Five years ago, I visited Gearbox Software’s Dallas headquarters for the first reveal of Aliens: Colonial Marines.
During that trip, what struck me most was the passion on display for the Aliens franchise. Studio head Randy Pitchford beamed as he showed us around the studio, pointing out walls festooned with Aliens artwork and espousing the importance of doing right by the hotly-revered universe. At the time, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was the studio’s flagship title, poised to release later in the year. However, tucked into a corner of the three stories that Gearbox took up was a busy little team working on a small passion project with the working title of Borderlands.
Oh, how things have changed. Something that I wrote about that trip sticks out, now that Colonial Marines has released to widespread disdain and downright shock. During the preview we were shown several clips of what we were told was gameplay.
Here’s what I wrote about one of them: “Immediately impressive in this situation is the way that the Aliens move. They’re fast and agile and do not conform to using predictable AI paths. In fact, you’re almost hypnotised by the way that they leap around the level, grabbing onto pillars before leaping to the ground and attacking your beleaguered squad by whipping their tails and slashing their claws. Being so fast, it’s hard to get an accurate bead with your weapon. You’re literally crapping your pants hoping that you can hold off against the hordes, hoping that the turret can kill a few or that your explosive charge can take out as many as possible.”
The Colonial Marines installed now on my computer, the one that I just played, makes a liar out of me.
It’s obvious now that the game shown to me years ago and the one on store shelves now are two completely different things. One is the product of a passionate team being handed their dream project, complete with original scripts, artwork and sound archives; the other is an abortion kicked out under duress by a company focused solely on its new main franchise. I don’t even know if (as stated during interviews on the press trip) Battlestar Galactica writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle were eventually involved – the finished product would suggest not.
The opening scene is a cringe-worthy hoo-ah mixture of testosterone and “chicks and dicks” dialogue, with Generic Marine Leader 1 jumping up onto a powerloader to deliver his short inspirational speech. The game screams “LOOK, we are doing ALIENS!” at every opportunity. Nothing is embedded; everything is stark.
Initially, Colonial Marines doesn’t seem too bad. Opened facehugger pods litter the floor, building slight tension from inbuilt knowledge of what they contained, while acid holes in the Sulaco’s deck present a clumsy yet not entirely unsuccessful hand at mise-en-scène. You’re told how to bring up the motion tracker and the dread-laden ping gives you hope of messy close encounters.
But then things go wrong. Level design feels like it is stymying you not out of deliberate pacing obfuscation but simply because it is lazy and uninspired. It’s far too common to become lost and turned around because of walls of similar textures and the lack of objective signage. Colonial Marines feels in all aspects like a mod from a 2001 shooter. When the aliens do appear they look weird, moving like they’re suffering from the aftereffects of Isaac Clarke’s stasis charge. They’ll crawl from the walls and ceiling – the only cool part – and then stand there, practically lumbering towards you with clumsy claw swipes, just begging to be shottied. Their AI is woeful, allowing you to run past them most times without consequence, seeming to forget your existence the instant you move beyond their myopic field of focus.
This is a game that is literally unfinished. As NPCs talk to each other you can walk through their bodies, revealing ghoulish internal parts. It can be a slight amusement to situate yourself inside their bodies as they talk, viewing the world through the back of their mouths. Explosions look pathetic, to the point where you’ll cringe each time you use a grenade. Textures are bland, simple and repeated far too much. Computer monitors and electrical equipment are lighted with smudgy, barely-defined buttons and text. Level geometry continues to be simple and illogical, with sparse waypoint notifications as to what you should be doing. So you stumble around looking for something to interact with – a blurry keyboard or a door to cut open.
When human enemies enter into the game – because someone realised that even super-fans would become bored of shooting brain dead aliens the whole time – the action promises a slight breeze of hope. Alas, head shots are impossible and the AI equally as dumb as the aliens, allowing you to flank and slaughter them while yawning. You’ll open doors and watch them frozen for half a second, waiting dummies, before they switch into non-waiting mode and react pathetically to your presence.
The level design is forced and too tight to provide anything beyond strictly funnelled fights. Atop all this is the added annoyance of having to manually pick up ammo and armour. There are gameplay challenges that can be completed, which reward you with unlocked augmentations for your weapons. These are persistent across single player and multi, but your vanilla guns are so powerful – and the enemies so stupid – that you already feel vastly powerful to begin with. There is no incentive or need to look at the challenge list, nor – more importantly – is there any sense of achievement at the gaming equivalent of beating a homeless person.
Fan moments that should be euphoric are instead flaccid and sad. “Know how to use a powerloader?” your companion asks. You jump into the thing, move forward and … open a door. That’s all. You get to use it later on as well, whereupon you discover that it was a blessing to only be allowed twenty seconds inside the frustrating vehicle. Interaction is limited to lumbering movement and two attacks – cue the practically automated alien boss fight.
A measure of redemption can be found in the multiplayer, in particular Escape mode, which places four marines against four player-controlled aliens. The marines’ objective is to get from A to B without dying, while the alien players have the more enjoyable job of setting up ambushes via their ability to clamber through vents, spit acid and pounce. The unpredictability of multiplayer matches contrasts starkly with the single player experience, which itself might be slightly fun if you choose to play cooperatively, but we don’t recommend it. Even a bunch of quite well placed Easter Eggs don’t provide strong enough pull to make you endure the campaign unless you have to.
That we save one paragraph at the end to discuss multiplayer tells you exactly how much weight its existence should register when it comes to a purchase decision. It can be fun, but we’d suggest waiting until the game inevitably drops like a bomb during the next Steam sale. That said, it’s highly doubtful that time will help solve the lack of dedicated servers and low PC player base. If you’re lucky enough to connect to an Australian game, it can be enjoyable, but good luck being effective during the majority of ping-heavy matches.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an embarrassment that should not have been released. The exact machinations that transpired to half bake this foetid blob of a shooter will no doubt be the focus of many feature articles in the months to come. Whether it is SEGA’s or Gearbox’s fault, the tragedy is that a great Aliens game is possible – it just doesn’t necessarily need to be a first person shooter. The sense of impending death from just a single alien is lost when you’re holding back laughter at Gearbox’s parody. For all the stamping of approved canon on Aliens: Colonial Marines, nobody can seriously say that this sits anywhere on the Aliens timeline.
- Visit locations from the film
- A handful of wink-wink Easter Egg moments
- Escape mode has potential
- The aliens are a joke
- Broken AI across the board
- You can walk through characters and they’ll clip through walls and doors
- Headshots don’t register
- Bland textures and level design
- Embarrassing explosion effects