Aliens: Colonial Marines is a game that's been on everyone's radar (especially mine) since it was first announced a little over 6 years ago. The game garnered so much attention because of its deep connection within the Alien universe. Over the years there have been several attempts to make video games based off the popular sci-fi franchise, but none of them have been hailed as the "sequel" to the 1986 film classic, Aliens. In the entertainment world movies spawn games all the time and unfortunately, visa versa (i.e. Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Max Payne). But with one of the country's biggest developers of FPS titles partnered with 20th Century Fox to collaborate on an official Aliens title it's impossible not to let your hopes sail out into space along with the Nostromo.
My high expectations for game were so high because of my love of cinema. My DVD library contains around 700 titles, including some of my favorite scfi-fi films, the original Alien Trilogy (I do not own an Alien movie released after 1992 nor do I choose to acknowledge their existence...much like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). And I know I'm not alone in my nerdom as fans of both movies and games, especially the sci-fi genre, represent a huge cross section in our culture. In fact, the original film has influenced video games more than any other movie in recent memory. Games like Doom and Dead Space have been borrowing from the iconic films for years. Gamers have cautiously walked through countless corridors in both space stations and ghost ships alike and every time we do, we half expect the hand of a xenomorph to pop out of a nearby ventilation system. Now with the release of Colonial Marines, we finally have the chance to confront the acid drooling creatures that have terrified us for nearly four decades.
The game picks up seventeen weeks after the events of the second film and occurs sometime during or after the timeframe of Alien 3. As a follow up to James Cameron's film, we find another group of Colonial Marines dispatched to investigate the U.S.S. Sulaco after receiving a distress call from Corporal Hicks. After boarding the craft, which is caught in orbit around LV-426, players discover that the ship has been infested with xenomorphs and a Weyland-Yutani military group that has been using Marines as hosts for the aliens. Unfortunately after boarding the Sulaco, players will also discover that the game hardly lives up to its grand plot. The premise of the game is undeniably awesome and filled with potential but despite hopes that Colonial Marines would add another chapter to the Alien saga or be one of the year's best shooters, the game falls short on both fronts. Colonial Marines will certainly entertain fans with loads of nostalgia and references to the film but it never really amounts to anything more than that.
The biggest issue with the game is the lack of any real tension. The development teams did an amazing job of faithfully recreating the iconic sets, but aside from the scenery, they weren't able to capture the same fear filled atmosphere as the movies. In the original film, one xeno takes out an entire crew with the exception of Ripley and a cat, but in the game the aliens feel like nothing more than glistening cannon fodder. Armed with an expansive arsenal of overpowered weapons, turrets, and a seemingly endless supply of ammo, dispatching the xenos is about as difficult as tying your military grade combat boots. Even though the game is a shooter at heart, allowing players to tote along an incalculable number of weapons takes away any real challenge or strategy. Instead of swapping weapons to ration ammo or exploit the weakness of a specific enemy, you can pretty much kill everything that moves rather effortlessly with any weapon in your arsenal. And since the shotgun is somehow lethal from the same distance as an assault rifle the only real choice players have to make is whether or not they just want to kill the xeno or watch it explode when pumped with buckshot.
There are some gameplay elements, like the motion scanners, that attempt to capture some of the suspense from the movies. In the film, watching the blip of a xeno quickly approaching was downright terrifying but in the game the scanners hardly recreate the same sense of dread. In reality, the scanner is only useful to locate xenos that you already know are in the room but you're unable to spot because they blend in with the oozing decor. For a brief moment your heart does race when a flashing dot appears next to you but that fear quickly dissolves when you turn around to find a xeno casually standing in the corner like something out of the Blair Witch Project.
The game's lacking AI causes a number of oddities and usually prompts the shiny little buggers to stand motionless in front of you, welcoming a round to their over-sized craniums, rather than attacking. This proves to be somewhat cumbersome, especially when the objective requires you to clear an area of hostiles. Sometimes it can take several frustrating minutes to scour a entire room only to find the last remaining xeno hanging out in an alcove, nonchalantly reading a copy of Tiger Beat. And when the aliens aren't suffering from severe paralysis they're literally jumping in front of your weapon as if lining up to get shot in the face. It's no secret that for the xeno soldiers to attack they have to be up close and personal, but it's almost ridiculous for enemies to wildly leap in front of your gun when playing a FPS. Unlike a Velociraptor, the xeno attacks rarely come from the sides and seem to only occur when you're directly facing them. And unfortunately for our xenomorph friends, haphazardly leaping at a Marine carrying more firepower than John Rambo usually means they'll be dead before the hit the ground. Not so clever girl.
