Ever since the release of the first film back in 1979, the Alien brand has had a massive fan following. The franchise has spawned numerous graphic novels, paperbacks, masses of fan fiction, and of course three movie sequels and one prequel. Unfortunately, despite many valiant attempts, it has never been able to make that successful transition into the gaming world. However, the brand is so strong and resilient, that ever since fans were first introduced to the Colonial Marines in the 1986 movie Aliens, they remained eager to join the Corps, pick up a pulse rifle, and wage war against the xenomorph menace. When it was announced that Sega had purchased the license and a well-respected and competent studio (Gearbox) were developing a new title, it seemed like fans could rejoice. As the hype, promises, trailers, and demo started to roll, it seemed like fans were finally going to get that one definitive Aliens title they had wished for after nearly 27 years of waiting. Well, all you would-be marines, tear up those enlistment papers and go back to hyper-sleep for another quarter century, this is not it.
The opening titles begin with the spaceship Sulaco drifting above the planet LV-426 with another USCM ship pulling alongside it. A bridge connects the two and we see marines from the new ship breaching and boarding the original ship. The timeline is only 17 weeks after the events seen in the Aliens film, and this is where the player picks up the story, playing the role of a marine named Winters, standing on the same flight deck of the Sulaco that witnessed the final moments of the Aliens movie.
Gearbox were adamant, that this new story would become canon and build a bridge between the second and third films. Without revealing too much, the player lands back on LV-426 and returns to Hadley’s Hope, but as every fan knows, that colony was obliterated when the atmospheric processor exploded at the end of the second film. Hardly canon material, but it could be overlooked and forgiven as a piece fan service as every fan would enjoy revisiting the doomed colony. Later however, there is a plot twist in which the story attempts to rewrite the history and events of the third film (no spoilers) which again is hardly canon. In fact, it’s a very strange way of bridge building if you attempt to destroy both ends of the aforementioned bridge. Canon, absolutely not, but it again could be forgiven if the tale that was being woven was original and new. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Over the course of the eleven missions, it becomes clear that this just a derivative tale that offers nothing new and nothing that hasn’t been covered in one of the many forms of existing fiction.
The presentation (even in the opening title) is the first thing that you notice. The animation of the ships floating above the planet, and especially that of the marines running along the umbilical between them, is simply terrible. Textures are flat, pixelated, and jagged, and sadly this is a recurrent theme throughout the game. The graphical presentation is simply bad from start to finish. Animations, surfaces, and textures all look like they belong to an early Xbox 360 title, not from a title that is hitting the platform near end of its cycle. The game actually uses Unreal technology, but you will be hard pressed to see any evidence of it. Whilst it’s common to have textures pop-in occasionally, this was the first experience I had of textures popping back out again even whilst I was still looking at them. It’s not game-breaking but it does ruin that level of immersion that a player is meant to feel. One place where it does threaten to become to be game spoiling (not entirely breaking) is with the draw distance of ammo and armor pickups. Most of the time, the pickups are clear to see (they are in fact highlighted), however on a number of occasions they only popped into view when you were right on top of them, which wasted time wandering over to plain-looking crates checking whether I was missing anything. Actually, that probably wasn't necessary in any case, as I never found myself running short of ammunition during any point in the game and most of the time, ammo pickups were being left behind.
The overall poor presentation is an even greater shame when you see the potential of some of the environments. They are well designed and in some cases really capture the epic scale of the surroundings. It’s one of the few things that you think they have managed to get right until you look too closely and have it spoiled again by poor texturing, models, and total lack of atmosphere.
While the story takes the player from the decks of the Sulaco down to the surface of LV-426 and eventually back to Hadley’s Hope, the gameplay remains essentially the same in all the various theaters. Essentially, the player is ushered down tight, confined corridors before engaging in a staged battle in a large open area, usually signifying the end of a chapter or mission. In the first xenomorph encounter onboard the Sulaco, when you’re not sure what you’re dealing with, the game provides a certain degree of tension. However, much to the players' disappointment, it becomes rapidly clear through subsequent encounters that these xenomorphs are nothing to be feared and can be dispatched with relative ease in the tight corridors. The aliens scramble along the walls and ceiling before dropping to floor in front of you just begging to be shot. Whether intentionally, or just poorly implemented AI, the suicidal creatures rush head on with very little regard for any self-preservation, allowing the player to pick them off with any of the many weapons in their arsenal.
