The Alien movies are rad. There are scary aliens that look super cool, there are tough marines that have bitchin’ technology, the characters are mostly likable, even if you like to hate them. Kicking back and popping in Aliens is always a good time. Honestly, the Alien franchise has so much that could be utilized to make an amazing game. Most studios that attempt it though have been less than successful, with games ranging from okay to bad. When I first got to experience the multiplayer component of Aliens: Colonial Marines at PAX this year, I became instantly hyped. I thought the multiplayer was fun, intense, and honestly a bit terrifying. With the awesome visuals and excellent sound design, the multiplayer matches had this awesome atmosphere to it. I was counting down the days so I could try out the full game for myself. Now that I have had the time to work through the campaign, I sit here confused, disappointed and probably a little less sane than I was before playing.
As much as it pains me to say it, Aliens: Colonial Marines is kind of a train-wreck. This first person shooter developed by multiple studios, is a good example of having too many cooks in the kitchen. It is a glitchy, awkward mess with some poor design choices and poor performance on consoles. I don’t think it would be correct to call this a “bad” game. It’s more like a “broken” one. I think that there was some potential for this game to be good. The campaign was short, which was a blessing in this case. It only took me a handful of hours to beat. The levels are very linear, with a clear goal of get from point A to point B and kill everything you can along the way. There’s a stealth level too, which feels hilariously out of place. Personally I was not impressed by the story. It just wasn’t very captivating and I didn’t really find myself caring about the characters that weren’t from the films. There isn’t really a lot to talk about from a story perspective, so I’m mostly going to be focusing on the gameplay aspects.
One of the biggest problems with this game is that the AI is a complete mess. Enemies are programmed so strangely, and I’ve never experienced anything like it before. They’re all either obsessed with killing you, depressingly suicidal or completely indifferent to your existence. Of all the FPS games I’ve played in my life, I can’t recall a time I was able to walk up to an enemy solider and not elicit a reaction from them. Even in bad FPS games enemies know to at least shoot at you or at least run away.
I was able to walk up to one soldier in particular, my gun pointed at his head, and he just didn’t care. He just looked at me with what I assume (he was wearing a helmet) were cold, soulless eyes. Maybe he knew how big of a mess this game is and he just… wanted me save him by ending it all? I was actually pretty taken aback by this incident. I didn’t really know how to react… so after a brief conversation with him (I started to lose my mind about halfway through the game) I decided that he was a pretty chill dude and I was just going to leave him there to do whatever. It’s not just the Wey-Yu soldiers that are indifferent. I came across several aliens that were just hanging out on the ground. What they were waiting for exactly is beyond me.
On the flip-side, some of the enemy AI is so aggressive that it doesn’t pay any attention to it’s surroundings. Which means that it doesn’t wonder why it’s stuck on a piece of debris it should definitely be able to walk over, and instead just keeps running in place thinking about what it’s going to do when it gets you, or maybe it’s thinking about cake. I don’t know what aliens think about. Their desire to swap my insides with my outsides seemingly overwrites any sense of self preservation; it completely ignores my AI companions that are just unloading carnage into it’s flesh. I know that enemies are usually supposed to focus on the player in these games, but the computer’s obsession is a bit ridiculous. At one point of the game, I was able to kill off a larger alien that was chasing after me by running in circles around a vehicle. I just kept it’s attention and it ran after me… and my companions just unloaded into it without consequences.
So between those two extremes in behavior, you would hope that some of the enemies would actually behave in a somewhat normal way right? Well there is a third behavior I encountered, and it’s basically just a mix of the first two. I like to call this the “suicidal” behavior. Wey-Yu soldiers do run and take cover, and they might take a few potshots from behind cover, but inevitably they will jump out of cover for no reason. The aliens have the ability to come at you from almost anywhere; ceilings, vents, walls. If an alien is coming at you from the walls or ceiling in a dark hallway, it’s actually a really chilling and creepy experience… until they drop off onto the floor right in front of you. You barely even have to aim. Maybe they’ll screech and flex their bodies in a menacing way, but that’s just their way of saying “I AM ABOUT TO BITCH-SLAP YOU. YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT IF YOU WANT. You prick.” Between these three behaviors, I’m starting to believe my hypothesis that the enemies actually ARE self aware… and they didn’t ask for this.