One of the most confusing aspects of the game has to be the amount of detail poured into certain areas while other parts are so clearly lacking. The attention to detail in terms of reference to the film is incredible, but why accurately reconstruct the environments so precisely only to texture the assets with noticeably low resolution maps? Getting to explore levels based on the infamous Sulaco, LV-426, and the abandoned alien craft are without a doubt cool, but abundant technical nuances significantly distract from the experience. It's almost as if the developers focused more on making an homage to the film and completely lost sight that they were building a video game. This is a huge oversight because if I simply wanted to see familiar props from the film to remind me of my childhood...I'd just watch the film again. What I'm looking for in video game is exactly that, gameplay. I'm certainly not interested in shelling out sixty clams to take a first person walking tour of film sets recreated in a digital world.
The campaign mode is also alarmingly short and takes anywhere from 4-6 hours to complete. For most players the length of the experience will vary depending on skill level and how much time they spend looking for film inspired Easter Eggs. But even the most methodical players will agree that Colonial Marines' single player offering is undeniably sparse, especially considering the games' lengthy development cycle. Even the campaign mode in the Call of Duty titles (yes, they do have a single player campaign) takes an average of around 8 hours to complete and those games are churned out every other year. Colonial Marines does include an interesting approach to multiplayer and offers a handful of different formats, but like the single player experience, these areas are also unpolished. The ability to control xenos while playing online is a nice touch and provides some seemingly fun scenarios for matches, but a lack of balance between the character types gives the Marines a distinct advantage. The sparse number of available maps for the various multiplayer modes also means you'll be getting pretty familiar with your surroundings when taking your game online. Between the repeating levels and superiority of the Marines most gamers will find the multiplayer mode to get stale pretty quickly.
Overall, the game manages to do some things right in terms of staying in line with the film, but that simply won't be enough to keep fans and gamers hooked. Subpar graphics, an abundance of technical hiccups, and dismal AI makes playing through Colonial Marines feel like more of a chore rather than a stroll down memory lane. The game also fails to really add anything new to the overarching narrative of the films which makes the entire experience somewhat forgettable. Even though Gearbox Software and TimeGate Studios had a seemingly unreachable bar of expectations set by their fans it's still disappointing that Colonial Marines couldn't have been more. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles is the fact that the films have influenced so many other games that there wasn't much territory left to explore. Although Colonial Marines is an official release with the Alien branding it already feels too familiar. And when you take away the underlying ties to the film you're left with a sci-fi shooter that doesn't really bring anything new to the table (I'll take killing necromorphs over xenomorphs any day).
Regardless of the reason, it's sad to see a missed opportunity like this with such a beloved franchise. I think the real reason expectations were so high, especially for me, is because of the nature of the project. It's no secret that gamers and developers alike often fly the same geek banner. Whenever an opportunity for nerds to make a game based on a movie that was hailed by...well...nerds...the possibilities should be endless. This holds true when you look at similar releases along the same nerdy lines. For instance, take a gander at the phenomenal Arkham games that Rocksteady Studios has developed over the past few years with the Batman license. Playing the Arkham titles, both as a fan of the comics and of video games, was like wrapping myself in a warm nerdy blanket in which I felt safe. I knew that I could trust the capable hands of my nerdy brethren on the development teams to deliver an experience that was truly authentic to the comics because we were cut from the same cloak. That's the same way I felt with Colonial Marines. I figured my faith would be well placed in a group of nerds making a game that's specifically for an audience of nerds. But unfortunately, a long development cycle and an unpolished release indicates that somewhere along the way Hadley's Hope was lost (pun intended). Given the massive scale of the project in terms of a partnership with 20th Century Fox, the collaboration between Gearbox and TimeGate, and the exceedingly high expectations of the fans, it's not surprising that the concept may have grown to be too overwhelming. In the words of Burke, "Well. That...could've been better".