For all of its gifts to gaming, it's a shame James Cameron's Aliens has never birthed a great videogame. There have been a few earnest attempts, most involving Predator(s), but Aliens aches for a defining moment - something akin GoldenEye 007 or Escape from Butcher Bay - to understand its influence and realize its potential. Aliens: Colonial Marines, in some phase of development for over five years at Gearbox Software and a handful of other studios, desperately wants to be that game. Billed as a canonical follow-up to Aliens, it seeks to engulf the player in sights and sounds from the 1986 classic. Colonial Marines sure looks and sounds the part, but only by playing its part could it break the cycle of pedestrian Aliens games.
Colonial Marines runs its gamut of references with giddy delight. To the layman, pulse rifles that sound like Aliens pulse rifles seems like an obvious nod to the nomenclature of the Aliens universe. To the passionate fan, on the other hand, that distinctive rapid succession of spent-ammo is recognition of legitimacy, a secret handshake acknowledging the importance of lore, and Colonial Marines is quick to impress with its references. While aboard the Sulaco, the now-abandoned space ship from Aliens, you'll walk past those distinctive cryo-pods and personal lockers bearing names like VASQUEZ, APONE, and DRAKE. When you're on LV-426 and inside Hadley's Hope, you'll recognize the emptied sentry guns from the marine's last stand, the abandoned APC from the failed invasion, and Weyland-Yutani gear littering the premises. Even that weird 80's retro future - the CRT's with vector graphics, bulky laptops, and that ominous blue tint - is omnipresent and faithful to the source material.
In some cases Colonial Marines' level of detail is almost surreal. Aliens featured a scene near the Hadley's Hope medical bay where a sleeping Ripley and Newt were attacked by two face-huggers. This room is in Colonial Marines - and not just the room, but the overturned bed, the broken window Hicks dove through, and the busted up face-hugger on the floor. Someone at Gearbox did their homework, and they did a lot of it because there are a good number of vignettes like this lifted straight from Aliens. In this regard sections of Colonial Marines were more of virtual museum and a nostalgia induction apparatus than they were elements of a functional game, and that's exactly where a myriad of problems starts cropping up.
While you're bathing in Aliens nostalgia, you'll start to notice Colonial Marines isn't focused on telling its own story. In the interest of being a videogame one can excuse the absence of certain elements from Aliens' narrative; the Vietnam War allegory and forging a broken family among them. A battalion of marines responding to the Sulaco's distress signal and the ensuing drama behind the nefarious Weyland-Yutani corporation is what remains for Colonial Marines’ premise, and though its ramifications could affect the series as a whole, it really doesn't get too more complicated than further exploring Weyland-Yutani science projects.
A cold premise could easily be salvaged with great characters, but the squad of grunts in Colonial Marines are about as dull as they come. You play as Christopher Winter and are almost always paired with another marine, Peter O'Neal. These guys have zero defining characters traits beyond angry/excited military guy, with the only difference being O'Neal is apparently immortal if handled by the AI. A female marine, Bella, tags along for a while - but all we know about Bella is revealed when O'Neal riffs on having had sex with her. For a film (and a franchise) that's put a spotlight on female empowerment, the absence of an identifiable, let alone serviceable, heroine is an especially crushing disappointment.
There's something wrong when the only exciting character is Bishop. I can't fault his appearance as another artificial person named Bishop, and lord knows I love to see Lance Henriksen getting work, but as is Colonial Marines emerging theme, he's only engaging because he was in Aliens. Worse, the latter parts of Colonial Marines' narrative sees it necessary to resurrect an unnamed-but-easy-to-guess dead marine and ret-con enormous implications of both Aliens and Alien 3. I mean, there had to be a better way to explain why the Sulaco drifted from Fiorina 161 back to LV-426, but the explanation Colonial Marines provides and the character it presents feels incredibly cheap and fundamentally invalid. Throughout Colonial Marines Gearbox couldn't find the right balance between essential references and an original story, and players will feel it before and after the credits roll.
In other ways Colonial Marines feels like a slave to its history, checking off a number of humdrum prerequisites. We get the scene where ignorant marines figure out how chest busters work and later we go to Weyland-Yutani science labs and observe gross but predictable experimentation. Doors are cut open or welded shut, motion trackers are employed, and flame units are ripe for Xenomorph explosions. Beyond the references little of this is interesting, and Colonial Marines attempts to task the player with something, anything new usually comes in the form of switching-on motion detectors, uninstalling power cells, and removing fuel tubes. To put it blatant, there’s nothing substantial about your objectives.
