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Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t the Aliens sequel you wanted (review)

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Though not the first, this latest narrative discrepancy was just staggeringly inept. Did the writers each spend the last six years in isolation, only meeting up a few weeks ago to stitch together their disparate ideas?

I’m running through a secret research facility, and I find an audio log with a recorded voice that informs me of the speaker’s dissatisfaction with the electric fence protecting the compound. The barrier doesn’t even have a backup generator, complains the man.

When I reach the control room to turn off the fence, my fellow marine says doing so will trigger the auxiliary power, so I have to disable some couplings first. What? Didn’t I just listen to an audio log complaining that the barrier doesn’t have such a security measure?

This is only one of many internal inconsistencies in developer Gearbox Software’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, which film studio 20th Century Fox has positioned as official canon in the Alien series’ storyline after the events of James Cameron’s much loved Aliens and David Fincher’s largely misunderstood Alien 3. As a slavish retelling of fan-favorite parts from the films, Colonial Marines offers few new ideas of its own, and what it does present is severely lacking in originality and creativity. If you were hoping that Gearbox could recapture the allure of Aliens that so many found lacking in Alien 3, prepare yourself for disappointment.

What You’ll Like

Aliens: Colonial Marines 2

It’s mostly Aliens, all right … mostly
Like Rebellion, the studio that created the first and most recent Aliens vs. Predator games, Gearbox gets many of the small details right with Colonial Marines. The click of the motion tracker, the blaze of the pulse rifle, and the hiss of a stalking alien — these seem straight out of Aliens. The heads-up display has that same low-resolution light blue text from the pilot monitors of the Sulaco, the spacecraft that brought the Aliens team to the recently surveyed world of LV-426. Gearbox has even modeled in both Ridley Scott’s smoothed-headed creature from Alien and Cameron’s ridged one.

But unlike Rebellion’s 2010 release Aliens vs. Predator, something just feels a little … off. While the tracker’s blip sounds right, the device’s onscreen visual indicator uses a series of well-defined circles instead of that amorphous white blob that struck fear into Hudson when he proclaimed, “There’s movement all over the place!” The lack of that iconic alien death shriek is ever-present. The M56 smartgun has no sense of weight. It’s a little weird that my pulse rifle doesn’t hold a 99-round clip.

Rebellion already set expectations of authenticity high by nailing every last detail with tremendous accuracy, so every slight misstep that Gearbox takes is jarring. Colonial Marines keeps falling into a sort of uncanny valley where I feel right at home until the developer messes up one little thing that takes me out of the fantasy of reliving these classic films.

Aliens: Colonial Marines 3

Weapon customization lets you be an ultimate badass
You’ve got your standard issue arsenal from the movie, like the M41A pulse rifle, the M56 smartgun, and the pump-action shotgun for close encounters. Colonial Marines adds several new weapons to this mix, including an assault rifle that fires in short, controlled bursts; a battle rifle that acts as a high-powered sniper’s gun; a tactical shotgun for rapid-fire buckshot, and a submachine gun. Gearbox, though, is not satisfied with static weapons.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll earn experience. With each character level earned, you can unlock new components for the personal armory that you’re hauling on your back. These include swapping out the pulse rifle’s secondary-fire grenade launcher with a shotgun or mounting a laser sight on just about any firearm you have.

Your progression carries over into new campaigns and multiplayer modes. While that affects balance when playing competitively, it also makes replaying the single-player portion a bit more attractive, which Gearbox hopes you’ll do since the highest difficulty, Ultimate Badass, is clearly the intended way to play. Not only are you more fragile, but the entire HUD is gone (and crosshairs, too, making that laser-pointer upgrade worthwhile). You have to judge your armor, health, and ammo levels entirely without any onscreen counters, and that makes Colonial Marines a much more tense and gratifying experience.

What You Won’t Like

Aliens: Colonial Marines 4

Colonial Marines is an uneven ride
You begin on the Sephora, a United States Colonial Marine rescue ship sent to find out what happened to the team from Aliens. From there, you board the Sulaco, and things quickly go wrong for you and your fellow marines: an explosion, several dead bodies, and general confusion. You have to investigate something on your motion scanner, and along the way, xenos ambush your team. The narrative is off to an OK start, but things quickly turn for the worst.

After that relatively brief encounter, Colonial Marines thrusts you into a protracted confrontation with private military contractors (PMCs) hired by the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Instead of focusing on the source material’s signature horror elements, you have to deal with a straight-up firefight that sidetracks you from the main attraction. Rebellion, to its credit, was smart with Aliens vs. Predator by saving these shooty parts for the marine campaign’s climax (with combat androids, no less!), but in Colonial Marines, battling these PMCs is mostly an annoyance and a test of patience.

