His Review with Ian Abbott
Officially endorsed by Twentieth Century Fox as an authentic, new narrative insertion between Aliens and Alien 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines is the latest addition to the lore and world of the Alien franchise.
Gestating for over ten years, ownership and development rights have changed several times over the past decade until it has finally come to rest predominately in the hands of developers Gearbox Software (though there have been many accusations of them outsourcing much of the work to other studios) and publishers Sega. My familiarity with the Alien movies is slight (I did recently endure Prometheus having only seen two of the first three films over a decade ago); I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the films, characters and locations, so approached this new game objectively with no previous personal investment in the world. However, I imagine the pitch to create the game must have been an impressive one – “Okay, picture this! We’ll not only intimately replicate the most iconic locations and ships but we’ll bring back original film actors to voice their characters and fill in the missing details of the 17 weeks. It’ll be the ultimate spiritual sequel after James Cameron’s Aliens. Then we’ll pack it full of Xenomorphs, Facehuggers and Chestbursters and attract a whole new generation of audience to the Alien world!” Aliens: Colonial Marines comes nowhere near being as good as this pitch as is a badly designed, terrible, joyless playing experience. If this were a franchise I dearly loved and had invested in I would consider this poor game a sacrilege.
The atmosphere throughout the entire single player campaign was deader than the lifeless Marines who litter the floor of Hadley’s Hope. There was little sense of tension or suspense whilst the narrative journeys or development of already well-established and rounded characters was dreary. Elsewhere, the environmental interaction was negligible. If there was an incredible shooting mechanic or a rich narrative arc to invest in, I might be more forgiving. Despite the fact that I was taken inside one of cinema’s most famous spaceships, being monotonously fed the equivalent of a bland diet with replicated cardboard cut-out style level design in eight out the nine missions, was simply not good enough. There was no richness or detail on the abandoned work stations whilst the same stock of blinking blank screens dotted around were blurred and fuzzy. Despite the promises, there were no obvious visual echoes of what had previously taken place in Aliens, though I perhaps wouldn’t know to look and certainly wasn’t encouraged to care. The layout might be authentic and identical to the movies but the atmosphere was very different.
Taking on the role of US Colonial Marine Cpl Christopher Winter, as a first person shooter Aliens: CM is a wonky and uneven affair with the distribution of skills and abilities one of my main frustrations. Throughout the single player campaign I battled alongside other Marines as a team, operating in short bursts down gauntlet corridor runs, escaping from exploding ships, taking down bow headed enemies and defending areas of particular importance. All the while, my Marine colleague O’Neal consistently barked inane and repetitive phrases like “area clear” with a throat ripping hoarseness every two minutes. I prefer a soundtrack and audio design to build the mood, to take me on an emotive journey and add invisible textures to my gaming experience. Here, the in-game cut scenes featured lip-syncing that looked worse that a badly dubbed 1970s Chinese to English martial arts movie which when coupled with yet more of O’Neal’s annoying shouting created a massive, irreversible detachment between characters and me as the player.
From mission one, my Weyland Yutani mercenary enemies and marine buddies adopted a default cover position, allowing them to blind fire at each other in a stand-off. How maddening then that all I could do is either crouch and pop back up in direct line of sight like a human target on a fun fair shooting range, ready to be picked off. Windows were destroyed as bullets shattered plates of glass, creating potential new ways through the level yet I could only watch as my teammates and enemies cat jumped through the broken frames, fashioning shortcuts and getting additional cover points whilst my stiff character not only had to adhere to the one linear pathway through the level, but was massively restricted in movement and options; impeding my progress. Showing me that all the NPCs are able to execute cool moves, adopt realistic positions and move through the level with ease highlighted the unbelievable inconsistency and genuinely riled me as it destroyed any sense of fluid, authentic combat or more importantly, fun.
Even the multiplayer and co-op modes, though they offered slight improvements in the satisfaction and enjoyment stakes, created memorable experiences for all the wrong reasons. Quickly frustrated after completing the first two missions on the single player, I thought I’d try the four player online co-op mode. Choosing a random level selection, I thought I was entering into a new story with three strangers and from the off, it seemed quite tricky with a large boss to defeat. It was only at the end, after a massive cut scene spoiler that the credits rolled and I realised I’d just completed the final chapter of the whole game. It seems Gearbox still think that when joining others online, it’s acceptable to dump me into a future section of the story and it totally killed what little incentive I had to play the rest of the game. The other four modes of Team Deathmatch, Extermination, Escape and Survivor are fairly rudimental in their design as the maps appear to be slight reworkings of levels found in the single player campaign and are examples of a massive sneakfest, doing nothing to better other big and impressive multiplayer games on the market like Gears of War 3 or Assassins Creed Brotherhood (though admittedly with the single highlight being you get to play as a convincing Xenomorph and take down the Marines). The needlessly detailed inventory of character customisation (random unlocked skins that included an Italian emblem on my chest or a knife which cannot be used on my belt) added little to my gaming experience whilst the sound of the motion tracker finally became irksome.
The execution of the entire design is weak and my enjoyment flatlined throughout. Aliens: Colonial Marines has left me feeling sad not just because a celebrated franchise has been sullied but is evidence once again that if a game has had a long and uncomfortable birth there are usually valid and genuine reasons why it shouldn’t ever see the light of day.
