Many have chided Ridley Scott's recent sort-of-Alien-prequel Prometheus as a cynical, unnecessary retcon of the existing Alien canon that never quite justified its own existence. Aliens: Colonial Marines makes Prometheus look vital by comparison. Gearbox Software, who were ostensibly in charge of the seven-year operation required to bring this thing to fruition, have spent much of that time talking about just how much they loved Aliens. Studio head Randy Pitchford has spent years recounting the tale of the time he went to Ridley Scott's office, and had the opportunity to flip through the original Alien's concept art sketches with the director in the name of research for their upcoming Aliens game. To hear them tell it, all anyone at Gearbox wanted to do was bring a little of their own enthusiasm to a franchise they loved and revered. This makes reconciling the game spoken of by the studio's various figureheads, and the game currently available at retail, nigh-on impossible.
In reality, the many years of development spent on Colonial Marines have resulted in a staggering misfire. Ugly, tedious, and frankly more than a little bit broken, Colonial Marines is not a game that offers you, the presumed Aliens fan, anything you wouldn't do just fine without. The game's idea of expanding on the timeline that exists between Aliens and Alien 3 has never stood out as a particularly necessary one, but based on the aforementioned enthusiasm for the material, one couldn't help but hope that maybe the developers had some cool, unexpected ideas of how to flesh out that particularly nebulous period between film series protagonist Ellen Ripley's escape from the xenomorph-infested planet LV-426, and her arrival on the prison planet in Alien 3.
They did not.
Instead of thoughtfully fleshing out the existing canon, the developers instead chose to rewrite whole chunks of it just for the sake of making their dumb story fly. In the game, you arrive at LV-426 with a battalion of colonial marines who have come to find out what happened to the squads previously sent to the planet in Aliens. What they find is the Sulaco, the derelict ship that once housed the movie's marines, floating around in space. It's been overrun with xenomorphs, as well as Weyland-Yutani hired mercenaries, who have seemingly been conducting an operation on the planet and the ship. You, as marine Christopher Winters, begin the game by storming the Sulaco looking to aid your comrades in battle against the Wey-U soldiers and horrible creatures that have infested it, but eventually will end up back on LV-426, trapped in a much larger, and much stupider conspiracy than you'd ever dreamed.
This is one of the biggest fundamental flaws of Colonial Marines, and one it shares with Prometheus. Namely, this game feels like it was built around its setpieces, and not the other way around. Granted, at least Prometheus grew out of the germ of an idea that was answering the question of who the giant "Space Jockey" was that the hapless humans of the original Alien stumbled upon. That question may not have had the most coherent of answers, but at least it made a half-hearted effort to answer something. Colonial Marines instead takes the Star Tours approach, picking key locations from Alien and Aliens for the player to arrive at and proceed to gawk toward, while building a hacky, totally uninteresting story around why the player has to go to those places.
Lacking a coherent story direction, the game relies on its main characters to build up the drama. Unfortunately, we're saddled with Winters and a few other marine grunts who offer no identifiable personality outside of their endless recycled references to "no marine left behind" and patently unconvincing "ooh-rahs!" By the time the tatters of the team end up on LV-426, the game finally begins showing its hand, offering up ridiculous plot twists and poorly executed conspiracies that just add a giant pile of nonsense to the nifty, if somewhat vague premise of Alien 3. I cannot explain much beyond that without outright spoiling the game, but let's just say that a late-game cameo (that the game telegraphs in its opening credits) is one of the dumbest, most hamfisted twists in anything of Alien's canon. Yes, dumber than the entire Aliens vs. Predator franchise.
The worst part is that it does this for no real reason other than the sake of having another character you recognize in the mix. The existence of Lance Henriksen's Bishop at least makes canonical sense since he's a mass-produced artificial lifeform, but all this cameo character does is show up, try to explain away his appearance by actively avoiding trying to explain away his appearance--they literally answer a key plot question by saying "That's another, longer story..."--and then proceed to do nothing of note or consequence for the rest of the game. It's a twist for the sake of a twist, and nothing more.
In absence of proper storytelling, Colonial Marines must then rely on its gameplay to keep your attention. This is most unfortunate for a number of reasons. As a first-person shooter, Colonial Marines is at least a basically functional piece of work. The weaponry you're provided is neat and authentic, right down to the gunfire sound effects you remember from the movie. Yet, the action is deeply unsatisfying. The whole crux of the game, namely the violence done between man and xenomorph, is an unconscionable mess. Granted, combat in Aliens mostly boiled down to big, tough marines being savaged by creatures their weaponry and hubris could not stand up to, and that would probably not make for much of a game if repeated over long level sections in a shooter. So instead, xenos come frolicking after you, bounding up one leap at a time until they're right up in your face, swiping and snarling until you pump enough bullets into them to make them dissolve into acidic goo.
