James Cameron’s Aliens has had more influence on video games than any other film in history. It was a raucous, violent romp that was rife with elements that felt like a video game before home technology could even replicate it. The cast of space marines is a trope that has been used in games from DOOM all the way to Halo, the ammo count display on guns has been featured in the likes of Dead Space and others…hell, the movie even had a “boss battle” against the Queen Alien that presented the sort of escalation that games have used for decades.
Despite these qualities, a film-accurate, quality Aliens game experience has eluded us. The Aliens vs. Predator titles have been non-canonical asides that varied in accuracy and playability, and many of the straightforward Alien titles have been abysmal products of the license-heavy NES days. Wayforward’s Aliens: Infestation managed to capture the lion’s share of the franchise vibe on the Nintendo DS, but not in the larger-than-life, cinematic fashion that gamers have yearned for.
So enter Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game that bears the hope that all of the stars have aligned and we’re finally getting the fantastic Aliens game that we’ve been waiting years for. For one, the game’s narrative dovetails neatly into the movie canon under the supervision of 20th Century Fox, and it’s been developed by Gearbox Software, whose resume includes excellent FPS titles like Brothers in Arms and Borderlands. With all of these bases being covered, Aliens: Colonial Marines should be perfect, right?
The game starts out hopefully enough. A battalion of Space Marines are dispatched to the Sulaco to try and figure out what happened to Ripley and the intergalactic leathernecks she was with. The initial tension is pleasantly heavy and thick as you step into eerily familiar territory, and you start to retrace steps from the film. The mangled lower half of Bishop lays splayed in a puddle of its own milky fluids (he’s an android…stop giggling), and several of your fellow Marines are ensnared in an all-too-familiar mass on the walls. There’s even the frightening suggestion of something moving around you, just out of sight, clattering through vents and ducts. When the Xenomorph finally reveals itself, it’s a hell of a moment, an in-your-face button mashing frenzy to try and get it off of you and grab your sidearm, a brief snippet of terror drenched in acid and saliva.
The Alien leapt off of me, then skittered away to a nearby doorway where it crouched and…that’s it. My first exposure to A:CM and its artificial intelligence set the mentally-deficient pace for the rest of the game. To put it kindly, the AI present here is broken beyond belief, giving us Aliens that try to hide in open space, run directly into the path of your spewing pulse rifle, and completely ignore your AI partners (who themselves will often run in circles or furiously hump the wall) and beeline straight for your targeting reticle. Even with the massive mobs of Xenos that the game dumps at you, their special-ed kamikaze routine makes them little more than grist for the mill.
The subpar AI is only the tip of the iceberg of problems that the game has. The graphics, at least on the Xbox 360, range from sufficient to comically awful. Remember Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator from almost three years ago? That game looked vastly superior to this title, which is awash in stiff animations, smeary textures, and laughable particle effects. Even stranger, in spite of the weak graphics, the game engine is subject to almost constant screen-tearing, which is inexplicable given that other games based on Unreal Engine 3 (i.e. DmC Devil May Cry, Gears of War 3) run buttery smooth with better graphical fidelity. While great graphics aren’t a necessity, the visuals of A:CM are detrimental to the mood and tone that has defined the movies.
Worst of all, the much-hyped canonical storyline is a joke. There’s fan service a plenty, but there’s no real meat to the script, which is a pathetic 4-hour run of hamfisted dialogue (if I hear “oorah to ashes” one more time…), horribly implemented new Alien types, and the single greatest disappointment of an ending, Aliens or otherwise.
The miserable single player experience is, mercifully, joined by an impressive number of multiplayer modes, which range from co-op to team deathmatch, the latter of which pits humans vs. xenomorphs in a satisfying fashion, as a decent opponent can offer up a stiffer challenge than the lame-duck AI. Unfortunately, these modes are still dressed in the mediocre graphics of the single-player game, making it still a less-than-pleasant experience.
In the midst of all this mediocrity, Gearbox did throw in one pleasant system, which allows you to gain ranks, which you can then trade in for weapons upgrades like laser sights and expanded clips. It made the long slog through the game’s corridors a little more exciting with the hope of brandishing some higher-end firepower, but it’s such a small part of the larger picture that it barely helps at all. It’s like a pretty sprig of parsley on the world’s shittiest steak dinner.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an inexcusable sin, wasting a license that was practically made for a video game adaptation, and leaving an underachieving husk of a title in its wake. It’s rare that I’ve seen a game fail so miserably on all counts, and to see Aliens saddled with this sort of disappointment is truly upsetting. In space, no one can hear you scream, but down here on Earth I’m saying “merrrrrr.”