Not until nearly halfway through does Gearbox finally decide to strip you of your sense of security. It’s quite a brilliant sequence (despite being built upon two tropes: a sewer level with shambling “zombie” aliens), and its use of the fear of the unknown should have launched the story.

The PMCs show up again, too. And it’s just as annoying as the first time.

Aliens: Colonial Marines 5

A tired, hole-ridden story overly concerned with fan service
About three-quarters of the way through the campaign, you take on a mission to rescue a captured marine from the hands of Weyland-Yutani’s PMCs. This soldier’s identity isn’t a shocker. What’s surprising (and revealing) is the answer to a simple question from one of your crew: “How are you alive?” The response? Essentially, that’s a long story, and it’s not that important, anyway.

We know that Colonial Marines takes place after the events of Aliens and Alien 3. One of your people even comments on Fury 161, the prison planet where Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and Hicks from Aliens met their fates. So, those things happened. For Gearbox to not have an answer for the above question leaves a large, Nebraska-sized crater in Colonial Marines.

Even worse, Colonial Marines has nothing new to add to the now convoluted Alien series. Instead, Gearbox is mostly concerned with showing its Alien street cred. Remember that scene in Alien where Ripley pulls rank and refuses to allow a contaminated Kane aboard and risk the entire Nostromo crew? Yeah, that’s here in a slightly different form, but Gearbox skips the necessary character development that would make me care.

And this part includes one (of many) of the most painfully written lines of the entire game, where Reid, a USMC pilot, says, “If we die, it’s on you.” Um, OK? To paraphrase what Harrison Ford famously told George Lucas about his Star Wars script: Gearbox, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t voice it.

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Poor artificial intelligence
Pacing and narrative stumbles aside, the one thing that could redeem Colonial Marines as an entertaining “what if we could return to the Sulaco?” exercise would be a faithful re-creation of the fear and tension that the alien creature itself represents. Unfortunately, Gearbox comes up short again, with A.I. that hardly offers an interesting challenge.

Most of the time, you’ll be running through corridors as xenos come straight at you. Sometimes, you might be confined to a single room. But aside from the aforementioned security-stripping sequence, Gearbox rarely uses the art of surprise when confrontation occurs. This stands in stark contrast to Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator, where these monsters would routinely and convincingly burst from floor panels and ceiling air ducts, crawl along the walls, jump from point to point to avoid your line of sight, quietly and slowly stalk you unnoticed, or actually come out of the walls. Sure, the aliens in Colonial Marines try to do some of these things, too, but their janky animations betray them, and they almost always strike from plain view. The few surprises typically come from scripted moments.

The Lurker class alien is a step in the right direction, but these encounters are too few and too lenient. These xenos will stalk from the shadows, but if one gets the jump on you, you just have to mash a button as fast as possible to pull it off. Then, you have an easy opportunity to fire a hail of bullets from your pistol sidearm as it scampers away. It’s not much of a bug hunt when you can just wait for them to come to you.

Other times, aliens will inexplicably stand still while you pump them full of pulse rifle fire. Or they’ll jump from one place to another in a way that lets you easily track them. If they lunge toward you, a simple step back will mean that they always fall short. In Aliens vs. Predator, such attacks go toward and past you, which means that the creature would take a swipe and keep on running. That provides a much needed situational-awareness challenge.

Conclusion

Aliens: Colonial Marines

The developers at Gearbox are clearly huge admirers of Aliens, but I fear that might have clouded their judgment. Colonial Marines comes off as too much fan service with few (if any) ideas of its own. It provides a tired narrative with an unsatisfactory conclusion that opens more questions than it attempts to answer. It too often tries to simply re-create memorable scenes and character interactions from the Alien films, much to its own detriment. If Colonial Marines is officially canon, as 20th Century Fox proclaims, then it only makes a bigger mess of the series than the missed opportunity of Alien: Resurrection.

Colonial Marines has also been in development since at least the twilight of 2006, when publisher Sega and Gearbox announced they had begun an Alien project together, but I can see now why Sega delayed this title and instead pushed out the much more polished Aliens vs. Predator from Rebellion in 2010. In all honesty, you’d be better to go back and dust that effort off even if only for its marine campaign.

Oh, and Aliens vs. Predator includes a proper co-op horde mode (called Survival) right out of the box. Gearbox will offer that in its upcoming Bug Hunt downloadable content, available for purchase next month.

Score: 60/100


Aliens: Colonial Marines releases on Feb. 12 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Gearbox will release a Wii U version at a later date. Sega provided GamesBeat with a Steam download code for the purpose of this review.