Aliens: Colonial Marines
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: Co-op 2-4 splt-screen & online, 2-12 multiplayer.
Words By:

James Cameron's 1986 Alien movie was so iconic and cool that gamers of a certain age have been waiting for a game to match up to it ever since. Aliens: Colonial Marines has been in (and out of) development for 6 years and the original concept actually dates back to a cancelled PlayStation 2 project by a different developer from 2001. Time and time again Aliens fans have been disappointed, but Rebellion/Sega’s Aliens Versus Predator game (reviewed > here <) released three years ago wasn't half bad. Can this much delayed, cancelled, shelved, redesigned game possibly live up to Aliens fans’ anticipation?

Firstly I should probably say that I think Gearbox should be able to produce a decent Aliens game. Responsible for games like Counter-Strike, Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life (PS2), James Bond 007 Nightfire, Halo: Combat Evolved, several Brothers in Arms games, Duke Nukem Forever (we’ll forgive them that one), Borderlands 1 and 2... and even entrusted by Bungie with the PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved, this is a developer that should be master of the first person shooter genre—and should be able to nail the co-op and online multiplayer side of things too.

For a start, they got the setting dead right. Set on the planet LV 426 (the bleak storm-swept recently terraformed planet from the first two Aliens movies) you play part of the squad of Marines sent aboard the mighty USS space cruiser Sephora to find out exactly what happened to the Sulaco (the ship that Ripley, Hicks, Bishop and all were aboard during the events of Aliens.) The atmosphere of the game is superb; it truly oozes detail, and captures the industrial design and the grime and grunge of the source material. The game sounds exactly as it should, from the atmospheric and tension inducing ‘ping’ of the motion sensor (you can bring it up at any time, it’s mapped to ' LB') to the unmistakable sound of the iconic pulse rifle, and even all the other weapons (that have been made up for the game but weren’t in the movie) look, feel and sound just right, Gearbox have got the design of the game spot on, and kudos for that.

In the solo or co-op campaign (2-player split-screen or 2-4 player online) you play the character of Winter, and are accompanied for much of the story by a smartgun-toting grunt named O’Neal. Your character model is randomly set in the co-op mode, but with XP earned along the way you can customise the weapons; adding various under barrel launchers, sights and add-ons to the various rifles, shotguns, submachine guns and pistols—these changes carry over into the multiplayer mode, and XP tokens that are earned in the multiplayer mode can be used to upgrade weapons for the campaign. You can change the appearance of your Marine or Xeno (Alien) in the multiplayer, but when playing the co-op mode, you never really know who's playing who, nobody has a definite role and you will tend to end up running around in circles like trigger-happy gunners. This can add some hilarity, but kind of detracts from the atmosphere that the visuals and the sound work so hard to build up. This isn't to say that the game doesn’t have its scary moments, because even for a fearless foursome it really does.

The game has a host of collectables such as dogtags and "Legendary" weapons (weapons left behind by characters from the Aliens movie.) And herein lies one of the game's problems. While the levels are expansive, much of the gameplay is very much of an old-school linear corridor type shooter. Most of the interior locations are highly detailed, but when the game goes outside the game engine simply can’t keep the detail levels up, and eyeewww... some of the textures are so low res (some of which wibble between detail levels as you look at them) that you could be mistaken for thinking they originated in the game’s first incarnation on the PS2. Now you can call me fussy, but I really think that designers of a game that invites, nay encourages, the player to search every single nook and cranny of a map would make sure things are tidied up visually before putting the game on the shelves...? But no, around the edges of maps the detail is at the lowest, there are annoying things like invisible walls and plastic tape to pen you in and force you along a set path, even in interior locations. There are also some ugly flat black panels that I presume were supposed to be air ducts and are probably spawn points for Xenos, but just look oddly unfinished.

In the multiplayer mode one side plays as the Marines and the other plays as Xenomorphs, 2-6 players a side. Marines can choose from a selection of load-outs (customizable) and custom character models; Xenos can choose what type of alien (Soldier, Spitter or Lurker) they want to be and customise their attacks, defensive abilities, passive traits, fatality attack and individual appearance too (different Xeno heads and skins). The game plays pretty well; the devastating firepower of the Marines’ weapons can be countered by the swift melee attacks and pounces of Xenos, and both sides can spawn more powerful weapons; Marines in the form of smartguns, turrets and rocket launchers, and Xenos in the form of playable ‘super’ aliens like the boiler (exploding alien) and the crusher (huge, bull-like alien).

Thankfully the disorientating effect of being a wall and ceiling crawling alien from the Aliens Versus Predator game of two years ago has been negated by the aliens being controlled from a third person (or should that be "third Xeno?") perspective above and behind the alien’s head. There are 9 maps (Origin, Excavation, Last Hope, The Hive, Adrift, Flushed Out, Emergency Evac, Condemned and Overrun), some designed for particular games modes. DLC maps and new game modes are promised, but it remains to be seen how long the online community actually wants to play it for.

The script and storyline are quite well written and fit into the Aliens mythology. The voice acting’s pretty good too featuring the voices of Lance Henrikson (who plays the ‘synthetic person’ Bishop) and Michael Biehn (Corporal Dwayne Hicks.) The likeness of Bishop isn’t bad (he is an android after all) but Hicks looks nothing like Michael Biehn, so I don’t know what went wrong there.

