Has there ever been a movie license more perfectly suited to a videogame adaptation than Aliens? The movie series has influenced countless games over the years, from its entire arsenal of sci-fi weaponry to the design of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs. Heck, a few games are even guilty of copying Aliens’ marine banter word for word. Modern day first person shooters in particular wouldn’t be the same if the series simply didn’t exist, and a game that blends together everything the Alien universe has to offer has been a very long time coming.
Too long, it would seem.
Set directly after the second Alien movie, Colonial Marines starts with a brief and linear rescue mission aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco spaceship. Although the opening does a good job of explaining the controls and how the recharging health system works, it failed to draw us in. It’s the roughness of the visuals that first stand out. Indeed, the game’s prolonged five year development period is more than apparent. Visually it looks dated with each texture as blurry and fuzzy as the last. There are some unwelcome animation glitches too, such as guns vanishing out of characters’ hands, and if you get too far ahead of the NPCs – who accompany you throughout most of the campaign – then they magically teleport to your current location. This puts a damper on the atmosphere somewhat, but thankfully such downfalls aren’t game breaking and can be easily overlooked.
Less so the first encounter with a Xeno which feels like a genuine anti-climax. There’s a lack of tension throughout and an even more notable lack of set-pieces designed to scare. Make no mistake – this is a very gung-ho experience. Although the iconic motion tracker is available from the start, it rarely has to be used due to emitting an audible sound when enemies are near even when it’s not equipped. The torch too is a missed chance to build tension. The battery doesn’t need re-charging and most areas are packed with fancy lighting effects which have seemingly been used to try to mask the roughness of the textures.
The Xenomorphs themselves are plentiful in number, crawling along walls and out of air-ducts as you expect them to, but even on ‘hardened’ difficulty they go down with one shotgun slug even from afar. If they get too close they can be pushed away, and sometimes after being incapacitated by one there’s a chance take it down with a pistol, akin to Borderlands 2’s ‘second chance’ feature. There’s also a challenge system in place similar to that seen in Borderlands 2. These challenges vary from tracking five hostiles on the motion tracker at once to taking down two enemies with one shotgun blast. Success awards extra XP and new weapon skins. Weapons can be upgraded after levelling up, with most having a choice of secondary fire modes.
After the less than impressive opening, things improve massively once the plot moves over to the human colony Hadley’s Hope. If that name rings a bell that’ll be because it’s the complex where most of Aliens’ story takes place. Gearbox’s attention to detail here is commendable, right down to the spent sentry turrets located outside the welded shut door of the operations room. This mission is a lot more open-ended, giving the chance to explore while setting up a perimeter. Aliens fans will be in their element – it’s the nearest they’ll ever get to walking onto the set of Aliens. Other touches that will no doubt please fans include the chance to find legendary weapons, – the first being Hick’s shotgun – and the fact that all the achievements are named after movie quotes. Like the 1986 movie there are a lot of decent one-liners as well that sometimes raise a grin.
After Hadley’s Hope things continue to improve. There’s a mission where the protagonist finds himself in a sewer system without any weapons on hand, and has to sneak past a colony of blind Aliens that explode on impact. A slight misuse of the license, perhaps, but it’s the only mission where the Xenos feel like a sizeable threat.
About halfway into the story a Power Loader can be clambered into during a boss battle. Here blows against the enemy have to be perfectly timed to prevent a mauling. This is followed by a stealth mission of sorts during which spotlights have to be avoided. It’s nothing too complex, nor clever, but it does add a bit of variety.
The ending sees the squad trying to find a way off the planet while ruining the plans of evil corporation Weyland Yutani in the process. It entertains but it never grips and like most of the game it’s pretty gung-ho with most mission objectives being based around blowing stuff up.
If we were asked to guess what Gearbox has been adding to the game for the past year or so, we’d wager that it was the reasonably attractive front end and experience point system, as these are the only things that resemble what the current crop of shooters have to offer.
Any experience gained in the campaign is carried over to multi-player, along with weapons that have been upgraded. There are four multi-player modes on offer, each offering the chance to play as three different Alien types.
Of the four modes, Team Deathmatch and Escape look set to be the most popular. Deathmatches are sheer carnage – both marines and Xenos go down with two or three hits and thus scores of 50+ kills per team are frequent occurrences. Thankfully the match settings are designed with this level of chaos in mind. Respawn times last just a few seconds and often you respawn amidst raging battles. Only the ‘Spitter Alien’ has a projectile attack – which is charged in an identical manner to Gears of War’s torque bow – but Aliens do have the advantage of being able to see marines’ heat signatures.
Escape meanwhile is objective based, involving either trying to progress across a map to an extraction point as the Marines, or trying to prevent their success when playing an Alien. Then there’s Survival which has a ‘safety in numbers’ theme, with the task being simply to stay alive along as you can. Extra XP is awarded for staying close to your team and in this mode sentry turrets can be deployed to try to boost chances of success. A little tip here: whoever moved the turret last gets the kill XP. Lastly there’s Extermination, a 5-on-5 battle to wipe out Alien egg clusters.
The chance to rise up the ranks and unlock new skills gives the multi-player mode an addictive quality and as a whole multi-player certainly doesn’t feel like a bolted on extra. It’s not particularly deep, but it is fun.
Sega recently announced that their future plans depend on just four core IPs, one of which is Aliens. If the company believes that releasing a game that has been in development for five years yet still feels as if it needs more spit and polish will fill their coffers with cash, then a rethink may be in order. Hopefully now the game is out and the weight has been lifted from their shoulders, the franchise can move forward.
That’s not to say Gearbox’s love for the license isn’t apparent here, but there are far too many instances when it feels like just another bug hunt. Given the rich source material, that shouldn’t be the case.