Her Review with Tracey McGarrigan
I can still recall the first time I watched Ellen Ripley’s incredible escape from the Nostromo in the original Alien movie and it remains for me one of the most exhilarating cinematic confrontations I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, my mum was the very open minded sort and in her company, as soon as the video came out my underage self over indulged in every frame that was the gory terror of the action sequel Aliens. These two movies will always remain a benchmark for how I like my sci-fi. So it’s fair to say I was just a little bit giddy and tense at the thought of returning to LV-426, this time with a pulse rifle rather than popcorn in my hand.
Predictably, the beefed up “chicks and dicks” band of Marines responding to a distress call made by a heavily wounded Corporal Hicks are cocky and confident as they awake from stasis on the Sephora. The opening 10 minutes of the game burst with testosterone as the leading man Christopher Winter pumped himself up for his first steps over to the infamous Sulaco. Immediately, amber flashing alarms started wailing as Winter picked his way over bloody bodies that greeted him. Somewhere, a member of the first rescue party was missing. Away from the alarms in the silence of the Sulaco’s hangar bay, synthetic torn legs (which I knew were the remains of a sliced up Bishop following his encounter with the Alien Queen at the end of Aliens and which Ian hadn’t remembered at all) eerily pointed the way deeper into the ship. So far so brilliantly crafted as all my initial adrenaline chilled to apprehension and I ploughed on accompanied by the same old ping of my motion tracker. Though less technologically advanced, I know the aliens are determined, persistently brutal and will be equally good at tracking me down, be it through air vents or caged ceiling rails.
Then the whole game got shit.
Squelching through a Xenomorph nest to find the missing marine mid-cocooned yet still alive, my first encounter with the tar-black banana headed enemy was more a timid game of tag rather than the violent, desperate or tense fight for survival I was expecting. The alien moved in for a swipe then bounced away and I had to go and chase it down to pack it with bullets. As in-game training it was acceptable as newcomers get to grips with shooting and navigating. As a way of completely destroying any authentic sense of overwhelming horror or threat it was heartbreakingly perfect. Requiring no skill whatsoever, with a press of one button I had cut down and rescued the marine who despite finding himself trapped by one of the deadliest predators in space hadn’t sustained any injuries and even had his full uniform still intact. Grabbing his shotgun from the floor, he ran back to the hanger and proceeded to lob a random grenade into the space BEFORE a pack of aliens arrived which the other marines from the lobby took as an invitation to join in providing both ammunition and appallingly hammy observations. As players, I expect most of us are familiar with the franchise and know the aliens are to be respectably feared and should prove to be tough opponents but the party of newly boarded marines had yet to learn this so I found their lack of surprise, questioning or morbid curiosity grating. The heightened emotional responses and realistic dialogue from the movie that made the hearts pound in sweating, wincing cinema audiences were evidently sucked away into space with Ripley, Newt, Bishop and Hicks, leaving the Sulaco to be sullied with macho, hollow stock phrases and the arrogant, artificial, insincere dullness of a bunch of ignorant, shouting, bullet blasting marines.
O’Neal, as Ian has already commented, was the worse character from a poor line up. With a face that suggests his parents might have been the Bride of Wildenstein and Mr Potato Head, he was by Winter’s side for most of the game and persisted in ruining cut scene after action sequence after boss battle – basically every bit of the game. His opening gambit about Bella, a fellow marine was that she was someone who he had “a sex thing” with. After a brief reunion hug, she bluntly explained that she woke up with a facehugger on her but it was dead so she tore it off and nuttin’ was gonna happen to her (yup, totally doomed, I know). Then it was back to the shooting and the blasting and the cool sliding through windows that made both Ian and I mad with control envy.
The one section of the game I did enjoy and that is certainly worth a mention was mission 5. Stripped of all equipment, Winter had to make his way through the sewers of Hadley’s Hope alone. After some twitchy, genuinely scary moments as an enraged alien hunted him down, Winter found himself creeping past silent alien husks, some of which unfolded into staggering aliens that race to explode over anything that makes a noise. The lack of a weapon suddenly meant to survive was an exercise in being still, quiet, methodical and patient. Immediately out of the sewers, the giant alien picked up Winter’s trail and it was a frantic race to stay ahead, desperately welding doors shut behind as the maddened beast thumped its head on the fragile glass. The overwhelming feeling of insecurity combined with air ventilations blades rotating rhythmically; casting light shafts that pick out stagnant details was a true high point. All too quickly, the game returned to the same, loud, swaggering bang bang as before until the final, brief turgid ending.
Elsewhere, the multiplayer is also brilliant. Playing as a xenomorph is a definite challenge for the most seasoned of online gamers as the aliens can climb all surfaces at any angle, dash forward and have an impressive arrange of special skills including spitting acid. If a team works well together be it as aliens or marines, the matches can be fairly well balanced which considering the ease in which the aliens fell into oncoming bullets during the single player campaign, is a welcome relief.
I wanted to love this game so much. The first moments of stepping onto the Sulaco, using the iconic motion tracker and bright yellow power loaders or dashing through a troubled Hadley’s Hope were still precious and like being invited onto the Aliens movie lot. Sadly this awe is hard to sustain throughout the whole game and I was left feeling that everything might have been better if Ripley had never escaped; if the aliens had been colonialism’s champions. With little depth, shallow emotions, a lot of shouting and a crouch button that I’m surprised didn’t make the aliens snigger in derision, if Aliens: Colonial Marines is the spiritual sequel to the movies, then I must actually be a soulless android and warmly welcome hugs on my face.