Ever since Hicks, Ripley and a supporting cast of Colonial Marines first crept around the moody environs of Hadley’s Hope in 1986, videogames have seemingly been in thrall to Aliens‘ future world. From the various official Alien videogame adaptations that appeared through the 80s and 90s, to the Gears Of War and Dead Space franchises of the present, James Cameron’s film has left a profound impression on game design.
In development for the best part of six years, Gearbox Software’s Aliens: Colonial Marines aims to provide the ultimate fan wish fulfilment: to put the player in the combat shoes of a pulse-rifle toting, xeno-blasting grunt. What’s more, Colonial Marines promises to be something more than a quick-buck cash-in; its developers have long talked about its story being a direct sequel to the 1986 movie, with virtual sets faithfully recreated from the ones built at Pinewood (and Acton Power Station) almost 27 years ago.
With all that anticipation in mind, there’s a real thrill to seeing the word ‘Aliens’ light up the screen with its familiar glowing type. And for those of us who’ve watched the movie countless times, the opportunity to interact with the world of Aliens holds a spine-tingling wealth of possibilities.
This time it’s war
Taking place soon after the events of Aliens, Colonial Marines sees the USS Sulaco mysteriously reappear in the orbit of LV-426. The Sulaco, of course, was the ship which took Ripley and an outfit of doomed marines to the planet in Aliens; so given that it was last seen floating around Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161 in Alien 3, how did it get back to LV 426? That’s the overarching mystery that Corporal Winter and his fellow marines aim to find out, as they strap on their high-tech gear and clamber aboard the seemingly deserted craft.
Some slightly scrappy character animation aside, these early moments create a strong impression. The combination of moody lighting, James Horner’s simmering score and the almost non-existent HUD provide a sense of foreboding, heightened further by the beep-beep from your motion sensor, which hints that something nasty’s definitely moving around on the Sulaco.
Your weapons also carry an authentic sense of weight. Pulse rifles erupt in a searing burst of gunfire (with precisely the right sound effect from the movie), while a jab of the R2 button launches a grenade with a pleasing thud. Shotguns are ideal for close encounters, while a feeble handgun is best reserved for when you’re running low on ammo and desperate for anything to fend off an in-bound set of jaws. Flamethrowers, meanwhile, are perfect for keeping bugs at bay.
Couple all this with a faithfully recreated Sulaco – which greatly expands on the few areas we saw in the original movie – and a nervy first encounter of the toothsome kind, and you have the basis for an exciting if not groundbreaking first-person shooter.
Gradually, however, certain flaws begin to make themselves apparent. The characters accompanying you on your mission are a pale imitation of the nervy, macho types so brilliantly introduced in Aliens; there’s O’Neal, a gruff roughneck who screams “They’re coming outta the ceiling!” even when nothing of note’s happening, and Bela, a tough female soldier modelled after Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez. Lance Henriksen makes a welcome return as another android identical to Bishop, though his is little more than a cameo role.
Within an hour or two, a definite feeling of repetition begins to set in. Marines yell things like “Eyes up!” and “You gotta run stuff by me before you start speaking crazy!”, while the gameplay settles into a steady rhythm of clearing corridors and rooms. In fact, it’s difficult to recall another game that requires the opening of quite so many doors. Some need to be cut open with a blowtorch (a process which leaves you vulnerable to attack), and others have to be hacked by a non-player character before you can proceed.
Some of these doors clearly mask lengthy loading times, since there’ll be many faintly comical occasions where you and your compatriots will simply stand for what feels like five minutes while a door clunks and groans without actually moving.
They’re coming out of the walls
The aliens, meanwhile, make for stealthy opponents, as they leap out of vents and drop from ceilings – you can be sure that, if one comes shrieking down a corridor at you, several dozen more will be close behind. Although their number and sheer speed can potentially offer a serious challenge, particularly if you’re cornered, simply running backwards and spraying the critters with accurate pulse rifle bursts is an effective tactic in most situations – all the better to remain safely out of reach of the aliens’ claws and energy-sapping showers of molecular acid.
Aside from the standard soldier alien – distinguished by her ribbed head carapace – there are also facehuggers, which leap from eggs and prove incredibly tricky to hit, and a variety of other xeno breeds, some of Gearbox’s own devising. There’s a runner alien, which is modelled on the stealthy, ceiling-hugging creature from Alien 3, a Boiler alien, which can spit acid across a long distance, and a gigantic Crusher, which charges around the play area like a demented rhinoceros.
Oddly, one of the more prevalent types of enemy you’ll find in Colonial Marines isn’t the alien, but the private army of the Weyland Yutani corporation. Approximately one hour into the campaign, the xenomorphs are replaced by wave after wave of white-clad soldiers, who crouch behind boxes and fire at you from several kilometres in the distance. It’s a sudden, quite strange tactical shift – although it does make more sense in the later stages of the story – and one that reveals some of the game’s glitchier aspects.
