Developers: Gearbox Software, TimeGate Studios, Nerve Software / Publisher: Sega / Played On: Xbox 360 [Also on: PlayStation 3, PC] / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
I love Aliens as a franchise and I love Gearbox Software, but tragically Aliens: Colonial Marines is not a good game. Antiquated production values, a pointless campaign, and broken multiplayer mean it’s hard to recommend, though the pulse rifle sounds really cool.
Actually, you know what? Even that’s messed up.
The single-player campaign’s premise sounds promising. The game is a canonical sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens, and follows a unit of space marines dispatched to investigate the derelict warship Sulaco. It seems like the perfect hook—start with a set-piece familiar to movie fans and transition into new content.
Only the game never makes that transition. The story’s just a series of implausible and unexplained coincidences that send you through forced recreations of every major scene from Aliens. In fact, the characters even acknowledge in-game that elements of the story don’t make any sense.
Some original characters are introduced but their story arcs are rushed and ineffective. The awkward dialogue and robotic animation smacks of PlayStation 2-era cutscenes, though there are a few charming moments despite those issues.
Ultimately, the whole story smacks of fan service, which I could excuse if there were any content here but forced Aliens references. There’s even a reveal near the story’s end that’s eye-rollingly obvious, yet the game assumes it will be a delicious treat for the player. I won’t spoil it, but if you can think of any character or item from Aliens that isn’t dead, destroyed, or bolted to another location by Alien 3, odds are you’ll see it in Colonial Marines. Yes, you even fight an alien in a power loader.
The ubiquity of references would be tolerable if the game were fun to play, but Colonial Marines’ gameplay is as boring and insipid as its story. Firing the authentic pulse rifle and walking around in Cameron’s vision of the future is briefly exciting, but it loses novelty after a few hours and nothing takes its place. You shoot xenos, you shoot humans, then you shoot xenos and humans. The combat never presents an intellectual challenge and the gunplay isn’t crisp enough to be fun in its own right. Of course, in keeping with haunted house game design, predictable scripted sequences pop out every now and again to say boo.
An obligatory leveling system thrown on top of the campaign unlocks the standard set of gun add-ons like red dot sights and under-slung rail weapons. The system is basic but manages to add the only intellectual slant to the gameplay; sub-missions give you alternative challenges to fulfill for experience bonuses. These provide the only reasons you’ll ever have to use some the game’s limited arsenal aside from sheer curiosity, but it’s just a boring and obvious carrot thrown on top of boring game design.
The campaign’s only merit is that it nails Cameron’s visual style, at least in the early levels. Aliens set the visual standard for a lot of science fiction, and all of those hallmarks have been expertly recreated here. Smoky rooms, noir-style horizontal banding, and lights behind giant rotating fans give the game a great sense of visual authenticity. Only problem is the game just doesn’t look that great on a technical level, with low-res textures and blocky geometry throughout. On top of that, the visual polish drops off near the end of the campaign. Colors become drab and environments turn to played-out videogame standards like offices filled with tables and boxes. There are a few hours of legitimate fun in the eight hour campaign, but it burns out quickly.
You might think that even a boring campaign can be fun with friends, and Colonial Marines does support four-player campaign co-op. There is some truth to that, but you’ll be laughing at the game rather than with it. Scripting errors, glitches, and choppy animation plague the experience. Other players are constantly warped ahead to match the pace of the leader showing just how much of an afterthought co-op is to the game’s design. It’s much easier to see all the cracks in this rickety boat of a game when more people are weighing it down.
You may also think that shooting at other players rather than xenos would be fun. That’s also partly true, but the game’s multiplayer is busted in some fundamental and unforgivable ways. The setup is novel at least—each of the game’s four modes pits marines versus xenos and theoretically requires each side to use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. Xenos can see through walls and climb through vents while marines have ranged weapons and motion trackers.
While the multiplayer works in the rare spurts when nothing goes wrong, too often the nuts and bolts of online play fall apart. The most basic issue is that Colonial Marines doesn’t handle latency well at all. If you have the slightest amount of lag, opponents jump all over the screen and your shots lag so far behind that you’re unable to hit anything.
Should you find a match with acceptable latency, you’ll likely discover that a good portion of the game’s fuzziness is due to horrible controls. The marines control well enough, but God help you if you try to climb a wall as a Xeno. In fact, almost all of the Xeno controls are broken; lunges never go where they’re targeted and melee attacks are confusing and difficult to gauge. You can compensate for some of the control issues, but they make playing as a xeno feel less awesome than it should.
Once you find a working, stable match and learn the idiosyncrasies of the controls, a whole other set of problems plague the experience. It’s not that the game is mechanically imbalanced, but the game’s maps sure as hell are. Indoor maps with short hallways and vents are play days for the Xenos, as it’s way easier to close in on marines without being shot. Wide open maps tend to favor the marines because it forces Xenos to run across open ground just to reach them. To make matters worse, there aren’t even that many maps to go around: nine maps split up over four modes means you’ll burn through the multiplayer’s content in a matter of hours.
I haven’t been this disappointed in a game in a long, long time. Not only does the campaign welch on its opportunity to create interesting and additive content in the Aliens universe, but the multiplayer is languid, broken, and laughably frustrating. Colonial Marines plays it as safe as possible and still can’t manage to copy successfully proven ideas. Even if you’re a huge Aliens fan, you’re better off getting comfortable on the couch to rewatch all the movies.