Yes, this does become quite repetitive. The xenomorphs just aren't built to surprise you, or force you to really do anything other than just fire at anything that looks black and menacing. They crawl around on walls, sure, but the way they're scripted to attack robs the game of any tension or excitement. You will hear a blip on your motion tracker (a largely useless device in the context of this game), and suddenly there will be bad guys. Considering this game's only scare tactic is to have aliens start crawling out of air vents or bursting out of floors when you supposedly least expect it--keep in mind, it does this in pretty much every other corridor or room--this solitary ping is a shockingly ill-conceived move, in that it steels you for what's about to come every single time. If you had to actually use the motion tracker (which replaces the gun in your hand) for any kind of early warning, that'd make for some interesting, tense moments as you scan around for movement. But no, all you have to do is wait for the ping, and have your gun ready.
That Colonial Marines' campaign so thoroughly lacks in dread or terror is perhaps the most damning thing I can say about it. The only time the game pulls off anything even resembling unease is during a brief scene when your character is alone and without weapons. Zombie xenomorphs (no, seriously) who cannot see but can sense motion stumble around in Hadley's Hope's sewage, and as you fumble around in the dark, you're unsure which alien husks are still alive, and which are dead. For a moment, this is terrifying, but then the first moving zombie xeno appears, begins glowing an irradiated green, and then runs toward something moving and explodes. Suddenly, the scary gives way to the silly, and any hope you might have had of being properly frightened just flies out the window.
The zombie xenos are dumb-looking, but really all of the game's xenos are dumb-acting. Far from the efficient killing machines of the movies, these xenos are clumsy, dimwitted, and seemingly incapable of handling even just a few broken-down marines. The AI will frequently bug out, so to speak, leaving xenos pathetically trying to crawl up stairs, getting hung up in doorways, or just standing at unremarkable distances, stoically, as you pump dozens of rounds into them. Human enemies aren't much better, though they usually are able to walk around basic obstacles and even use cover.
AI bugs are just one of the many technical issues that plague Colonial Marines. There are serious glitches to be found elsewhere, often in the vein of weird debug code popping into random gameplay sequences and then just disappearing, environments simply not loading properly, or character and xenomorph animations flipping out into spazzy, bizarre flurries of movement. It's ugly stuff made even uglier by the world surrounding it. Sure, the artists involved in this game's development nailed a lot of the little details from the movie, from the ship design of the Sulaco, to the decimated ruins of Hadley's Hope down on the planet. But those things all had reference material, something to copy from, rather than something to be outright created. Where the game is forced to fill in the margins is where it gets downright unpleasant. Character models are bug-eyed, emotionless, and generally poorly animated, while environments often look crusty and poorly lit. No, I don't mean in that "we're keeping it dark to maintain a sense of dread" kind of way. I mean in that "we're trying to keep your eyes off these years-old looking environmental textures" kind of way.
Some will undoubtedly complain that the single-player campaign, which can also be played cooperatively (more on that in a moment), doesn't take longer than maybe five hours to finish. However, I don't consider that to be one of the game's faults. In absence of a strong story, Colonial Marines already drags as it plods along, tossing xenomorph after xenomorph at you, struggling mightily to get you to all the different landmarks it figures you're itching to see while also maintaining some semblance of an atmosphere. As it is, the campaign is merely severely disappointing and often unpleasant. Were it any longer, it'd be be outright unbearable.
As for the co-op, it has all the hallmarks of a feature hastily tossed in late in a development cycle. Up to four players can experience this idiotic story together, but only one character is really acknowledged or even focused on for the duration. You don't take over the roles of AI teammates already embedded in the story, but rather other marines who simply do not exist otherwise. Worse, many levels were clearly not designed for multiple people. Corridors are cramped to the point of bursting, which makes particularly heated firefights against the xenos utterly incomprehensible. And that level I mentioned earlier, the one where you have no guns? Right, that still happens, but with multiple people, which is hilarious since characters will often warp to one another if they become too far separated. This will tip off the bad guys, which results in explosions of acid and death. The only time the co-op seems to function as intended is out on the surface of LV-426, where open spaces let you gain your bearings and actually work together properly. Unfortunately, you're still fighting the same dumb enemies, but at least it's an improvement.
Elsewhere, there is competitive multiplayer featuring teams of marines and xenomorphs. The playable xenomorphs are an interesting idea (that has, admittedly, been done better elsewhere), in that they can climb walls, have different attack classes (spitters can do ranged attacks, while lurkers can move more stealthily), and require a different sort of teamwork than playing as a marine. Unfortunately, too many of the game's multiplayer modes favor the marines, who are far better armed and better equipped to handle the xenos than the reverse. Xenos are remarkably easy to kill, which means the xenos are forced to stay stealthy. Doing so is easier said than done, and the lack of attack variety in the playable xenos eventually leads you to wonder if it's even worth the trouble. Nailing a marine the first few times is actually quite satisfying, but as matches wear on, it becomes far less so.
It's strange and depressing thing to consider a game like Aliens: Colonial Marines. Think of all the potential, the time, the effort, the budget used up over these last several years, only to produce something so deeply, fundamentally flawed in every facet of its execution. Instead of the properly reverent Aliens sequel Gearbox supposedly set out to make, they've shoved this awful, grotesque thing into the chest cavity of the very franchise that they purported to love. I kind of hope that disappoints them, because it sure as hell disappointed me.