In what I found an unexpected twist, only a few minutes into the story, you’re fighting humans rather than aliens, in the form of a PMC (private military company) employed by Weyland-Yutani to protect the aliens. This turns the game into a sort of ‘spacey’ Call of Duty for a while, and these sections can chug a bit until the PMCs start getting attacked by the aliens, at which point you can often stand back and enjoy the fighting.

The game’s been dismissed as too easy by many, but I think it’s just about right; ‘Hardened’ is a reasonable challenge solo and ‘Ultimate Badass’ (with more damaging Xeno attacks and a lack of ammo, armour and health gauges) is designed for 3 or 4 players co-op. The friendly AI varies hugely, from helpful and accurate to idiotic-get-in-the-way at every opportunity, and your almost ever-present companion O’Neal definitely isn’t as smart as his smartgun.

There are more than a few holes in what is actually an interesting plot, and there are a few moments that just made me go “EH?” Like when the marine heroically pulls the pin on a grenade when he feels a chestburster hatch, seemingly giving a big “fuck you!” to his squad mates in the umbilical corridor between the two ships, or the sheer fact that a chestburster hatches through a marine’s chest plate body armour as they prepare her for possible surgery to remove the little beasty. This event asks you two things; why wouldn’t they have removed the armour for the marine’s comfort, and if a small, admittedly well-toothed alien can pop through it so easily, why are they even bothering to wear it?

The weaponry is mostly very pleasing; the iconic Pulse rifle and Smartgun handle well, sound the part and deal a satisfying amount of damage regardless of the upgrade level or difficulty setting. Pistols, shotguns and rifles also play their part, but hand grenades (mostly because of their stupidly short fuse and annoyingly fixed, high throwing arc), and the rocket launcher (because it insists on exploding on anything in the foreground rather than flying to the target aimed at with the reticle making it almost impossible to shoot out of a window or from behind any cover) are a pain to use and just as likely to kill you as an enemy until you learn their peculiarities.

There are few places in the game where you’re actually likely to get stuck, and in the main it’s a bit too easy, but there are also a few spots where stupid events conspire to make progress more difficult than it should have been, like when there’s a stand-off with the PMCs guarding a spot where you and your marines want to get to. The AI enemies hunker down when hurt and the humans will occasionally throw grenades at you. This is annoying because their grenades have the same short fuse as yours so the CoD-style “grenade warning indicator” is next to useless-it’s such a short warning that it’s more of a “ this is where the grenade went that’s going to kill you“ indicator. At times the screen also inexplicably shakes SO much that it’s almost puke-inducing, and scoping distant enemies is rendered impossible, meaning that on the harder difficulty settings where ‘running and gunning’ is unlikely to work, your best plan is to get your AI marine(s) close enough so they can eventually kill the enemy with their inaccurate but copious fire, while ducking behind cover yourself.

The aliens themselves often look really good, and are rightly the stars of the show. But sometimes they seem to have huge chunks of animation missing and what appears to be simplistic, guided-missile-like AI means they often get stuck on scenery. You may be thankful for this at the time but it won’t add to the tense atmosphere when you see a Xeno moonwalking because it’s stuck on a crate or cardboard box...

In the main the graphics aren’t bad at all, as I said earlier things look right, but the game engine struggles to keep things flowing. Apart from the ever-present horizontal tearing (v-sync is turned ‘off’ so the frame rate remains steadier) there are a few other graphical horrors too, some even uglier than the aliens themselves; like ammo and weapons clipped into scenery, sometimes even rendering them un-pickupable.

The human character models are not great by today’s standards, even their faces are emotionless masks with cursory lip-sync that make the game look dated, and although there’s some excellent mo-cap in places, in the main the animation is basic and looks like Halo era, and I mean the original Halo: Combat Evolved on Xbox, not Halo 4.

As a huge fan of the Aliens movie (it hasn’t aged well by the way) I found Aliens: Colonial Marines to be both pleasing and disappointing in equal measures. The intense atmosphere created by the attention to detail with regard to the 4-player co-op, design, appearance and sound of the game are torpedoed by crappy AI (on both sides), poor character models and tatty, unfinished-looking low-detail areas in almost every level. While Gearbox might think Borderlands 2 is great and popular not everyone wants to go through the same old slog and spend half the time on a mission picking stuff up (you have to look almost directly at armour, an ammo box or health pack then press ‘X’ to pick it up); by the end of the campaign I had a virtual bad back from bending over so much. The game is also painfully linear; it’s almost impossible to get lost and the gameplay does get repetitive—a thing I found disappointing as I was expecting at least one flying or driving level with the iconic dropship or APC, something akin to Battlefield 3 or Halo 4’s genre-stretching gameplay.

With its drop-in-drop-out co-op campaign and decent adversarial multiplayer mode A:CM would seem to be firmly aimed at the online gamer, and how much you like to team up with friends and play online shooters will decide how much you get out of this frustrating effort of a game.

Best Bits

- Atmosphere is excellent.
- Sound FX are good.
- 2-4 player drop in/out co-op.
- Tense,exciting multiplayer.
Worst Bits

- Graphical glitches.
- Poor character models, animation and lip sync.
- Hopeless AI.
- Simplistic, linear gameplay.
- Too much time spent stuff picking up.

by: Jensen Buttons

Copyright © Gamecell 2013