It’s taken six years for Aliens: Colonial Marines to finally hit shelves, and not since Duke Nukem Forever has something been less worth the wait. As is often the case of games caught in long, protracted periods of development, Gearbox Software’s latest is a sloppy, stupid and incredibly vacant game that has nothing to offer fans of action games or the classic horror films it’s based on. It plays bad, looks worse, and attacks your brain cells with an incredibly incoherent and disrespectful story that attempts to bridge the gap between Aliens and Alien 3 with disastrous result. It never fully breaks into unplayability, but aside from upholding that most baseline of quality assurance standards, Colonial Marines is an abject failure.
By the time you’re thirty seconds into the campaign, you’ll have noticed the awful graphics. Muddy textures, jagged edges galore, and some of the most hilariously bad animation I’ve seen in years. At one point I thought some classic, Unreal Engine-inspired pop-in was happening as I entered an office in one of the game’s many dreary, metallic hallways. Then I saw a fully rendered squad mate sidle up next to me and realized that, nope, that’s just the way that room’s textures look. In a later scene, a spaceship crudely crashes through the Sulaco – complete with an entirely stiff, arms-pinned-to-sides pilot model in the cockpit who doesn’t budge through the entire violent crash – a not uncommon moment where the visuals transcend the line from “ugly” to “laugher-inducing.” Pre-release screenshots of this game are very misleading; on average, the game looks far more dated.
Playing the game feels similarly aged. In fact, there’s so little going on mechanically that it’s almost difficult to talk about the action. Semantically, guns bear resemblance to the weapons from the films, but names do little to disguise the fact that these boilerplate SMGs, Shotguns, and so on lack any sort of punch whatsoever. They feel flat and uninteresting to use, and they spray down enemies so efficiently that there’s never any need to do anything but walk through an area and blow away everything you see. No need to crouch behind cover for the most part. You fight the iconic xenomorphs and mercenaries during the campaign, and although it’s a little more fun to track the aliens as they occasionally climb on a wall or something, both set the bar for fun pretty damned low. Enemies barely register your location or the damage you’re dealing until they die, and they all go down easy. Although nothing ever flat-out breaks, there’s tons of sticking to walls, weird glitched-out squad mates, and enemies that stand motionless, frozen in time and ready to be murdered. Not that you’d need the help – this is a tensionless game, devoid of any real challenge.
If the story took the potential-filled gap in the filmic timeline and filled it in thoughtfully, such middling action could possibly be overlooked by a diehard fan itching for some more Alien fiction. Tragically, the storytelling fares even worse than the gunplay. It’s telling that having any female characters at all was an extremely late edition to the game; the rest of the attempt to capture the spirit and thematic elevation of the films is also completely lost on the developers. Instead of crafting a legitimate bridge between two key pieces of the Alien fiction, Colonial Marines plays out like a lame greatest hits of the most expected sights from the films. There’s a power loader (and the sequence that accompanies it is horrid). You check out the Sulaco for a bit (it looks like the rest of the game does). You visit LV-426. You see Hicks. You fight Weyland-Yutani mercs. Someone mentions Ripley. But none of it coagulates into anything worthwhile or interesting. Without any sort of coherent umbrella narrative or character development, it’s just a bunch of stuff shoved into a bad game.
The presentation of the material fares no better. Cutscenes are choppy and look smeared, along with what has to be some of the least convincing polygonal acting in recent memory. The wooden voice acting often sounds like it was recorded through Skype, and the dialogue they spit out is total macho tripe, devoid of the irony and manipulation of gender roles so central to the films. It’s an embarrassment. By the game’s final chapters on the surface of LV-426, things had fallen off the rails so completely that I became unconscious of even the most basic motivation the plot was offering, and the twist at the end is pitiful. Broken objectives display incorrectly during the campaign, making the already confusing plot even worse. For nearly 45 minutes, my objective was to “rescue Bella,” even though she was fighting by my side that entire time.
Between unclear moment-to-moment cues and bewilderingly dumb story beats, the overarching structure of Colonial Marines contributes to the game’s horrible, amoebic quality. Every task you need to complete, room you enter, and enemy you fight feels exactly the same as every other. There’s no variety, no difficulty curve, and no set pieces. You fight room after room of one mindless enemy after another, with gross visuals and terrible weapons, for four or five hours. And that’s it. There are a couple difficulty levels to choose from, and a multiplayer mode that pits marines against xenomorphs, but what’s the use? You can make the game harder, but you can’t make it better. Those hoping the online play could rekindle any of the fire of greats like AvP2 will be sorely disappointed here, as well. Being able to play as a xenomorph is as interesting an idea as ever, but the execution here is as jacked as the rest of the game. Just like in the campaign, xenos die easily, and the dearth of any viable sneaky routes in maps leaves you little stealthy recourse. This leaves all multiplayer inherently unbalanced, and it wasn’t more than a few matches in that I ejected the game disc from my Playstation for good.
Aliens has rarely had much luck with its video game spin-offs, but I was still hopeful that Colonial Marines could deliver an at least solid experience. How wrong I was. This game fails to uphold any sort of quality experience in every way. And worst of all, absolutely nothing of creative merit was attempted. It shot for nothing and still ended up a disaster. Aside from all but the most token references, nothing from Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s incredible films makes the transition. The classics those directors helped create could very well be turned into a terrifying and unforgettable game, but this, sure as hell, is not it.