It’s hard work being an Alien fanboy – there hasn’t been an exceptional addition to the film series since 1986 (despite two direct sequels and the “should-have-been-awesome” Aliens vs Predator crossover movies), while Ridley Scott’s recent attempt to reinvigorate the franchise with his sort-of prequel Prometheus ended up leaving more questions asked than it promised to answer. Even the video game side of things has fared badly; some say the last great title to hit the shelves was Rebellion’s original Aliens versus Predator (which released on home computers at the tail end of the last century), so it didn’t go completely unnoticed when SEGA and Gearbox Software announced that a brand new game based on the franchise was in the works back in 2006.
Early game footage looked promising and after six years Aliens: Colonial Marines is finally in our grubby little disc trays, but it’s fair to say that all the fanfare about the game in the run up to release appears to have been slightly premature – as several other sites have already noticed, there’s a massive difference between the gameplay demos Gearbox showed last year and the final product. There are also massive performance and quality issues when comparing platforms side by side – whilst reviewing Aliens: CM at a recent LAN party I had the opportunity to run a comparison of both the Xbox 360 and PC versions together and it seems we’ve definitely come off worse with regard to the quality of content on the disc.
I won’t go into technical details (you can view that information in Rich’s news post here) but the difference in both performance and appearance when compared to earlier versions shown off by Gearbox is shocking. What originally looked to be a tightly wound and atmospheric extension to Cameron’s 1986 masterpiece instead appears to have just been thrown together by the B-Team left kicking around at Gearbox whilst everyone else was off making Borderlands 1 and 2, and most likely the same guys who were responsible for the god-awful letdown that turned out to be Duke Nukem Forever – and that’s if Gearbox staff were even actually involved in single player development at all, given the number of studios mentioned in the opening credits.
The gameplay itself is fairly solid – although without the license it would probably have never seen the light of day – as the story follows a new group of Colonial Marines sent to LV-426 to discover just what happened to the original team of Ultimate Badasses. Fans of the film will get off on the fact that the title does pay a remarkable amount of service to its source material, with instantly recognisable locations and technology that should send a shudder of glee up the player’s spine at first, but by the time you’ve wandered through the first level and sampled what the game actually has to offer the novelty will have worn off.
The fact that the team has clearly done its homework is Aliens: Colonial Marines’ only saving grace – certain sections where the film’s musical refrain kicks in are amazing, and the geometry of Hadley’s Hope is just about spot on. Those expecting any worthy additions to the series canon (despite claims that the story has been ‘officially’ fitted in to the universe) will be greatly disappointed however, as anything new the player discovers barely raises a dry ‘oh, right’ instead of increased wonderment – and once the action moves away from Hadley’s Hope the locations all begin to resemble the usual drab backdrops used in a million other drab sci-fi shooters.
The AI is practically non-existent, as your squad mates and the Xenomorphs themselves are both prone to extreme acts of stupidity – when you consider that the former is supposedly one of the deadliest species in the universe the fact that they move like they’ve shat themselves with entire frames of missing animation doesn’t help, and when one in particular spent a good few minutes climbing in and out of a nearby window instead of biting my face off…well, you can just imagine my disappointment.
Your fellow marines also suffer from the age-old NPC behavioural pattern of running right in front of you practically every time you discharge a weapon (without even noticing that you just unloaded an entire Pulse Rifle clip into them), and even when they come face-to-face with a Xeno they either just continue firing or run into each other without taking any actual action. The same can be said for hostile gun turrets (you know, the awesome ones from the movie), with your computer-controlled buddies insisting on standing RIGHT IN FRONT of them whilst absorbing a never-ending barrage of bullets – I mean, I know Colonial Marines are supposed to be tough mother-F’ers but this is ridiculous.
There are glimmers of hope as new and more interesting types of Xenomorph are discovered – including the husk-like Boilers (who act like Alien versions of Left 4 Dead’s Boomers) and the Tank-like Raven, but any fear of the former is pissed away by their incontinent granny-like shuffling, while the boss fight that forms the crescendo of your encounter with the latter is completely ruined by the poorest implementation of one of the most iconic scenes in any film I’ve ever seen – and yet the game is literally awash with them. ‘Legendary’ weapons like Hicks’ Shotgun and Gorman’s Pistol are there to be found and added to your considerable arsenal, and getting hands on with the M41A Pulse Rifle, Smart Gun and Ripley’s Flamethrower make the experience all the more frustrating overall as this is clearly not the game Aliens fans deserve or were expecting. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the game an insult to those fans from the word go – I mean, the game’s title doesn’t even reveal itself slowly over the opening credits like the movie does, for god’s sake!!!
The fact that I love the franchise so much is both a godsend and a curse, as I’ll happily pick away at all the things the game should (or shouldn’t) have accomplished whilst dutifully playing through it just to experience those tiniest of sections that hint at the title we should have been playing. Whether we’ll ever get our hands on a decent Aliens game is debatable, but I think fans should console themselves with the fact that every time a developer delivers a crappy experience we’re hopefully at least one step closer to SEGA saying “no more” and greenlighting what will eventually turn out to be the definitive Aliens experience.