If you’re even remotely plugged into the online gaming ‘ether’, then you’ll be fully aware of the controversy surrounding Aliens: Colonial Marines. Infamously stuck in development hell for several years, the shooter was supposedly passed from pillar to post behind the scenes, and it really shows.
One of the first things that struck us about the campaign is just how dated everything looks. Janky animations and completely emotionless potato-like faces make a mockery of the voice acting, while NPCs run into objects on regular occasions. You play as a rather generic soldier, who we'll refer to as Grunt-ulese for the purposes of this review. He shouts a lot, swears, and comes into contact with several other marines who look and sound very similar to him.
Visually, the game is extremely poor. Environments are identical and it’s very easy to become disorientated in a firefight. The bland textures are punctuated by the occasional wall mounted console or screen, although these are purely for decorative purposes as closer investigation shows that they are little more than a blurry blue mess. The lighting is similarly disappointing, failing to adapt to different perspectives and generally killing the atmosphere. Comparably bland looking enemies have some of the worst AI in recent years and spasm between animations, attacking ferociously one minute and running into walls the next.
The fundamentals aren’t much more impressive. Shooting and movement controls are floaty and imprecise, forcing you to fire from the hip (which seems to be just as accurate as aiming down the sights) and guns don’t sound powerful enough and simply aren’t satisfying to fire. Bizarrely, unlike most first-person shooters, there’s no tangible sound or on-screen marker that indicates if an enemy has been hit by one of your bullets, often leaving you firing wildly until your foe stops moving. Ammo, health, and armour can be found throughout levels and are occasionally dropped by enemies. However, rather than automatically picking them up as you pass, you have to look directly at them and press square, leaving you totally vulnerable to attack.
In place of a map in the corner of your screen, Grunt-ulese comes equipped with the iconic ‘motion tracker’. While it isn’t a straight up map replacement, and at times you could really do with one, it initially works to great effect. There were several points at the beginning of the game where we would fervidly check our tracker, hear the dreaded ping and swing around, trying to catch a glimpse of our hunter. However, as we progressed, the daft AI made it difficult to be afraid, and, more often than not, we found ourselves bursting into rooms and adopting a ‘come at me bro’ stance. With the exclusion of a conventional map, it would be logical to assume the developers were trying to cut down on the amount of HUD and improve immersion, a la Dead Space, yet guns with an ammo counter on the weapon itself are needlessly accompanied by the same information in the corner of the screen.
Arguably the key ingredient to a tense, immersive, and claustrophobic shooter is isolation. The player should never be in a group, and, if needs must, it shouldn’t be larger than two people. But, through the simple act of being constantly accompanied, Aliens: Colonial Marines completely destroys any immersion it’s built up and it’s far too easy to predict what’s coming next. If your NPC partners are nowhere to be seen, it’s safe to assume that they’ve run on ahead and are waiting at the entrance to the next area, instantly diffusing any tension. However, if they’re awkwardly lurking a few feet behind you, anticipate more enemies. If it’s not NPCs taking you out of the experience, it’ll be a friend in the much touted online co-op mode. We’re staunch believers in the ideal that co-op makes any game more interesting, and while fun, nothing says ‘cinematic experience’ like four marines teabagging a dead alien.
There’s one level in particular where the developers nearly got it right. An isolated Grunt-ulese must traverse a sewer without any gear and avoid rousing a group of blind and explosive Xenomorphs that react to movement. It’s without a doubt the best part of the game, forcing you to move forward slowly and constantly check your surroundings. It’s a glimpse at what could have been and a glimmer of hope for the campaign, if only they could’ve mirrored such level design throughout the experience.
To make matters worse, the game lurches awkwardly from one painful-to-watch set piece to another. In one particular instance the ‘space-bridge’ we were traversing exploded behind us creating a vacuum into space. Seemingly taking the ‘muscle-bound FPS grunt’ stereotype to a new level, our hero hoisted himself up, using only his arms, from helpful handhold to handhold until he was clear of a set of blast doors that sealed behind him. Even for a sci-fi universe, that’s outrageous. You don’t have to boast a great deal of physics knowledge to know that suction from the vacuum of space is pretty damned powerful. It also massively contradicts later events that see objects and creatures whizzing out of broken windows, and this is only one of many frustrating inconsistencies that litter the game.
Topping it all off is the almost entirely nonsensical story. Poorly scripted dialogue is occasionally dropped in during gameplay in an attempt to stimulate a connection with your fellow marines, and laughably animated cutscenes attempt to justify the corridor shooting gallery you just fought your way through. It can barely provide a suitable experience for a hardcore fan of the Aliens universe, as they’ll rapidly disconnect from the story in an attempt to save themselves from the pain of seeing their beloved world butchered so carelessly. The plot is wrapped up with an ending so unsatisfying and convoluted that we couldn’t really have imagined a more suitable way to top off such a horrible campaign. That said, we were left staring at the screen with furrowed brow for a number of seconds before muttering, “Is that it?”
Fortunately, there are a couple of well thought out features. The levelling system transcends the campaign and versus modes. You’ll receive XP for finishing missions, playing multiplayer games, and completing challenges, with three available at any given time and a new one cycled in upon completion. As you level up, new guns, attachments, skins, and aesthetic options for multiplayer avatars are unlocked. Another nice touch is the Arsenal Upgrade menu, which allows you to customise your guns with the unlockables earned from levelling up. These range from stat altering attachments like laser dot sights (that don’t improve the gunplay) to personal preference pieces like an alternate-fire flamethrower.
Aliens: Colonial Marines’ versus modes are another standout feature. After creating your soldier and Xenomorph you can jump into four game types: Team Deathmatch, Extermination, where marines must ‘destroy’ eggs, Escape, in which a team of marines have to reach the end of a campaign-style level or get as far as they can, and Survivor, where the marine who survives the longest wins. Each mode has two rounds, allowing you to play as both the Xenomorphs and marines, but while playing as the aliens is fun, they’re quite difficult to control. It becomes obvious that playing as the marines requires sticking together, and when you do so, you’re unstoppable, with players on the alien team sprinting from their spawn to their grave with little thought for tactics. Unfortunately, aliens always have the same objective regardless of the game mode (to kill things), essentially devolving these rounds into little more than a buffer before the more interesting, objective-based marines.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a failure. It’s buggy, not a great deal of fun, and filled with unlikeable characters that desperately attempt to further a plot that you'll promptly lose interest in. It has some replayability, with dog tags, audio logs, and legendary weapons to find, but the core gameplay is so dreary that it's unlikely that you'll be lured back for a second round. If anything positive can be said about the game, it’s that it has made us want to watch the Aliens films again – primarily so that we can contemplate what could have been.