In past reviews I’ve mentioned that I typically keep away from preview coverage, mostly to keep myself from being spoiled on any (even insignificant) gameplay or story details. Keeping a general media blackout has some advantages. In the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines it helped to diminish an overwhelming sense of disappointment. The majority consensus is that Aliens: Colonial Marines is a sour, disappointing turd that was misrepresented during preview events, tarnished Gearbox and does nothing to add to the overall Alien franchise. Being out of the general PR frenzy loop, I figured I would at least be able to approach the game without any preview-tainted expectations.
As the tag line for the original Alien movie goes, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The tag line for Aliens: Colonial Marines could very well be, “In space, no one cares if you scream.” I say this not because there is a lack of tension and fear, but because the game allows focus to be easily redirected without any consequence. During almost every section of the game, there is an AI-controlled squad mate who will take the brunt of the alien attacks, charge ahead and draw fire, all the while the player can leisurely stroll through an area searching for collectibles. This tag line could also be applicable because the plot is so convoluted and does so very little to push the franchise forward. The developers are basically saying, “Scream all you want, we’ve already got your money.”
For a game that spent over six years in development limbo, very little shows for it. The excuse is that Gearbox had TimeGate Studios do the bulk of the work on the campaign. If Gearbox’s name wasn’t associated with the title, I would almost think about giving the game a pass. It isn’t mind blowing, but there are some aspects that almost work, and the game isn’t completely broken. But too often the game feels like there was a mandate to force spectacle into every section, each level attempting to outdo the last. That’s not the spirit of the Alien universe. In the original movie a bunch of normal space mining engineers confront a single xenomorph and only Ripley barely survives.
In the sequel, bravado and overconfidence swoops down to save the day, only to result in slaughter by swarms of xenomorphs. So Colonial Marines picks up the notion that Corporal Hicks has sent out a distress call and after 17 weeks, two waves of Colonial Marines have arrived to find out what happened. During that 17 weeks, the corporation Weyland-Yutani has managed to secretly establish a huge scientific presence studying the xenomorphs and performing all sorts of tests to determine how to make money from the deadly species. How the hell does a corporation swoop in to a remote planet, establish a secret base of operations, tinker with the bad end of mother nature, get overrun and lose control, and then when the “good guys” show up, respond with their own elite squad of heavily equipped military forces? After the first two disasters on LV-426, wouldn’t it make sense to just leave well enough alone?
I mention all of this simply for the fact that for all the plot holes, the story is the one thing that almost keeps the rest of the game from totally falling apart. Almost being the operative word. The stubborn, macho Colonial Marines are cut from the worst stereotypical tropes. Conversations (when they occur) are dreadful, expository-laden info dumps, and the sound mixing is painful. When a speaking character is too far from Winter (the soldier played in the story campaign) a voice is heard via comlink with a crisp sound. If that same person is in the same room (five or six feet away), the comlink communication is dropped and it sounds as if Winter has suddenly stuffed cotton into his ears and the only way to hear the other character speaking is to move right up in their face.
Apparently it was also too much work to make facial animations work when characters talk. In-game conversations are stilted affairs where it can be difficult to discern who is talking since the character animations are almost nonexistent. While standing around waiting for doors to open or for elevators to traverse through the levels, character models stand perfectly still. No fidgeting, no swaying, no adjusting gear. They just stand there motionless, lifeless. Squad AI is a random crap shoot as well. In some areas, the AI follows Winter around like a love sick puppy, blocking doorways or access to switches. In other areas, the AI darts ahead into a dark room, guns blazing as if the engine code knows that there are enemies to shoot, which ends up breaking the illusion of fear, tension, and the unknown. It is during these moments that I discovered that I could take Winter on a leisurely stroll through overgrown xeno corruption seeking out audio playback devices (which often tell a better back story than the main characters), Legendary weapons (left by wayside characters from the movie) and the dog tags of fallen Marines.
For as much fear and tension as the game SHOULD have delivered, the game instead offers too-brief moments that feel claustrophobic followed by long moments of dull, empty, unoccupied space. Most levels are set in areas that seem familiar, be they from the movie proper or just what you would expect from a sci-fi romp set in a hidden scientific research facility out in the middle of a nowhere planet. But everything is static. No lights can be shot out. None of the clutter on desks can be knocked over. Corpses and xeno husks that are strewn around don’t react to bullets. The game feels like a well intentioned but poorly executed carnival spook house. Mileage from touring the spook house from town to town has made all of the scares half cocked, and everything in the environment feels worn down and tired.
The only thing that seems to have any spark of life in the entire game are the xenomorphs. When they appear out of air ducts, or crawl along the walls and ceiling, the animations and the subtle detail that appears as light from rounds bursting out of the pulse rifle flicker and illuminate the darkened passages create that sense of fear and tension of facing some of the deadliest creatures ever seen on a screen. Hissing and chirping and screeching out in pain all add to a sense of how terrifying and unrelenting the xenomorphs can be. But like pretty much everything else with this title, ACM also has to keep upping the ante with different xenomorph types. Acid flinging (with deadly accuracy) xenos, blind explosive xenos, and hulking elephant-like xenos all work to bring new elements to the game while at the same time retconning a fiction created by the movies. Don’t add bigger and tougher aliens just to change up the enemy type. Don’t add faceless corporate military-grade guards. Just throw wave after wave of the same creepy, fast, screeching, hissing H.R. Geiger-designed xenomorph and we’ll be happy.
ACM also offers a varied selection of multiplayer modes, including co-op with support for both online and local split-screen. One problem I encountered with co-op (but now seems to have been addressed in a patch released over the weekend) is if your partner gets too far ahead, the game teleports your character to wherever your partner is. This was annoying, because at times my OCD tendency to look for every dog tag or audio recording took over, only to be disrupted by the game randomly teleporting me before I could finish looking in every corner possible.
Versus modes are split along different styles of gameplay, but for the life of me the only matches I could ever seem to join were straight up traditional deathmatch rounds. Playing as a xeno is fairly interesting as that species’ point of view allows humans to be seen through walls. Xenos also move very fast and can pounce from great distances, but are very fragile and don’t take much to be killed. All of the versus modes play out like a hyper fast Call of Duty frag fest. Maybe I’m not very good, but at the same time, maybe if the gameplay was more engaging I’d spend more time trying to be good. Even with the game being out for almost a month (and given the mostly poor reception) there is still a fairly active group of folks playing the multiplayer modes.
Aliens: Colonial Marines wooed fans by promising the next great chapter in the Alien franchise from a developer highly respected for other hit FPS franchises like Borderlands and Brothers in Arms. Rather than delivering on the promise, ACM offers a convoluted, lifeless story, told through lifeless, static levels containing lifeless, stereotypical characters. While there are some interesting moments, ACM falls flat by retreading story material previously told by two cinematic geniuses. Relying on too many gimmicky callbacks from the movie, ACM forfeits the chance of exploring a new and unique setting and story, and ultimately tarnishes a pop cultural icon.
+ Detail on the xenos is top notch
+ Sound design for the gear is replicated nicely from the movies
+ Local split screen and online co-op
– Lifeless environments
– Lifeless squad mates
– Convoluted and uninspired story
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360 and coming to Wii U
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 2/12/2013
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-12 (2-4 online co-op, 2 split-screen co-op, 12 online versus)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher