Aliens: Colonial Marines (PS3)

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The Alien franchise is a perennially alluring universe, at first blush ripe for videogame adaptation what with its iconic weapons, environments, inventions and enemies. The movie series has also served as inspiration for some of the best and most important games of all time, not least of which is DOOM (which itself has gone on to inspire countless games), while multiple developers have taken numerous cracks at re-creating this vast, intense and terrifying series in a game to match the movies’ significance.

After a number of delays and a few greatly exaggerated reports, Aliens: Colonial Marines has arrived here in 2012 representing Gearbox Software’s attempt at breathing life and death into a virtual, interactive world dripping with the atmosphere, action, horror and themes prevalent in Alien. With this latest endeavour, have franchise fans finally been given a game worthy of this world, or has it now become clear that this universe is a treacherous siren song for game developers?

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Aliens: Colonial Marines is billed as a new chapter in the Alien universe and revisits classic settings from the movies, adding official story, subject matter and plot developments to the franchise. I began my journey as Corporal Winter aboard the Sephora, an enormous space faring vessel orbiting the hostile planet of LV-426, joined in these far reaches of the galaxy by the USS Sulaco, the presence of which is a complete mystery to the cast of machismo drenched marines who will act as your squad-mates throughout the game’s campaign.

My first encounters with the Xenomorph aliens (known for their hardiness, chest incubated eggs and acid blood) came soon enough as I sprinted through metallic corridors bathed in shadows and flashing red lights, and crept through (even) darker areas illuminated by dappled glows that rippled over my arsenal of rifles, shotguns and pistols. Scanning detailed corners, science labs and expansive hallways with my flashlight revealed further horrors like rooms infested with organic tissue, slime and alien eggs. With its craft, this virtual world could be from the set of a movie.

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It was the human enemies on the Sulaco and Sephora, however, that proved to be my team’s undoing as these private military soldiers (under orders by the malevolent Weyland-Yutani corporation) forced my crew and I to escape to the surface of LV-426 – a planet long thought to be abandoned after an ‘incident’ at the Hadley’s Hope colony during a terraforming project.

“What the hell happened here?!”

You could forgive the characters of Aliens: Colonial Marines for not fully understanding the sequence of events if it weren’t for their constant references to the game’s mysteries. Even three hours in, and many Xenomorph scraps later, my cohorts were still examining acid-eaten floors and ceilings while exclaiming their surprise with utterances like “What could have done this?” and vowing to find the creature, “Whatever it is…”

In addition, a key kick-off point for the game’s story is the mere existence of the Sulaco, but its presence is only ever explained away by much shrugging and allusions to its nonsensical appearance in space. Was the ship simply added as fan service, then?

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The story of Aliens: Colonial Marines wouldn’t matter too much if there was enough interesting activity to keep my mind off of it, but I’m now convinced that the stock-standard environments and iconic enemies in the Alien franchise are only entertaining for two hours chunks of cinema, rather than multiple hours in a game. Running through similar rooms and corridors (be they dark, shiny, infested, misty or otherwise) and sometimes the same areas (either because of back-tracking or the re-use of previous lumps of the game) is very wearying and I found myself longing for some new visions very quickly in a way that a game like Uncharted would never allow.

Defending myself against a half-dozen rapid moving Xenomorphs at a time, with a few enemy variants and a handful of weak boss battles thrown in, also became very monotonous and I couldn’t help but think about other first-person shooters, like Killzone 3 or Call of Duty, that are able to effortlessly switch up the pace of the experience to keep things fresh. Controlling a slow, tramping cargo loader and being forced into an ill-advised ‘stealth’ mission were as close as I came to any real pace-changers.

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“Are you seeing this?”

Gunplay in Aliens: Colonial Marines starts out very shaky indeed but slowly improves thanks to the game’s use of an experience system, and I was able to develop my collection of weapons (including the Pulse Rifle and other legendary weaponry once handled by characters from the Alien movies) by customising this equipment to decrease accuracy and reload time, add under-barrel shotguns and grenade launchers for alternate fires, extend ammo clips and choose different skins.

Like other games, experience is earned by completing certain challenges (like killing twenty enemies with a certain weapon) and for continuing in the campaign, and you’ll be rewarded with these customisation options and levels in rank as you proceed. The difference here is that your progress in the campaign carries over to the multiplayer portion of the game, which we’ll discuss in a few minutes.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot 1

Choosing the right combinations of equipment for your core arsenal of four weapons isn’t crucial to success, but having a close-range option (like a shotgun) and a longer-range gun (like an assault rifle with a scope) is a good idea, and most weapons have alternative fires to extend your combat abilities. Unfortunately, it’s necessary to manually switch to your grenades (frag, incendiary or mine) to throw them, which is an oddity for modern shooters, but when all else fails you’re able to rely on a good melee attack to keep enemies at bay.

Selecting your equipment is rather cumbersome with the use of a multi-layered radial menu brought up by the hold (or toggle) of a button, where you’ll pick from a wide assortment of guns and grenades to fill out your four active slots, but I eventually got used to the system (even if it was still a little confusing by the end of the game).

“Something’s not right…”

All tension and excitement during fire fights and what should have been set-piece moments was sucked from Aliens: Colonial Marines, however, due to what I believe to be a simple lack of reaction from your team-mates and the world around you. The game relied very heavily on rousing military-themed music scores, creepy strings and sudden sound stings to evoke emotion, but very rarely was the world’s action matched by atmospheric creaks, groans and general audio chaos as explosions popped off and mayhem erupted around me. The action felt empty, despite activity.

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Team-mates, too, may as well have been robots as they mindlessly shot through enemies with hardly a word ever spoken. Shouldn’t going through an horrific experience elicit some sort of response? The action of Borderlands 2 (a game also made by Gearbox) is filled with shouts, whoops and calls of exhilaration as enemies are taken down and destroyed, which adds a real sense of excitement, however artificial. Aliens: Colonial Marines has none of this personality and enemy encounters feel lifeless as a result. Playing on my own was a very dry affair, despite adhering to a strict regime of using only headphones while absorbing the atmosphere in the dark.

Jumping into a four-player co-operative session online helps a lot in this regard and I got to play through a number of campaign missions with a few chatty Australians in one session, and some serious European players in a few other games, and hearing others talk about the events as they happen while sussing out the story and planning their actions added a better sense of raw fun than anything Gearbox has manually implemented for solo players.

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I’m a huge proponent of co-op in games and the addition of this mode of play alone does wonders for any game, and for Aliens: Colonial Marines, I would suggest that this is the only way to play the campaign. Adding human players can’t fix a few outstanding elements, however, such as maddening AI behaviour, and co-op partners even exacerbate the issue of incredibly repetitive Pulse Rifle sound effects. Hearing the same few bursts of gunfire play almost on loop during a gunfight may yet have a detrimental affect on my sanity.

“Leave no marine behind!”

Gearbox has also injected Aliens: Colonial Marines with four multiplayer modes that see the human ‘Marines’ fighting against the alien ‘Xenos’ in a variety of campaign environments repurposed for online competitive play. The key draw here is the asymmetrical nature of the Marine and Xeno abilities as one side relies on guns and explosions to destroy, while the other side uses speed and manoeuvrability to eviscerate.

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Team Deathmatch, ‘Extermination’ (capture and hold to destroy alien eggs), ‘Escape’ (Marines attempt to reach an extraction through choke points) and ‘Survivor’ (survive an onslaught of Xeno attacks) are the modes on offer and require Marines to complete objectives in sequence, while the Xenos try to stop the humans in their tracks.

As mentioned, experience levels and unlocks from the campaign are brought into multiplayer, but playing as a Xeno will start you from zero allowing you to purchase new attacks and passive abilities with your earned experience points, across three similar classes. Xenos are played from a third-person perspective with all of the leaps, acid-spitting, claw slashing and wall climbing abilities you would expect, only a little difficult to control especially when certain levels don’t cater to these abilities.

I was surprised at how closely fought some of the matches I played were, but when a good group of players got together and used real teamwork, the opposing team ended up getting crushed, no matter the race. Latency proved to be quite an issue, ranging from ‘unplayable’ to ‘acceptable,’ but hopefully any lag issues can be sorted out post launch.

Aliens: Colonial Marines screenshot

I don’t expect the multiplayer of Aliens: Colonial Marines to usurp regular online sessions in Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield for hardcore competitive players (and these players will likely be quite frustrated by the game’s imprecise nature), but I can see franchise fans having as much fun as they might have had in a game like Alien VS Predator before the novelty wears off after a few hours and a few dozen matches.

“Oorah to Ashes!”

I’ve come to believe that relying solely on the universe set out and expanded upon by the Alien movies to create an interesting game is a fool’s errand, and will only result in studios dashing themselves against the hard, razor sharp rocks of game development if they continue to pursue the allure of this franchise. New elements, environments and enemies must be introduced in order for such a game to remain entertaining for well over the average running length of a movie.

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Aliens: Colonial Marines may have ended up as a solid attempt at creating a game based in this universe were it not for the nonsensical story (which itself is hampered by low quality cinematics and below average voice acting), poorly paced gameplay and an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion. Fans of the Alien movies may very well squeal in delight with the game’s numerous nods to previous characters and events, but one poorly explained plot development in particular will be very contentious indeed.

Co-operative play and a collection of multiplayer modes may extend the life of the game somewhat, and even go some length to improving the experience, but first-person shooter and action fans have come to expect a lot better from their games while Alien aficionados shouldn’t consider this required reading. In the light of all of the excellent games yet to come in 2013, and the amazing games already available, I simply can’t recommend Aliens: Colonial Marines as a game that demands your attention right now.