By Marshall Garvey
Developers: Gearbox Software, TimeGate Studios, Demiurge Studios, Nerve Software
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Release Date: February 12, 2013
Genre: First-person shooter
Modes: Single-player, multiplayer
It’s hardly unprecedented for a movie-based game to be terrible. If anything, it’s inevitable for the most part given how often they’re rushed out in tandem with the movie itself. These kind of tie-in games amount to little more than interactive Happy Meal toys, unfurled solely as a transient cash-in before quickly fading away into farthest recesses of the used shelf at Gamestop. Plus, given how mediocre or terrible many of the movies themselves turn out to be, is it really that egregious for their console bastard twin to be just as forgettable?
Which brings us to Aliens: Colonial Marines. If ever there were a movie-based game that had to be a success, it’s this one. To start, the film is the best source material imaginable for a video game: a visceral, white-knuckle thrill ride that blends sci-fi, horror and action into one explosive whole, while also carrying a heart sorely lacking in most summer blockbusters. 30 years after its release, it remains a classic of unwavering popularity and universal critical acclaim. Moreover, Aliens has been an ubiquitous influence in gaming for years, shaping everything from Contra to Doom to Halo. It should follow that a video game faithfully adhering to the original film be of the highest quality attainable.
Given the sheer length of time fans had to wait for such a game, one would assume ACM would ultimately live up to its source material’s high standard. Initially slated for the original Xbox in 2001, the game was cancelled, only for hopes to be rekindled when Sega purchased electronic rights to the franchise from 20th Century Fox in 2006. But in late 2008, the project looked to be headed towards yet another cancellation as Gearbox endured a wave of layoffs. (Although there ultimately seemed to be more to that story.)
In 2013, two years after meekly spitting out the underwhelming, potentially franchise-sabotaging Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox finally unfurled Colonial Marines, by then also a legendary mainstay of development hell. Had Sega and Gearbox instead taped gamers to a wall in front of lines of facehugger eggs, it would have been far less offensive than the similarly gut-busting sensation of playing this antiseptic, formulaic FPS. Despite years of development by several major companies, ACM managed to pull a reverse hat-trick; while the original movie is exhilarating, frightening and heartfelt, the game is boring, not even remotely scary, and so emotionally unengaging you forget what’s happening to the characters in mere minutes. In a franchise marred by many disappointing installments, this one might just be the worst.
The story opens with a distress call from Corporal Dwayne Hicks (embodied once again by Michael Biehn). A rescue team of marines from the USS Sephora arrives 17 weeks later to find the Sulaco seemingly abandoned. Corporal Christopher Winter (who the player controls), Private Peter O’Neal and Private Bella Clarison quickly discover more than just the presence of the dreaded Xenomorph species onboard, as they’re soon ambushed by Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. The mercenaries subsequently use the Sulaco to attack the Sephora, destroying both ships and forcing O’Neal, Winter, Clarison and several others (including another Bishop android model) to crash-land on LV-426. From there, they hole up in the decrepit remains of the Hadley’s Hope colony, opposed not only by waves of Xenomorphs, but also the Weyland Yutani Corporation’s ruthless effort to preserve the species at all costs.
Part of the drudgery of playing (and reviewing) Aliens: Colonial Marines is just beginning to wrap your mind around how utterly it fails in every single regard. And given the exceptional standard of the movie it follows, that’s a level of futility that almost takes extra effort to accomplish. Aliens is one of those rare movies whose every element is executed perfectly. Story, characters, suspense, atmosphere, visual effects, action, horror…there’s not a weak link to be found. If someone were to make a game based on it and only give a 50% effort, it would still likely yield a damn good final product. So how, given all the years and the plethora of developers invested in its creative process, did Aliens: Colonial Marines end up failing so miserably?
Let’s start with the first key to the success of an Alien installment: the presentation of the timeless beast itself, the Xenomorph. Think of everything that’s made this creature the stuff of nightmares for almost four decades: cunning intelligence, a primal instinct to kill humans, a reptilian yet also humanoid appearance that almost defies description, etc. In ACM, H.R. Giger’s hallowed creature is reduced to little more than a mindless piece of target practice. The Xenomorphs here are stiff, stupid and utterly predictable, never once provoking the confusion and fear they do in the films. Far from being cunning, their A.I. is absurdly buggy, often getting stuck in the environment or standing in place. Sure, they still crawl along the walls, but without any evasive slithering or unpredictable movements to throw the player off. 80% of the time, they merely charge at the player in plain sight, tactlessly absorbing a hail of bullets. To top it off, their visual presentation is shoddy and dull, with slick textures and (sometimes) garish green spots that make them look like something out of Area 51 rather than one of the most horrifying monsters in film history.
As a result of the subpar A.I. for the Xenos, the gameplay becomes criminally repetitive. There’s little variation from the linear FPS style, despite the rich potential for strategy. There are a couple moments that mildly shake things up, most prominently one stage where a weaponless Winter has to quietly sneak around Xenos who can’t see but have elevated sense of hearing. (The legendary smart gun is a riot too, but the ability to use it is criminally limited.) For the most part, it’s a predictable grind of blasting through hordes of mindless Xenos and/or Weyland-Yutani mercenaries, and virtually nothing else. While James Cameron’s movie leaves one fatigued from how seamlessly it moves from one intense, innovative sequence to the next, the game leaves one fatigued from the rote boredom of slogging through each by-the-numbers passage.
On a visual level, the game falls short of the mark as well. While the graphics aren’t quite what I’d deem atrocious, making a solid Alien franchise installment requires atmosphere and a visual aesthetic that’s nothing short of top-shelf. (Even the much maligned Prometheus, incoherent as its writing was, was visually striking.) The level designs are competent enough, yet they don’t evoke the unique, spectral atmosphere of the films. More frustratingly, there’s an abundance of screen-tearing and framerate loss, especially during the cutscenes on the Xbox 360 version. (According to Angry Joe’s review, the PC version is devoid of these technical deficiencies, likely making it the optimal way of enduring this game’s campaign.)
