There are certain pop culture franchises that are nothing if not completely sacrosanct to their fan bases. Star Wars comes to mind, as does Lord of the Rings. The Aliens series certainly fits this mold. Enjoying more than 30 years of ruling the “Scary Thing From Space” throne, the H.R. Giger designed xenomorph has reaped the success of multiple movies, Predator crossovers, graphic novels, and, of course, video games. A frighteningly swift, mindless, quickly reproducing, acid bleeding ball of murder, Ms. Xeno has deposited many an egg sac of fear into the hearts of sci-fi geeks around the globe for more than a generation.
With Aliens: Colonial Marines, Gearbox Games, along with co-developers Nerve Software and TimeGate Studios, has (attempted to) deliver the ultimate love letter to the Aliens series. The game has all the familiar environments, sounds, atmosphere, acid blood, weaponry, HUD fonts, power loaders, etc. of an authentic Aliens experience.
The one tiny, little thing the developers forgot was gameplay.
Aliens: Colonial Marines picks up right after the events of James Cameron’s 1986 film, Aliens. A group of marines, including your character, Cpl. Winters, is dispatched to investigate what happened to the other squad of marines that traveled to LV-426 on the U.S.S. Sulaco during the events of the Aliens film. Of course, the second rescue squad also runs into xenomorphs, and history repeats itself, as history is wont to do. In sum, your team consists of a rescue squad sent to rescue a rescue squad. It is an extremely lazy, sleight-of-hand story telling conception meant to mimic the plot of the film without blatantly making a video game version of the movie Aliens.
ACM also employs unimaginative stereotypical characterizations. There is the big intimidating marine with the scarred face. There is the gritty female soldier who is so tough she is just like one of the guys (What a brilliant juxtaposition! I have never seen that a million times before!). There is the grizzled commanding officer who has seen it all, and, even though he has a prosthetic leg, he does not let anything slow him down. And, of course, there is your character: the generic, not-too-big, yet not-too-small, white, 30-something male soldier who is so white and generic, his name is Winters.
If you are an ardent fan of the film, you will probably enjoy playing the game; it pretty much recreates the experience of the film in video game form. If you are a fan of storytelling, you will be disappointed. ACM is considered “official canon,” which means it is a certified part of the Aliens saga by whoever makes such distinctions… likely the same people who stand to make money from anything with the Aliens logo on it.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a first-person shooter in its purest, classic form. Enter the room, kill all the bad things, collect armor and ammo, enter the next room, kill all the bad things, collect armor and ammo, wash, rinse, repeat. There are no vehicle sections, except for a handful of compulsory power loader bits to remind you that you are playing an Aliens game.
What makes the simplistic nature of ACM so painful is the complete lack of any A.I. A swarm of xenos will charge at you, head-on, until you make them dead. The next swarm of xenos will charge at you, head-on, until you make them dead, etc., etc., etc. Occasionally you will fight Weyland-Yutani PMC soldiers (has anyone else noticed that PMCs have become the new Nazis of video game enemies?). Soldier A.I. is barely better than that of the xenos. Instead of simply charging at you, they will duck behind the nearest cover until you lob a grenade at their feet.
It could be argued that it would be out of place to have xenomorphs do anything but charge at you. These are not exactly genius-level creatures; they are marauding packs of giant bugs, essentially. The thing is it does not make for an interesting video game. I have no problem sitting down for a 2-hour Aliens movie and gasping as swarms of mindless xenomorphs make life complicated for a hearty band of survivors. However, to spend 10 hours fighting wave after wave of them in a video game… it brings to mind the old saying: just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done. And it does not explain the vapid A.I. of the enemy soldiers. Had the combat against human enemies been interesting, it would have gone a long way toward making the segments fighting xenos seem unique. It would have delivered an experience ranging from combating endless hoards (xenos), to outsmarting logical enemies (soldiers). Alas, the soldier A.I. ends up being almost as dumb as the xeno A.I., and the distinction is lost.
ACM includes a point-based upgrade mechanic. The more achievements you… uh, achieve, the more advanced weaponry becomes available. I found this system to be forced and unnecessary. It is so overly simple that it felt like a last minute effort by the developers to shoehorn a false sense of depth into the game.
ACM’s gameplay is not “broken” by any stretch of the imagination; it is simply lazy and uninteresting.
One last note: ACM is compatible with Logitech G-Series LCD-equipped keyboards. The small LCD panel on my G510 displayed story objectives in real-time. It is not exactly earth shattering, but there it is…
This is where things start looking up for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Utilizing a render-modified version of the Unreal 3 engine, ACM’s graphics effectively drop the player right into the Aliens experience. Lighting and shadow effects are very good, with flashlights casting real-time shadows, and ominous streams of misty light desperately piercing into darkness. Character models are all fantastically detailed, as are weapons, which have been meticulously recreated for the game.
Many environmental textures and prop textures, however, are terrible. While one area might have stretches of pipes running along the walls, featuring vivid mapping and lighting effects, too many other surfaces are big blobs of heavily compressed pixels. The environment props are also sparsely detailed. Is that a book or a Chinese food take-out box on the floor? No one will ever know.
Also of note is how distractingly bad human animations are in this game. The xenomorphs skitter around the floors, walls, and ceilings convincingly enough, like big, black, angry cats. However, the human animations are straight out of 10 years ago. Movements are stiff, and feature awkward transitional effects (e.g., transitioning from idle state to combat stance).
The game is not all that demanding to run on PC. Its console roots become clear in the settings menu, as there are only a couple of sliders to control advanced visual options, and there is only one anti-aliasing option: FXAA on or off.
The developers apparently raided 20th Century Fox’s audio vaults, and gathered the entire catalog of signature sound effects Aliens fans have grown to associate with the series. The pulse rifles sound spot-on perfect, as do the all-important hair-raising screeches of the xenomorphs. Environments constantly teem with subtle sounds, which add to the immersion factor of the game. Combat scenarios boom to life with effective gunfire reports and deep explosions.
What’s more, Lance Henriksen reprises his role as Bishop, the Weyland-Yutani synthetic, as does Michael Biehn, playing Cpl. Hicks. Other voice work in the game is passable.
I did not experience any bugs, glitches, or crashes.
Your enjoyment of Aliens: Colonial Marines will be in direct proportion to how much you love the films. Only the die-hardest of the die-hard will be able to forgive ACM’s many shortcomings. It is not a complete disaster, but it is also not a game deserving of a full $60 price tag. ACM has far too many problems for me to recommend it at full price. If you can snag it for 75% off during a Steam sale, then by all means, knock yourself out. I suggest playing the game in short sessions otherwise it quickly becomes tedious.
I actually enjoyed Rebellion’s 2010 Aliens vs. Predators significantly more than ACM, as AVP had more gameplay variety. However, if you are looking for a new sci-fi horror game, I recommend Dead Space 3 instead; it is not perfect, but it is a more interesting game than ACM.
Do not be fooled by the marketing hype of a completely new story set in the Aliens universe. This game is a poorly disguised rehash of the movie Aliens.
The shooting mechanics work well, but the lack of variety and flaccid A.I. hurt this game quite a lot.
Very nice lighting and shadow effects, character/weapon details shine, but environmental textures and human animations need a lot of polish. Xenomorphs skitter around very convincingly (I just wanted an excuse to use the word “skitter” again).
Wow… just… wow. Every facet of ACM’s audio is top-notch.
FINAL SCORE: C-