Developer: Gearbox Software – In association with: TimeGate Studios & Nerve Software
Platform Platform: PC
Release Date: February 12, 2013
It’s no secret that most licensed games live in a world somewhere between mediocre and terrible, and much of that can be attributed to rushed development times, C-list developers, and shallow source material. But take a revered film series with a rich and ever-growing fiction, fan-favorite developer hot off the delivery of a well-received game, and a lengthy development cycle, and you might just have the ingredients for a great game. Aliens: Colonial Marines has all of those elements, but none of that matters if it can’t live up to its hype.
The story of Colonial Marines takes place between Aliens and Alien 3 and fills in some story gaps from the films. You fill the boots of United States Colonial Marine Corporal Christopher Winter as his team is sent to respond to a distress call sent by Dwayne Hicks. From there, the plot winds down an uninspired and incomprehensible path. Fans of the film series might be excited to learn that Colonial Marines is considered canon, but there are no startling revelations here, considering most of the ties to the series involve less-than-subtle winks to popular movie moments. The dialogue is comically bad and the delivery stilted, even by series veterans Lance Henrikson and Michael Biehn. If that wasn’t bad enough, the uninteresting characters leave you with no emotional attachment.
Colonial Marines is set within the framework of a modern military first-person shooter, taking cues from Call of Duty and Halo, for better or for worse. This lends a sense of familiarity to the controls, but this wholesale lifting of gameplay elements leads to head-scratchers like the ability to perform melee attacks, which makes little sense when the last thing you want to do is get up close and personal with your alien enemies. (More on this in a moment.)
The vast majority of your time with Colonial Marines is spent running down hallways, getting to a locked door, and shooting a few things before you can unlock it or cut it open with your plasma torch. Gearbox describes these claustrophobic sprints as “Gauntlet Runs”, which makes them sound far more interesting than they really are. Even when you’re outdoors, Colonial Marines barely tries to hide its narrow corridors that bring gameplay linearity to new and uncharted heights.
These so-called “Gauntlet Runs” might be okay if the actual shooting were in any way interesting or fun. The enemy AI is completely brain dead, leading to a single winning strategy: stand in one place and hold the trigger. Battling Xenomorphs lacks tension, and each one you bring down in a hail of gunfire is a little less exciting than the last. In fact, your human enemies (yes, there are human enemies, for some reason) are a much bigger threat, but even this combat wears thin almost immediately and the rest of the game feels like a relentless slog.
Even with such a rich history to draw from, Colonial Marines manages to squander opportunities at every corner. Perhaps the biggest of these is the nature of the Xenomorphs themselves. In the films, they are a terrifying force to be reckoned with, but here they’re little more than cannon fodder. The waves and waves of them you take down easily make the monsters lose their edge. It should be absolutely frightening when a Xeno gets up in your face, but instead they bounce off of you like a pinball. The one sequence where the game has a great opportunity to really scare you falls flat thanks to terrible enemy animation and AI.
These missed opportunities aren’t just about the story and fiction, though; there are some interesting gameplay elements that are hampered by poor execution. The inclusion of the motion trackers from Aliens is a solid idea, and the device works well, but ultimately there’s no real reason to use it. In addition, you’ll rank up during the campaign based on kills and exploring the world, earning you points toward improving weapons functionally and aesthetically. This seems like a neat inclusion until you realize you can’t actually use most of those weapons in the single-player portion of the game.
Visually, Colonial Marines is sloppy and lacks cohesion. Parts of the environment are well-implemented and technically proficient, while other elements look like they’re unfinished. It seems that the most care was taken in re-creating existing elements of the Alien fiction, while anything created specifically for the game have bland models and muddy textures that suffer from serious pop-in issues. Even worse, you’re forced to look at those dull new elements quite often since rooms and sometimes entire sections are re-used multiple times. The lighting, fire, explosions, and other effects are downright embarrassing. Often the game will use little tricks like smoke or forced perspectives in a vain attempt to hide poor graphics and stilted animations.
It’s nearly impossible to ship a big-budget game of this scope without bugs and technical issues, but the number in Colonial Marines is completely unacceptable. Enemies run around not attacking you, or simply stay put in their spawn point without moving until you shoot them. Models clip through each other constantly. Lighting freaks out and the game slows to a crawl when attempting to hide any of its numerous load-ins. While the gameplay never completely breaks, there are moments when you might feel like the entire world around you could fall apart. Perhaps Gearbox should have instituted a bug hunt of their own.
Perhaps the most redeeming quality of Colonial Marines is its sound. The music borrows from the film’s James Horner score, and although the horror falls flat, the well-executed musical stings make you wish they didn’t. The sound effects are also quite good, from the roar of the alien creatures to the thumping retort of the classic pulse rifle.
The multiplayer component of Colonial Marines offers both cooperative and competitive play, each of which brings some unique elements to an otherwise shallow package. The co-op mode offers dynamic drop-in slots for up to four players online, making the combat a bit more intriguing than dealing with your inept AI squadmates. There are a variety of multiplayer modes that borrow elements from modern competitive FPS games, including team deathmatch with aliens vs. marines. Your character progression carries through the entire game, including single-player, co-op, and competitive online play.