When it comes to movie franchises adapted for an interactive audience, the storied Alien series seems like it was built to suit a modern day videogame. You have a bunch of well-equipped interstellar jugheads and a seemingly endless supply of disgusting killing machines for them to take down. A perfect fit, right? Well, sort of. What makes the Alien franchise great for the silver screen is the emotional personal struggle of Ripley, and while the massive firefights are a nice backdrop, putting the carnage front and center – such as in Aliens: Colonial Marines – is not as compelling as you might want to believe.
Colonial Marines takes place after the events of Aliens and before Alien 3, putting you in the shoes of a space marine on a first-person shooter rampage to save your own skin, and perhaps mankind as well. The action takes place both on a military space vessel, as well as familiar locales from LV-426, the colony featured prominently in the Aliens motion picture. In short, your overarching goal is to figure out just what the hell is going on, and exterminate the alien menace.
It’s been noted that the game’s story is now official canon, and given that it’s been a mighty long while since we saw a high-quality interactive Alien experience, all eyes are on Colonial Marines to blow fans away. Unfortunately, the final product suffers from a litany of technical issues, a ho-hum narrative, and gameplay that will leave you almost entirely devoid of any emotional investment.
From start to finish, you play as Corporal Christopher Winter, a blank slate who remains blank for the entire campaign. You’re given nothing in the way of a meaningful backstory for Winter, and aside from the fact that he seems to be the only person that can operate doors properly, there’s really nothing special about him. This everyman-turned-Marine schtick would be fine as long as the game offered something in the way of a likable supporting cast, but sadly that is not the case.
Winter’s fellow soldiers – including his partner for most of the game, Peter O’Neal – are little more than barely-developed hunks of meat, flying around the screen and screaming repetitive battle commands. In dealing with the Xenomorphs, which may very well threaten the entire existence of humanity, the Marines exhibit little in the way of surprise or emotion. It’s not until one very special soldier becomes threatened that Winter and his compadre show even a passing interest in the well-being of their fellow warriors.
But these are hard-nosed celestial spartans. Who cares if they have any emotion; it’s all about killing aliens, right? Well, some of the time. I won’t give away any specifics, but suffice it to say that the Xenomorphs aren’t the only species you’ll be firing at, as there are human adversaries as well. The first time I was asked to dispatch human foes – and not infected humans or zombies, these are humans with guns – I had to shake my head at the absurdity.
The decision to serve up fellow soldiers as enemies sucks the last bit of fleeting emotional grit right out of the experience. Winter will walk down a hallway, blasting soldiers with his plasma rifle and literally dismembering them with his shotgun, and then appear shocked and disturbed when discovering the mutilated body of an ally. It just simply doesn’t work.
What does work, however, are your firearms, and boy do you have a lot of them. As you progress you will unlock a number of high-powered weapons including assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, and pistols. There are also bonus attachments and add-ons for each gun which can be purchased using credits gained after leveling up in both the campaign and multiplayer. It adds a good bit of strategy to the otherwise generic blast-everything battle sequences, and ensuring that you have the right loadout is key to staying alive.
When it comes to actually completing objectives and fighting through hordes of Xenomorphs, Colonial Marines offers a good bit of challenge. In fact, in some areas it’s downright brutal. Enemies will pour out of air vents, holes in the floors and ceiling, and just about every other nook and cranny imaginable. The barely-lit environments help create a claustrophobic atmosphere that builds the suspense further, and some particularly intense sequences manage to capture the feel of the franchise very well, though these are few and far between.
When it comes to capturing the creepy visual aesthetic of the franchise, each new area is like a coin flip. In some spaces – the alien structures in particular – the game looks great, while elsewhere you’ll cringe at blocky, barely legible text on walls, crates, and blurry computer screens. NPCs will clip into each other, disappear and reappear, and get stuck in goofy animations.
But while the visuals are a decidedly mixed bag, the audio stands tall throughout the entire affair. Iconic music, perfectly replicated weapon sounds, and the grunts and screams of the Xenomorphs are sometimes the only thing holding the experience together. The orchestral tunes hit a fever pitch during tense moments, and it often feels like the music is built around your own actions, rather than being simply a pre-made soundtrack. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Once you best the 6-8 hour campaign – and suffer through an absolute butchering of some long-held Aliens narrative themes – it’s time to try out the surprisingly solid multiplayer modes. While the head-to-head options will likely be an afterthought for many franchise faithful, the online throwdowns actually manage to capture the Aliens feel better than the campaign itself. Several modes are available, including team deathmatch and objective-based game modes. Marines can outfit their arsenal with weapons unlocked in the single player and online modes, while the alien players can choose between several species variants, each with its own speciality.
When playing as the Xenomorphs, you are given a built-in radar sense that shows you where the Marines are located, allowing you to plan your attack. This is offset by the uber-powerful weaponry held by the soldiers, which can oftentimes kill an alien player in just one or two shots. There is also a robust customization suite for the Xenomorph classes, allowing you to outfit your character with different aesthetic touches as well as special abilities.
As a Marine, you are given very little to aid you aside from your firearm of choice and the iconic motion sensor. Knowing the enemy team is scurrying around in the darkness and watching your every move definitely creates a sense of anxiety that the story mode lacks, and when an alien grabs you from behind and executes you in an instant, it’s hard not to jump a bit. Thankfully, all of the multiplayer modes allow you to play as both the Marines and the Xenomorphs, so you’ll get to experience both perspectives every single time you hop online.
Bottom Line: Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t the Aliens game we’ve all dreamed of. Instead of wowing the player with jumps and scares at every turn, the game’s most memorable trait is how often it manages to fall short of greatness.
Recommendation: As the game is now part of the franchise canon, Aliens fans will want to play it simply because it exists. Ultimately, anyone with a respectable knowledge of the series will be left confused by some absurd continuity errors, and the alteration of one particularly popular character’s personal storyline. If you’re a shooter fan with only a passing interest in Aliens lore, don’t bother.[rating=3]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.