Exacerbating the problems of weak gameplay and enemies is the blandness of the characters themselves. While the marines in the movie weren’t exactly literary figures from a Steinbeck novel, they were nonetheless charismatic and easy to get attached to. Upon what had to be my seventh total viewing of the film back in June, I was rooting for Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez and company just as passionately as ever. I still felt my stomach drop out when the marines are first ambushed by the Xenomorphs, and punched the air emphatically when they escaped. While the most important character development in the film is obviously devoted to Ellen Ripley, the key marines are still imbued with dimensional personalities that make them stand out. Hicks’ poise and cool demeanor in the face of adversity, Vasquez’s machismo, and Hudson’s cocky facade that quickly crumbles the moment things get dire make them more than just a generic batch of soldiers.
The main soldiers of Colonial Marines, on the other hand, are practically faceless. Their dialogue exchanges are flat and delivered without a semblance of personality, and they lack any distinguishing character traits that make them even remotely likable. Winter in particular might be the most empty vessel of a character ever to pass for a protagonist in a game, with virtually no character development throughout the story. (I couldn’t even remember his name until a few sessions into my playthrough of the campaign.) Even the most devout Xenophile will have a difficult time committing any of these vanilla grunts to memory. Ironically, nothing encapsulates their banality more than the plotline that tries the hardest to make the player care for them. Some time after landing on LV-426, Bella realizes the dire situation of being impregnated by a facehugger, forcing Winter and O’Neal to get her to a surgical station before the inevitable happens. The whole time, I was amazed how little I cared whether or not she would survive the ordeal.
All of this isn’t to say literally every aspect of Colonial Marines is a complete failure. (Granted, scraping for positive things to say feels a bit like the “broken clock is right twice a day” way of looking at things.) While the gameplay and characters are atrocious, the game still boasts some technical strengths, chiefly its sound effects. The pulse rifle and motion tracker in particular are straight from the movie, and add a nice dose of authenticity. There’s an abundance of good fan service too; the player will find Bishop’s severed legs and acid holes left by the Queen in the Sulaco’s docking bay, as well as the hallway sentry guns in Hadley’s Hope. (If you’re tenacious enough in the sewer escape level, you’ll even find the severed head of Newt’s doll.) Navigating the stormy terrains of LV-426 is a treat too, especially since it takes place after the colony was destroyed at the end of the movie. The visual of the smoke billowing from the ruins of the atmosphere processor in the distance is surprisingly memorable.
Yet these hardly make up for the aforementioned flaws, which are especially worsened by terrible story and pacing choices. The first comes early on in the campaign while still exploring the Sulaco. Before you even set foot on LV-426, you’re battling Weyland-Yutani mercenaries on the second level. The inclusion of the mercenaries is in and of itself not the problem. After all, it’s the subtext of the corporation’s ruthless desire to keep the alien specimen alive that raises the dramatic stakes of the franchise’s better films. Had this been included towards the end, perhaps in a scenario where you’re just about to eliminate the alien threat once and for all, it would have been far more effective. Instead, it feels like the Xenos have been chucked aside for an impromptu round of Call of Duty. This section also drags on so interminably you even forget you’re playing a game based on Aliens in the first place.
Even more egregious is a retconning decision that, bluntly, makes no sense whatsoever. It turns out one of the marines from the Sulaco survived, and has been taken hostage by Weyland-Yutani. When they’re rescued by O’Neal and Winter it’s revealed to be none other than….Dwayne Hicks. As you may already know, Hicks clearly survived in Aliens, only to die at the beginning of Alien 3. (A canonical decision many fans have wanted to be rectified, granted.) Despite Hicks’ popularity and the decision to have Michael Biehn play him once again, the decision adds surprisingly no resonance to the story, on top of just being pointless and confusing. It’s especially painful to hear Biehn phone it in after turning him into perhaps the single coolest marine in movie history in the original film.
Wrapping up this clusterfuck with a tidy bow is the boss fight with the Queen…if you can call it that. Remember the feeling you got watching Ripley battle the Queen with the Powerloader? The shock when the Queen splits Bishop in half and tries to hunt down Newt, the way your palms sweated with each blow they trade, the way you punched the air in almost pavlovian fashion when Ripley says, “Get away from her you bitch!”? Colonial Marines tries to equal this white-knuckle intensity by…having you push a few buttons and launch the Queen out of the open door. That’s it. No strategy, no Powerloader, no state of the art weaponry. The fight is literally just pushing a few buttons followed by a cutscene. Really, could there be a more apt summary for the embarrassing non-effort that is this game?
Luckily, there have been silver linings in the three years since Colonial Marines was unceremoniously shat out. Just over a year later, Sega and Creative Assembly delivered the exceptional Alien: Isolation, giving the franchise a great game that utilized all of its strengths rather than botch them. Meanwhile, the film franchise looks set to stir to life next year with Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Even with this abundance of good news, there are still those working tirelessly to ensure that Colonial Marines isn’t a lost cause.
Yet all of these don’t make going through Gearbox’s folly any less dispiriting. Considering the amount of time that went into its development, as well as the veritable armada of companies that worked on it, one still can’t help but wish the final product ended up far more inspired, engaging and replete than what gamers were ultimately left with. With the franchise’s recent revival, there may still be hope that fans will finally experience an A-class Aliens game. Unless (until?) that day arrives, though, all we really have is this. And that’s enough to make even the most loyal Alien fan yell their heartiest “Game over man, game over!”