Aliens: Colonial Marines Review — Not A Substantial Dollar Value
There’s an iconic scene in James Cameron’s near-perfect 1986 film Aliens. The aliens attack a battery of sentry guns in a narrow hallway. The director cuts between shots of the guns firing, shots of his actors’ faces, full of impotent horror, and shots of the guns’ rapidly depleting ammo counter. The carnage in the hallway only appears in brief flashes, a few frames at a time. The scene is cut that way for a reason; Cameron knew the audience would share the characters’ uncertainty and fear about what exactly was happening down there. And whatever they imagined, it would be more frightening and thrilling than anything he could depict.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an entire game about what happens in that hallway — about what Cameron didn’t show. Quite literally, it is about being in a confined space and emptying bullets into alien skulls at point-blank range. But it is also about a group of developers attempting to recreate Aliens on PC’s and consoles, and getting it very, very wrong.
Aliens: Colonial Marines
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), XBOX 360, Playstation 3, Wii U
Developer: Gearbox Software
Released: February 12, 2013
We all love the movie. Especially the people at Gearbox Software, Nerve Software, TimeGate Studios, and Demiurge studios, who collaborated on the game. They know the name of Ripley’s cat, and the number of rounds left in the last sentry gun when the aliens stop their assault.
Maybe they love it too much. Hypnotized by the siren song of the pulse rifle in their headphones, busied hiding easter eggs for sharp-eyed fellow fans, Gearbox and its collaborators created a reverent, dull retread. Every single character in the game is an inferior version of someone you remember from Aliens, from the growly drill sergeant to the sassy pilot to Lance Henriksen cashing a check and reprising his role as Bishop. Vasquez, so memorable in the film for her androgyny and aggression, is replaced by Bella, who sports a midriff-baring top and a single line of eye-black that makes her look like Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. Sigourney Weaver’s sublime Ripley, the heart and moral center of Aliens, is excised here in favor of player character Corporal Christopher Winter, an empty shell with no identifying traits except a proficiency at following orders and shooting things until dead.
Maybe the task proved harder than it first appeared. Developers have been milking the martial clamor of Aliens‘ first hour for so long that they’ve forgotten how ruthlessly it gets undercut, how Bill Paxton’s quavering boasts turn to tears. Cameron describes the movie as an allegory for the Vietnam War; as my Game Front colleague Phil Hornshaw points out, Aliens is really about a group of video game heroes — the Colonial Marines — getting their asses kicked. The game’s response to this problem is to double down on the hoo-ah bravado and water down the aliens.
H.R. Giger’s iconic design is a work of genius — unmistakable, uncanny, and unpleasant to be around. But Aliens: Colonial Marines throws so many hundreds of xenomorphs at you that they become boring and then, even worse, ridiculous. Despite the claws, fangs, and acid blood, the game’s marines are barely fazed, and mostly act as if they’ve been fighting the beasts since boot camp.
A few elements prove successful. The art direction is eerie and authentic: hallways rent by acid and violence, fetid alien hives, and the jagged landscape of LV-426. Bathed in blue, lit only by flashing warning lights or the planet’s incessant lightning, the surroundings evoke the film. The sound design, dominated by the motion tracker’s insistent, ascending beeps, helps turn the screw. These are all traditional video-game strengths, however. Any developer should be able to use the inherent advantages of a First-Person Shooter to muster a few scary “they’re coming out of the goddamn walls” moments. In Aliens: Colonial Marines, these are over early, and the beep of the motion tracker begins to signal “you’re going the right direction,” and not “terrifying, imminent death.”