This mix of dumb behavior, your ever-growing array of firepower, and almost always having an AI companion makes the game incredibly easy. While your AI companions can be frustratingly stupid, running off to advance the plot while I’m being swarmed by a bunch of aggressive aliens, they’re still capable of killing things. As it turns out, they’re also descendents of the Highlander clan. They don’t want to die! You can’t make them! I actually told one of my AI companions (like I was talking to him through the TV screen, because I’m crazy now) that I wanted him to clear out a giant room full of bad guys by himself. I only did this because I knew he could do it. It took a while because he wasn’t the most accurate guy, but he eventually got the job done. I didn’t even have to play the game beyond walking with him and ducking behind cover. Maybe enemies focused on me because they felt it frivolous to pick a fight with an immortal.
I did die quite a few times. However only a very small number of those deaths were instances where the game’s challenge got the better of me. The majority of my deaths were cheap deaths. There isn’t really a solid “cover” mechanic but the game instructs you to hide behind chest high walls and boxes to “take cover”. Which would be fine, if Wey-Yu guns didn’t just go straight through your source of protection. I don’t mean this in a “the gun is so powerful it can penetrate the wall” type stuff either. The bullets are just like “homie don’t play that” and magically ignore my defenses. I’ve also been killed numerous times by soldiers shooting through walls/boxes that they’re behind. I was not able to see what was shooting me, and there was no line of sight between him and I. Wey-Yu soldiers have wallhacks and it’s bullshit.
There are various armor pieces and bits of ammunition scattered around each level and dropped by enemies. To pick up these resources, you have to focus your camera on them and hit x. WHY? Why can’t I just run over them to pick them up!? The game is already unrealistic, so why do we have to pick up each individual piece? I would give it credit for bringing back health packs and shying away from regenerating health, but instead it has both. Your health is split into 3 sections and each section can replenish itself if you avoid damage for a few seconds. You find armor and health so frequently that it doesn’t really matter. Also the armor pieces are oddly specific. Sometimes you find just the helmet, just the chest piece and sometimes its the full suit. Every time I pick up a specific piece I just imagine my marine putting on another helmet or whatever. It’s absurd.
The game’s atmosphere is probably the best part about it, and even then it still falls short. The Aliens universe is already established. It has a certain aesthetic, visually and audibly, that is distinct and solely it’s own. Aliens is supposed to be creepy and unsettling, and keep you on the edge of your seat. Colonial Marines at least tries to keep the atmosphere right. There are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments in the game. There are lots of dark corridors, decent ambient sounds and music. I actually really liked the sound direction, probably because they pulled a lot of sound effects right from the movie. The first time I unloaded my Pulse Rifle, I watched the ammo count on the side of the gun deplete and heard that really distinct gunfire noise and I got goosebumps. The aliens more or less sounded right, and the voice acting was alright. Coming across set locations from the films in-game made me smile.
However, nothing ruins the atmosphere of a game than textures that look like they were pulled right out of the Nintendo 64. The texture pop-ins in this game are out of control. Even with the game installed on the 360, the pop-ins are distracting and ugly. I’m guessing that they had to do it this way to get the game to run smoothly and at acceptable frame rates. Problem is: it still doesn’t. Frame-rates jump around like crazy even when there isn’t a ton of action going on. I wasn’t able to measure the framerates, but from what I experienced, it felt like it didn’t dip below 25 and it occasionally touched around 45, but it was rarely a constant 30. There was also pretty noticeable screen tearing. As far as the actual graphics, they weren’t anything to write home about. The Aliens movies aren’t all happy colors or anything, but there is at least a vibrancy to the films that the game cannot emulate. The environments in the game stick to the inside of space ships, inside of infested structures and outside on the dark, rocky surface. Not a ton of variety, not a ton of color. It’s hard to explain in words without actually experiencing it, but it lacks the otherworldly charm of the source material.