How ironic is it that the only engaging mission in the eight hour campaign is the one where you don't have a gun? Colonial Marines conceives a new type of Xenomorph that responds exclusively to sound. From here you proceed to tip-toe around scores of camouflaged Xeno's in desperate attempts to set off noisy generators and electrocute them all. This segment certainly isn't ground breaking, but it's different from the norm and feels like the development team might get comfortable coming up with their own interactive additions to Aliens' lore. Instead it defaults to open fields or crowded hallways backed with Weyland-Yutani gunmen or Xenomorphs, and beyond some acid-spitting Xeno's and armored-up PMC’s there’s little to flourish the opposition. Colonial Marines thankfully doesn't get more complicated than Xenomorphs and rogue mercs, but it also doesn't reach beyond varying configurations of those two entities. Substitute Xenomorphs for any generic enemy and suddenly Colonial Marines loses most of its value.
Progression in Colonial Marines would be more appealing if the moment-to-moment combat was up to par, but even that feels uninspired and dated. Xenomorphs are in constant supply, but require little strategy to dispatch and only feel threatening when their numbers swell. Human enemies, PMC's on behalf of Weland-Yutani, make up half of the games' opposition, but their AI doesn't proceed beyond running to positions and popping in and out of cover. Gunplay is generic at best and sloppy at worst, and in either case weapons are only interesting at face value because it's a pulse rifle or because it's a flame unit. Every time there's a great idea, like Xeno's crawling out of camouflaged walls, it's superficially cool because it's lifted wholesale from the film.
Boss fights are present, but constructed of lazy ideas borrowed from bigger and better games. How many times have we had to get out of the way of a charging boss, only to detail massive damage by shooting its temporarily wrecked visage in its exposed back? Sitting inside that iconic power loader seems like a great idea for a different boss fight, but it operates in such a sluggish, marginally interactive manner you'll wonder why it wasn't cut from the game. Likewise, the final boss is a seductive joke and the player is tasked with dispatching it in the most apathetic and uninteresting way possible; it's literally shoved out the door. Colonial Marines persists in hoping its audience will be so engrossed and captivated in its lore they’ll forget they've shot these guns and killed these bad guys more effectively and more distinctively in other, better games.
Competitive multiplayer is a part of Colonial Marines, and it each instance supports an attractive Xenomorph versus marine dynamic. Team Deathmatch is what the name implies, and, as with every mode, each team spends one round as the marines and another as Xenomorphs. Extermination is a standard "occupy this space" mode and doesn't offer much, but the remaining two, Survivor and Escape, are more interesting. Escape tasks the marines with moving through a level and collectively reaching different checkpoints, all the while battling infinitely respawning Xenomorphs, until their ultimate escape. Survivor takes the same principle, but puts the marines on defense. Locked in a relatively small area, marines face and increasingly brutal supply of Xenomorphs and have to survive a five minute onslaught.
Multiplayer supports all of the progression-based bells and whistles we've come to expect. A persistent marine level (which carries over to and from the campaign) and a separate Xenomorph character level build and unlock upgrades, available perks, and customization options. Controlling a Xenomorph worked well enough, and stalking an otherwise unaware player and ripping him apart was appropriately satisfying. After three or so hours I had my fill (this was also the same amount of time I spent with similar competitive multiplayer in Dead Space 2), but the hooks are in place for those looking for Call of Duty inspired progression inside a game that is clearly not as polished as Call of Duty. Special mention also goes to the inclusion of split-screen and network cooperative play for the campaign. You don't see that much anymore, and it's nice for two buddies who might not want to buy two copies of the game.
Colonial Marines' presentation feels dated by any measure. The Xenomorphs animate poorly, almost like there's still a guy inside a rubber suit, and are barely perceptible as a threat because of it. Character animation and faces in general look a generation behind, and NPC's are prone to instances where they're doing things in what's obviously the wrong place (such as typing on a keyboard that happens to be a good three feet to the left of where they’re standing). Frequent screen tearing is also inescapable, though perhaps that was just the Xbox 360 version. The development team(s) probably did the best with what they were given, but whether it was their budget, time, or resources, it clearly wasn't enough to keep pace with modern shooters.