Aliens: Colonial Marines Review — Not A Substantial Dollar Value
The game’s story is the worst kind of fan service, landfilling the space between Aliens and Alien 3 with shocking laziness. Events are driven mostly by the actions of the Weyland-Yutani Company, the canon’s most consistently misused element. Added to the Alien script during re-writes by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, the Company was a wonderful sci-fi invention for two movies, depicting the evil of futuristic capitalism by emphasizing its bureaucratic banality. One need not look beyond Paul Reiser’s performance in Aliens to see this idea at work.
Since Cameron’s film, custodians of the franchise have attempted to smelt the story of the company and the xenomorph aliens into some sort of epic saga — witness Alien Vs. Predator, or Ridley Scott’s wretched Prometheus. Turning Weyland-Yutani into a James Bond villain makes it cliched, familiar, and trivial. In Aliens: Colonial Marines, characters refer to the company as “Wey-Yu” like they did a keg stand there last weekend. The Wey-Yu army of faceless, mercenary goons that shows up in the game’s first act is so hackneyed that Gearbox et. al might actually have ruined the Company forever.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a failure as an adaptation of the source material and a failure as a piece of narrative entertainment. For a video game, that actually places it in pretty good company. What’s most shocking is that it’s also a complete failure when it comes to basic game design. The gunplay is unconvincing, weightless, and repetitive. AI allies are literally bulletproof; AI enemies engage in a litany of truly bizarre behavior. Thanks to a long development cycle, the game arrives feeling and looking dated, offering ugly animations, textures, and cutscenes, cover-shooting with no cover, and lifeless, obsolete character models.
Multiplayer offers some redemption, even if its two most diverting modes, Escape and Survival, are heavily derivative of Left 4 Dead. Like zombies and survivors, Aliens vs. Marines, because of their different abilities and controls, are perfect for asymmetrical combat.
The three Alien classes are fragile, and must therefore choose their moments of attack carefully. The Soldier is of little utility, easily bested by the Lurker, which offers a long-range pounce. The Spitter is no more than a game design crutch, defined by a long-range acid attack that isn’t much fun to use or defend against.
Still, it’s a tense affair. Marines can hear aliens coming using their motion trackers, and aliens can see Marines through walls — a satisfying game of cat-and-mouse that offers a neat, canon-driven take on radar. Small-team deathmatch games between groups of friends can offer nail-biting excitement.
Competitive maps continue the game’s competent art direction, but are marred by technical problems, particularly when playing as the aliens. Lurker pounces are forever getting stuck on invisible pieces of level geometry, which often results in a humiliating death. A well-conceived wall-crawling system fails in execution — maps are full of surfaces that should be climbable and aren’t. It’s a system better addressed by Rebellion’s Alien Vs. Predator in 1999, a game that remains the gold standard for licensed Alien content in general and multiplayer content in specific.
Decent multiplayer might be the only thing saving Aliens: Colonial Marines from total ignominy, but did its inclusion also affect the overall quality of the game? Many titles try to combine engrossing singleplayer campaigns with endlessly repeatable class-based multiplayer, and end up with underwhelming versions of both. It’s an all-things-to-all-people strategy driven by financial and not creative realities; when a studio is unsure about exactly what kind of game it is trying to make, it can and does lead to disaster, and Colonial Marines is certainly that. In the end, we can only speculate about what went wrong. Given the time and the mandate, it is at least plausible that Gearbox and its collaborators could have produced a worthy singleplayer Alien game. Or, given their obvious borrowings, a dedicated asymmetrical multiplayer shooter in the style of Left 4 Dead, a wonderful example of a game that knew exactly what it was trying to be.