to sit through. The only vague similarity was a three minute sequence that was infinitely inferior in terms of scale and quality to what was showcased two years ago.
While we can’t comment on why such radical changes have been implemented it seems that Gearbox’s involvement in the creation of Aliens: Colonial Marines has been less than clear. The box for the game makes no reference to any other studio working on the game yet the loading screen shows TimeGate Studios had a hand in the development duties. It’s a murky background to an already unclear history and it has undeniably led to a substandard experience.
Usually when writing a review we like to highlight the positives that have helped to make the game distinctive and provide enjoyable moments before moving onto our (hopefully constructive) criticisms. This is the first time we have seriously struggled to meet that aim. At least Aliens: Colonial Marines has the authentic sound effects and music from its source material to play with. Some of the few moments of merit were experiencing the nostalgia of hearing the distinctive motion tracker, the harsh retorts of the Pulse Rifle and Smart Gun. Beyond those misty-eyed reminiscences there is little to praise.
What will become most apparent about Aliens: Colonial Marines is its severe lack of polish. The game’s textures are atrocious, especially for a title using a modified version of the Unreal Engine 3. There is constant screen-tearing, so much so that we were legitimately worried our eyes had been damaged from years of gaming. Graphical errors plague almost every area of the game not to mention audio clips getting stuck or overlapping one another.
The Xenomorph “bugs” are the least of your worries when faced with far more dangerous game bugs. We were presented with problems so severe that at times we were forced to restart entire levels to be able to continue: a torment magnified by having to replay dull and tedious areas again. Boss enemies would disappear through the walls and floor, making it impossible to kill them. Your NPC allies would regularly suffer severe bouts of narcolepsy, leaving them stuck motionless in front of a door you needed them to open. It is almost unbelievable a game could release in this stage of quality from a developer as well known as Gearbox (or should that be TimeGate Studios?).
Aliens: Colonial Marines follows a squad of troops sent to investigate the distress call sent by Corporal Hicks after the events of Aliens. Rather than carefully establishing a sense of unease and fear, previously done so well in Aliens versus Predator 2, within less than five minutes you’ve already seen and killed a Xenomorph. It’s a shockingly poor game decision and any sense of terror and threat carried by the razor-fanged, ultra-fast killing-machines is immediately vaporised. It is a constant problem throughout the game that the aliens are weak and never pose much threat, even in numbers (which usually never exceed five at a time).
Enemy AI is shocking and we have taken to christening it “Conga Line”. While the aliens can climb on walls and ceilings to attack they do so in ways that bring to mind the population of the 1991 game Lemmings. A brave Xenomorph will scuttle along the ground and leap with deadly intent to a nearby surface. You’ll immediately whip round and blast it with a nice short-controlled burst from your Pulse Rifle. Sadly, most other Xenomorphs will decide to follow and pounce to the exact same position that their recently departed companion occupied. All that is required is for you to leave the crosshair in position and pull the trigger until they are dead.
One of the fatal decisions from the developers Gearbox (sorry, TimeGate) is to make the Xenomorphs an enemy for approximately 50% of the game. The remainder is padded out with evil mercenaries from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. This is especially galling as they are so generic they could be cut and pasted from virtually any first-person shooter from the last decade. They’re far more dangerous than the aliens too and the gun battles with them are usually irritating and protracted. You have to spend most of these firefights crouched behind cover that fails to shield you from damage. In a game called Aliens: Colonial Marines it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to expect more aliens especially as most of the opening four chapters are spent fighting human troops.
Littered throughout are poor design choices and underdeveloped ideas. The iconic Smart Gun of the series is given to you twice in the entire game which feels like a criminal oversight. Setting up sentry turrets to defend against the aliens happens on three occasions which is almost unbelievable given how evident they were in the Gearbox-TimeGate Studio Corporation’s presentations. The weapon selection process is never explained in a tutorial and is horrendously clunky: you are required to hold down a weapon swap button and then use a direction to select a gun you want to replace. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a game of constant frustration which makes it feel like a chore to slog through.
The gameplay is unquestionably sub-par and never comes close to recreating the feeling of being a badass interstellar soldier facing a terrifying and dangerous threat. However, the plot is arguably even worse. The opening credits of the game manage to reveal the game’s big twist, which is such an incredible oversight that it is hardly believable. Even original actors Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn sound so bored in their performances that you wonder whether they were heavily tranquilized and kidnapped to extract their dialogue. Character models are deeply unsettling and appear as realistic as a partially melted Madame Tussauds’ waxwork.
Aliens: Colonial Marines has a story so basic and badly structured that it couldn’t even pass as the worst fan-fiction. There are some truly diabolical and insulting retcons to the events of Aliens that will have you shouting at the screen, particularly as someone at 20th Century Fox signed off that these changes were fine. At 11 missions long, it is thankfully a short experience to endure and the final level of the game is only a few minutes long. After which the ending happens so suddenly you are in danger of getting whiplash as the narrative grinds to a halt and just stops. There is no warning, no satisfying conclusion and no aspect that makes anything you have sat through even remotely fulfilling.
In previous Aliens games the multiplayer has been one of the best aspects creating tense moments as marines desperately try and avoid being on the menu for hordes of creeping Xenomorphs. Aliens: Colonial Marines’ multiplayer manages to be rather dull and somehow generic. Clearly lifting some ideas from Left 4 Dead, aliens come in three flavours: Soldier, Spitter and Lurker. Soldiers are your all rounders, Spitters spit acid (ring any bells?) and Lurkers pounce on enemies (sound familiar?).
The controls feel clunky, the action is rather stale and the four game modes are all perfunctory and unoriginal. Especially as most of these modes revolve around teamwork, in particular grouping together as marines, it is annoying how little has been done to encourage co-operation. Most of the time people run off to do their own thing only to be killed, making any mode feel frustrating.
The arbitrary levelling up from experience points to unlock abilities and weapons is present as expected and does little to impact on any aspect of the multiplayer. There are also challenges to provide XP boosts and unlock customisation options but even these are poorly thought through and designed. Only one can be active in each category at a time, meaning you often have to repeat challenges you know you have done just because it wasn’t active the first time.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a colossal achievement in crafting an equally disappointing and frustrating experience. We could go on about even more aspects of the game that irritate, confuse and annoy but honestly, what is the point? The lack of effort and thought put into creating this title is quite upsetting not just to Aliens fans but to gamers as a whole. While at first we were very angry at what TimeGearGatebox Studios created, now we just feel hugely disappointed. On this evidence, it sadly seems that this may well be “Game over, man, game over” for the Aliens franchise.