Is Aliens: Colonial Marines as Bad as They Say?
From the day I first saw it with my dad, I’ve loved the film Aliens. And from the day it was first announced some 7 years ago, I’ve wanted to play Aliens: Colonial Marines, the video game “sequel” to that film. Which is why I was extremely upset when the game finally hit store shelves this week, the review embargo lifted, and almost every single media outlet instantly tore the game to pieces, calling it a pile of flaming guano.
What the hell happened? And is Aliens: CM really as bad as the reviews say it is?
I had a preorder at a local Gamestop that I had been planning to pick up during my lunch hour on release day. After the firestorm of thumbs-down reviews exploded onto the Intarwebs, I decided to hold off. Instead, I waited until the game landed in our local Redbox kiosks a couple days later, then rented the Xbox 360 version for one night to see for myself.
After experiencing the game for the two hours I could spare, I will tell you this: it is a flawed experience to be sure, bereft of vast amounts of polish and saddled with a story filled with so many retcons that every existing copy of Aliens on VHS or DVD should have instantly burst into flames. And yet, it is not an unplayable mess. It is, in fact, a pretty fun nostalgia trip for fans of the movie, so long as those fans are not Star Trek-grade canonophiles who have read all the novels and the USCM technical manual. (Disclaimer: I myself own a copy of the USCM technical manual.) There are some pretty cool homages paid to the Aliens universe and I appreciated the little details that harkened back to the film.
For it’s the details in which the little gems of this game truly lie. The iconic sound of the M41A pulse rifle firing, complete with its unique flanger effect, are present and absolutely spot-on. The game’s musical score even riffs on cues from James Horner’s excellent original score from Aliens, although admittedly the orchestration is a lot more tranquilized than I’d have liked. Along the way you find references to the movie in the form of a video recording from Cprl. Hicks (with new voiceover from Michael Biehn), “legendary weapons” left by the original squad of marines, dog tags, voice memos and more. Lance Henriksen even stops by to reprise his role as Bishop, everybody’s favorite synthetic. You’ll find familiar sets, vehicles, equipment (motion tracker present and accounted for!), weapons and movie lines in the form of achievement names. At times the game feels like a huge fanservice generator.
The problem, though, is that these little details have been sewn into a very ordinary, very dated first-person shooter. In fact it reminds me of PC games from the early 2000s, oddly augmented with more recent tropes like iron sights and customizable weapon skins a la Call of Duty. Most (though not all) animations — of characters, set pieces, whatever — are very linear, jerky and robotic, bearing none of the telltale smoothness of modern motion capture that we’ve become used to from studios like Naughty Dog. Enemies are all very same-same, and lest you think you’ll be shooting at aliens for the entire game, a whole contingent of Weyland-Yutani security forces also step in to provide incredibly generic solider-class cannon fodder. Aliens: Colonial Marines’ shooting game is honestly quite dull.
The campaign’s story wants to be interesting, but it really reads more like amateur fan-fiction. There are enormous, gaping plot holes at total odds with events that we saw happen in the movie Aliens. For instance, at the end of the movie, Ripley, Hicks and Newt left LV-426 in the U.S.S. Sulaco and were eventually marooned on Fury-161 in Alien 3 when a fire broke out aboard. But in Aliens: Colonial Marines, the ship is found orbiting LV-426 once more. How did it get there? And then later in the game, I’m told you go down to the surface of LV-426 and visit Hadley’s Hope. Super cool, but didn’t the place get atomized at the end of Aliens when the atmosphere processor blew up?
There are also numerous technical issues, revolving around model collision detection, enemy AI and some graphical anomalies. I haven’t seen collision detection this bad in years; there are times when aliens will just fall through the floor or get caught in the polygons that comprise the ceiling. Other times, your marine AI teammates will get stuck on geometry and just “vibrate” in place until you get far enough away from them, at which point they’ll teleport to your position as if nothing had gone wrong. (Though that’s better than staying stuck in a hallway forevermore and breaking the game, I suppose.) There are also a few very poor quality textures of very low resolution visible in the Xbox version of the game, though none of the above problems seemed to be as epidemic as some of the reviews would have you believe.
I can’t offer that much of an opinion after only two hours with the game, but if I were the one giving it a score, I would probably settle on 60/100. It’s definitely a game that I would like to continue playing, but which I refuse to pay the full $59.99 retail price for. I’ll wait for a Steam sale and pick it up for my PC for $20 or less. In fact, I hear the textures look somewhat better on the PC than any other platform, so that’s even a bonus.
In the end, what probably hurts Aliens: Colonial Marines the most is the fact that it’s coming from Gearbox, the developer of the very well-received, very entertaining and extremely polished Borderlands 2. Naturally, that leads people to expect an experience that’s up to the same standards, and Aliens: CM is absolutely, positively not ready to deliver that. People then naturally feel “snookered” because they trusted Gearbox’s rep and got burned. What they fail to realize (not that this is exactly well-known information) is that Gearbox didn’t actually develop most of Aliens: Colonial Marines. They farmed out the entirety of the campaign and much of the other modes to other studios, contributing mainly to some of the multiplayer content themselves. It’s no surprise that the developer of Borderlands 2 didn’t deliver a Borderlands-class experience here, because they didn’t even build the damn thing.
If you’ve been a lifelong fan of Aliens and have either an Xbox or a PS3, then this game is worth a rental to see if you’d like it. If you’re just a shooter fan, give it a pass because there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. If you’re a PC gamer and Aliens fan, wait for a sale and pick it up for half-off or better. If the reviews are any indication, that probably won’t take long.
February 16th addendum: Thanks to a combination of coupons, trade-ins and actually finding a marked-down used copy of the game already, I bought the Xbox version of Aliens: Colonial Marines today for $18. At that price, it’s worth playing.