The Alien franchise deserves better than this. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a disappointing exercise in bland corridor shooting, dragged down by laughable dialogue and cooperative play that makes the game worse than when you adventure on your own. Colonial Marines is unremarkable in every conceivable way: it’s far too easy, generally devoid of tension, and lacking in the variety it so desperately needed. It occasionally lets you peek at the game that could have been, allowing its rare scraps of unsettling atmosphere to seep into your bones. But brief moments of dread and excitement are quickly supplanted by more shrug-worthy shooting and a general aura of “whatever”-ness.
“Tepid” isn’t likely what you want from a shooter–nor is it what you look for in an Alien narrative. Easter eggs are there for the fans of the film franchise who want them, but even when the game pays homage to the films that inspired it, the results are lackluster. A gruesome event that remains Alien‘s most well-remembered image is replicated here without a hint of fright or gusto, and Colonial Marines frequently relies on visual and dialogue references to fill in for proper storytelling. (Hey, that guy just mentioned Ripley!)
When relieved of the cumbersome cloak of nostalgia, the story gives you little to hold onto. As Corporal Christopher Winter, you join other marines on a rescue mission to infiltrate the U.S.S. Sulaco, thus initiating your post-Aliens journey through a number of storied areas from the franchise, such as the Sulaco and Hadley’s Hope. Several strained confrontations between key characters temporarily raise the narrative stakes; when anger comes to the forefront, you get a glimpse into the loyalty that bonds the marines. But most of their interactions are characterized by snippets of awful dialogue, such as, “Any thoughts on the exploding chest issue?” and “Woke up gagging on a creature like a spider, but wrapped around my face. It’s dead, sir.” Such lines are delivered without a hint of irony–or any other emotion, for that matter.
The awkward storytelling is hardly energized by character models and facial animations so stiff that humans look every bit as synthetic as famed series androids Ash and Bishop. Aliens: Colonial Marines is not a looker. Graphics glitches abound, fire and goo effects are unconvincing, and clumsy visual details–jittery transitions in and out of canned animations, abrupt game-over screens upon death–give the game an air of carelessness. Graphics may not make or break a game, but the success of a game in this universe relies somewhat on the atmosphere, and these flaws can make it difficult to stay immersed. And that doesn’t account for nonvisual bugs, such as scripting errors, and the occasions when you spawn into the game in a nigh-unusable third-person view.
Luckily, moody lighting and some creepy environments help pull you back in, though not consistently. Outdoor exploration is given heft by the sight of burning structures dotting the horizon on LV-426, and dark corridors are lined with shiny slime and gross tendrils, keeping your eyes momentarily averted from the bare textures and poor animations. You move through these places, mostly corridors, shooting down xenomorphs, mercenaries, and little else. There’s mild entertainment here and there, at least during the biggest battles. At one point, you must disconnect several fuel lines as aliens skitter across ceilings and appear along the walls, eager to close in and snatch your life away. An enjoyable rhythm can set in as you fend off waves of gross xenos before making a run for your objective. It’s satisfying to gun down an alien before it makes its way to the ground from a high ledge, and watching xenos explode into gushers of goo has a grotesque appeal.
All too often, however, you just walk forward, shoot the aliens and mercs that appear with your bog-standard weapons (assault rifle, shotgun, and so forth), open a door, and do it all again. On the whole, the action lacks any sense of momentum or challenge. Aliens: Colonial Marines is exceptionally easy on normal difficulty; human enemies lack smarts, and alien arrivals aren’t horrifying–just horrifyingly predictable. You’re granted the requisiteAlien motion tracker, but it’s wholly unnecessary; you don’t need it to stalk aliens hiding in the shadows, or to avoid xenomorphs on the hunt. Enemies arrive just as you’d expect, and you shoot them.
And that’s Colonial Marines’ biggest problem: enemies come, and you shoot them down easily, again and again. The game is remarkably light on variety. A couple of battles masquerade as boss fights, but they require no strategy and are just as easy and thrill-less as the rest. The four- to five-hour campaign has no thrust to it; it feels the same from beginning to end, and the finale just drops with a thud. And by being so easy and predictable, the game lets down the license. There’s little suspense, nothing to absorb you or spur your curiosity. Colonial Marines is tone-deaf to what makes the Alien franchise what it is–and what makes the best shooters so exciting.
One level, however, serves as the exception to the boredom, and it’s telling that it’s the only level in which you don’t begin with a gun. You push forward carefully, occasionally forced to remain still lest you draw a xenomorph’s attention with the sound of your sloshing. A creature–or several–might stride right up to you, stare you down, and then return to a resting state before you are safe to continue. Eventually you must weld doors shut behind you to escape a pursuing alien’s clutches, which infuses the level with a sense of fear and uncertainty. It’s a clever, menacing sequence that puts you on the defensive.
Yawning is contagious. How appropriate, then, that adding other players to the mix doesn’t offer the needed explosive boost–it actually makes the experience less enjoyable. If you use the matchmaking option, online cooperative play requires four players to start the match. Only if you have buddies to invite–and only if you switch the networking type to “friends only”–can you limit your match to fewer. (The console versions also support split-screen co-op for two.) Your friends don’t take the place of AI companions; instead, they are added to the roster, leading to ridiculously cramped exploration in four-player matches in which players and non-player characters fight for elbow room and try to shoot xenomorphs rather than the back of teammates’ heads.
Even worse, many of these levels were clearly designed without co-op play in mind. The aforementioned stealth level–the game’s most dramatic–is a sloppy mess devoid of tension when played by a full crew. For instance, should one player move too far ahead, the others teleport to him, potentially triggering nearby aliens to annihilate a defenseless teammate. Furthermore, having others join you destroys the narrative, making certain elements of it laughably nonsensical. Co-op feels thrown together without any regard for how it affects the game’s challenge and flow.
Competitive play finds more success, because the unpredictability of other players leads to occasional moments of tension. All four modes pit a team of marines against a team of aliens, though Escape is the standout among them. Here, four marines make their way through alien-infested territory from one mark to the next, hoping to escape the wrath of the acid-spitting, sharp-clawed opposition. As a marine, there’s a sense of camaraderie missing from the campaign; you must have each other’s back, protecting each other from the alien onslaught while you wait for elevators to descend and steel doors to open. As an alien, it’s satisfying to slink toward the marines with your teammates and swipe your talons across their faces, hoping to down each squad member and thus bring their plans to a screeching halt.
Survivor mode hits similar notes, with four marines trying to simply stay alive for the allotted time before the xenomorph team can slaughter them. The other modes–Team Deathmatch and a capture-the-node variation called Extermination–are more mundane. No matter which mode you choose, however, you can’t escape Colonial Marines’ sloppier elements. You can skitter up walls and across ceilings as an alien, but there’s no telling which surfaces you will stick to and which you won’t. This can lead to awkward moments in which your plans falter because you have to mess with your positioning when you’d rather be messing up marines. Additionally, issues like screen stuttering when entering vents and when in spectator mode make online play feel unfinished.
The first two Alien films are steeped in mystery and anxiety, qualities all but absent in developer Gearbox’s lackluster interpretation. Instead, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a shallow bit of science-fiction fluff with cheap production values and an indifferent attitude. It’s forgettable enough to deem unnecessary, which is a grievous sin for a game in a universe brimming with so much potentia