Along with the xenomorphs, the player will end up battling human characters who belong to a military section of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Sadly, these skirmishes are equally simplistic, although the soldiers show some intelligence by seeking cover and generally firing back. The firefights remain weak in comparison to modern combat shooters. There are some parts quite early on when you face off against the para-military without a xenomorph in sight and the player is left feeling cheated, after all, we signed on to shoot aliens. Fortunately, these soldiers can also be dispatched with the same relative ease and again there is little challenge to be had in the enclosed areas.
To be fair, it’s during those battles in the open environments where you get a fleeting glimpse of what the game could have been. The xenomorphs come in waves and attack in numbers from multiple directions. You see them approaching from the distance, climbing along walls, slinking across rooftops, leaping across shipping containers, and appearing on top of dropships. The creature animations at these points capture the menacing movement and threat of the xenomorphs exceedingly well. It’s these moments that you feel like you are finally in the Colonial Marines Corps with the sound of pulse rifles and smart guns blazing away around you, and the hissing and screeching of the aliens as they come in for the attack. It’s the one thing that the game almost does well. Unfortunately, the poor AI of both the aliens and your own NPC team mates can ruin the fun in an instant. Watching the aliens scramble across buildings and dropships is impressive, but when the same alien fails to find its way around something the size and shape of tea chest, the illusion is instantly shattered.
A number of the missions culminate in boss battles of sorts but these are similarly lacking in any challenge. The final boss battle against a very predictable foe has to be one of the most uninspired ever played. To even call it a battle is a gross misnomer as it is more a game of cat and mouse, and nothing more. After the six-to-eight hours of playing that it took to reach this endgame, anti-climax does not even begin to describe how it feels.
Despite all of the above problems, there are some things that buy the title a stay of execution and manage to salvage a modicum of dignity. Audio is one of those areas which the game ‘almost’ does well. The environmental and weapon sounds are meant to be authentic and the pulse rifle does have its wonderfully distinctive gunfire. The in-game music is very reminiscent of the movie and gives a great Hollywood style soundtrack to the title. Unfortunately, there is a quirk here in the vocal audio from NPC’s which turns horribly tinny when you walk or turn away from them.
Throughout the campaign, mission replays, and multiplayer, the player constantly earns XP which feeds a leveling-up mechanism, enabling the player to customize their weaponry or their multiplayer character. There are also in-game challenges which can contribute towards leveling, with one level meter for the marine character, and a separate XP meter for the alien character which the player uses in multiplayer mode.
The multiplayer suite features the standard mix of game types, however whilst one team plays the round as a marine, the other team controls the aliens, after which the teams swap sides for the following round. Playing as a xenomorph takes a little getting used to with the ability to climb on walls and ceilings but is made a little easier as the game switches to third person view for players controlling the alien. Unfortunately, the transition from floor to wall to ceiling can be a little clumsy and leads to some interesting animations. At least here, there is a challenge for the player in combat but whether players have the patience to master it remains to be seen. Players can also get together with the now familiar drop-in/drop-out co-op and take on the campaign missions.
For the achievement hunters, there are the familiar groups of story-based, weapon-based, multiplayer, and XP level achievements. There are also a few for finding the campaign's collectibles: dog tags, audio logs, and iconic weapons. Finally, there are a couple based on special time-based challenges within the campaign. On the first playthrough, I managed to rack up 30 of the 50 achievements for just over 500 GS.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is actually a tough game to score, partly because it feels so raw and unfinished. In some respects it feels like alpha code or a community mod, it certainly doesn't feel like the triple-A title that it could have and should have been. There are brief moments in the game where you get to see where it was going, and in those very brief moments it can be enjoyable, but these moments are constantly undermined by a total lack of attention to detail, poor presentation, and poor implementation. As a game, it is overwhelmingly disappointing, and a poor attempt at a title that frankly deserved better. That being said, it can’t be classed as a bad game either; it’s not broken, it didn't lock up, I didn't want to throw the controller through the screen, and it does manage to deliver a certain amount of nostalgia and fan service. There will be some people (but not many) that will get a great deal of enjoyment from the title, but for most gamers, it won't even reach the lowly levels of mediocrity. It is quite simply poor right from the opening titles through to the end credits, and should be avoided by all but the staunchest of Alien fans.
The reviewer spent approximately 10 hours combined playing time with campaign on normal and online multi-player.
The game was a private copy and played after the first patch was applied.
Get the biggest Xbox news delivered straight to your inbox every week.