There was an opportunity for some serious immersion here. The motion tracker is a pretty iconic piece of technology from the films, and could have added an awesome amount of depth to the experience. Why would they do that though? I mean they’ve already come this far, why do something awesome now? I had hope, I really did. When I used it for the first time and heard those familiar beeps and clicks my heart was glowing. Shortly afterwards, disappointment threw a brick at my face and I realized the motion tracker is literally unnecessary. The stupid enemy AI means finding the bad guys isn’t an issue (unless they’re wall-hacking, those bastards). Very rarely did a clever alien sneak up on me, so odds are you’ll see them coming. Additionally it’s unnecessary because if there is any motion within the device’s radius, it will beep once. You don’t even have to ask it to. So if you were too busy watching that alien parody from Spaceballs on YouTube with your phone and didn’t see the alien’s text message to “meet him in that dark hallway in a minute or he’d come kick your ass” don’t worry- the motion tracker has your back. Whether you want it to or not. I mean what’s the point of having the ability to check it and use it legitimately if it’s just going to ruin that for you by letting you know they’re coming? If I want to run blindly into an alien’s quiet gathering of friends and family without consulting the motion tracker than I should be free to make that decision. This is America, damn it!
I know I said I wasn’t going to touch on story very much, but I felt the need to say something about the ending. The last “boss battle” was one of the most unimaginative, frustrating and obnoxious endings to a game I’ve ever experienced. I’m trying not to give too much away, but if you just factor in all of the glitchy-ass behavior of all of the enemies and make them bigger, it’s kind of like that. What adds insult to injury is that the encounter is so uninspired. I didn’t feel fulfilled or excited about my victory at all, I was mostly just annoyed because I don’t think the mechanics of the encounter worked right. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually worked on the final encounter and the following cutscenes at the very beginning of the game’s development. Because if they programmed all of the game up until now, fully aware of the quality of the game, and then decided to end it like they did, then they had some serious BALLS.
I know, after saying almost nothing positive about my experience, the answer to the question ‘was it fun?’ should be pretty clear. HOWEVER: I think that there is still some potential to have fun with this game. Kind of like watching a bad movie because it’s so bad that you can find entertainment in it; all of the coding weirdness in this game can make for some pretty entertaining moments. I felt compelled to play this game to completion; not just because I was reviewing it, and not because there is anything particularly interesting about the story, characters or gameplay. I wanted to keep playing because I wanted to see what strange enemy behavior, messed up texture or other broken oddity I could find. I kept playing because I had fun making fun of it. Certainly that wasn’t the developers intentions, but I figure if you can make the best out of a crappy situation then why not? I think if you’re in the right mindset you can find some enjoyment.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a massive disappointment; a squandered opportunity to create an amazing Aliens experience. Some of the parts necessary to make a game good are present. They’re buried under a pile of broken code and poor design choices, but they’re there. It is at the very least a working first person shooter. It is something that you can play and complete. The issue is there isn’t much incentive to do so. It breaks my heart too, because of how poorly this turned out we may never get a truly great Aliens game. I should mention there IS a multiplayer mode that I haven’t covered and maybe that game mode is better. As it stands, I really cannot recommend this game at it’s $60 price point. Hell, it would be hard to recommend it at half that. If you’re just too curious to see how broken it actually is, maybe rent it or wait for it to go on sale. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Aliens on Blu-Ray. Maybe it will make me feel better.
Bonus content! Here is some footage and commentary I recorded. Just keep in mind I’m talking to a TV screen the whole time. Perfectly normal.
[+Some Sound Effects True to the Films] [+It’s Mostly Playable] [+Aliens Look Pretty Good] [-AI Is Ridiculous] [-Wey-Yu Soldiers Cheat] [-Story is Uninspired] [-Ruined the Motion Sensor] [-Frequent Texture Pop-ins] [-Wacky Framerate] [-Overly Easy] [-Stupid Ending]