AI is painfully dim, with Yutani soldiers often wandering in and out of cover as though they’re stuck in some sort of unbreakable loop. Corpses will also mysteriously slide around on the floor, and in one instance, a dead body remained standing, apparently propped up against an invisible chunk of scenery.
None of Colonial Marines’ glitches are game-breaking, but they do a great deal to puncture the atmosphere; one otherwise nerve-jangling moment, which involved shutting and welding a door before an alien charged in, was utterly undone when the monster simply rushed straight through the sealed portal as though it didn’t exist.
There’s a cloying feeling, too, that although the Aliens property offers all sorts of iconic toys and moments to play with, the game’s makers simply couldn’t think of compelling ways of using them. Strapping into a power loader should be a monumental highlight, but instead it’s frittered away on a forgettable scene which involves propping a door open. Even when the loader pops up again later in the game, it’s unpleasant to control, and what could have been an exciting sequence instead degenerates into a choppy, buggy mess. Smart guns and sentry turrets are great additions (and the former provides an awesome sense of power while it lasts), but the central campaign provides only a few occasions to use them.
The multiplayer aspect of the game offers up some exciting possibilities. There are four modes to choose from, all familiar from a legion other shooters; there’s Team Deathmatch, Extermination – which involves holding strategic points on the map – Escape, which involves getting to an evacuation point, and Survivor, in which marines have to survive successive waves of attack.
In each instance, teams are divided into marines and aliens. While marines have plenty of firepower at their disposal – including those sentry cannons, which feature much more prominently in multiplayer – aliens have the advantages of greater speed, better eyesight, and the ability to run through ducts and along ceilings. Depending on which type of alien you choose to control, you’ll be able to spit powerful jets of acid, run more quickly, or fell marines with close-quarters lunge attacks.
Considering just how different the aliens’ and marines’ abilities are, Gearbox has done a good job of keeping the multiplayer aspect of the game relatively balanced. The aliens may be outgunned, but their sheer speed and ability traverse almost every part of the environment considerably evens the score.
Unfortunately, enjoyment of the multiplayer mode is hampered by some skittish alien controls. While the rest of the game takes place from a first-person perspective (cutscenes aside), aliens are controlled from a third-person viewpoint. This is presumably to make running along the ceiling (performed by holding the left trigger) and close-quarters attacks easier to pull off, but it also reveals a multitude of sins, from the jerky alien animation to sundry clipping issues, where players often appear partly stuck through walls or floating just above the floor. Again, none of these problems wreck the game, but they can prove distracting – and their prevalence is a disappointment, particularly given just how long Colonial Marines has been in the making.
Like the single-player campaign, it’s a shame, too, that Gearbox hasn’t been a little more adventurous with the possibilities of the Aliens license. The Left 4 Dead-like multiplayer games are diverting enough, and the opportunity to spend XP (earned in both the campaign and MP modes) on new weapon parts, decals and mutations for your aliens are welcome additions, but we’d have loved to have seen some more unusual elements brought into the fold – introducing APCs and Drop Ships, like an Aliens-themed Battlefield 3, perhaps. Or maybe something quirkier, like an online power-loader jousting tournament.
It’s a bug hunt
In fairness, Colonial Marines really comes to life on occasions, from a tense sneak through a sewer full of motion-sensing xenomorphs, to the spooky first arrival on LV-426. The Unreal 3 engine may be looking its age now, but the use of lighting is effective, and there are parts of the campaign that are quite gripping – the search for clues on the Sulaco quickly opens out into a much wider conspiracy on the alien planet, providing further proof, if any were needed, that the Weyland Yutani Corporation has been utterly corrupted by its thirst for power.
From the tiny background details which only fans of the movies will truly appreciate, to the predictable yet gratifying emergence of several familiar faces and settings, Colonial Marines displays a clear affection for the Alien franchise. But as a continuation of Aliens‘ story, Colonial Marines doesn’t always hang together, with lapses in logic dismissed on two occasions by a character saying, “I don’t have time to answer that question!”, or words to that effect.
As a first-person shooter, Colonial Marines feels like a glitchy guided tour through Alien history rather than a satisfying experience in its own right; peel away the thin layer of Gigeresque skin, and you’re left with an average, even slightly archaic FPS, whose single-player campaign can be completed in around six or seven hours. But although Gearbox’s game lacks polish and depth, it does, in its best moments, make you feel as though you’re a marine stuck on a nightmare planet infested with hellish starbeasts – and that may be just enough to entice fans of James Cameron’s legendary movie.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is out now for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC and Wii U.
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