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Aliens: Colonial Marines (Xbox 360) artwork

Aliens: Colonial Marines (Xbox 360) review

"I'll say this about Colonial Marines: had it been released a decade ago, it would have looked passable. The blocky modeling, muddy textures and embarrassing particle effects are all GameCube-quality, and the characters' complete lack of facial expressions would be acceptable in a world in which Half-Life 2 didn't come out over eight years ago."

Your first encounter with a xenomorph in Aliens: Colonial Marines will be a memorable one, though not, I gauge, for the reasons Gearbox intended. The game follows a team of (yep) colonial marines as they investigate a distress signal sent by the USS Sulaco, which is in orbit over the still-very-much-intact settlement on LV-426. If that confuses you, congratulations: you've given this entry in the Aliens series more forethought than the developers did. But no matter. You board the seemingly abandoned ship and find it awash with xenomorph ooze, with several of your fellow marines already cocooned and missing vital pieces of their ribcages. And then an alien attacks you. It does so by standing upright, holding its arms out at its sides, and tiptoeing towards you at full speed. The xenomorphs in Colonial Marines move like ballerinas. It is the funniest and least intimidating animation ever to grace what's supposed to be a frightening creature, and it's the first laughable detail in a game that's absolutely full of them.

Colonial Marines is a disaster, and its disastrousness is compounded by it being a long-awaited, high-profile and supposedly canonical sequel to a classic film, handled by a major developer and released by a major publisher. After ages in production, we're left with a hideous, dated and uninspired first-person shooter that does its beloved franchise a tragic disservice. Who'd have expected a blunder like that from the team that brought us Duke Nu– oh.

Aliens: Colonial Marines asset

I'll say this about Colonial Marines: had it been released a decade ago, it would have looked passable. The blocky modeling, muddy textures and embarrassing particle effects are all GameCube-quality, and the characters' complete lack of facial expressions would be acceptable in a world in which Half-Life 2 didn't come out over eight years ago. Gearbox did get a few familiar sound effects right, such as the pitter-patter of the pulse rifles and the fwip-fwip of the motion tracker, while other sound effects they seem to have forgotten to include entirely. I get that xenomorphs are inherently stealthy animals, but that doesn't mean that an entire group of them charging across a metal platform should make no accompanying noise. When a xenomorph jumps out at you unexpectedly, you have to blink a couple of times to make sure it actually happened, since your ears won't be getting any feedback.

This franchise began with a horror flick set in space. Xenomorphs are movie monsters, and indeed, in the hands of a more capable team (or at least a more consistently capable team), Colonial Marines may have been scary. Here, the xenomorphs are reduced to mindless shotgun fodder. There's no tension in the way these encounters play out and no fun in clearing them. When you've killed one xeno, you've killed them all.

Curiously, while this is an Aliens game, you'll nevertheless spend at least half of the campaign battling mercenaries, Gearbox apparently having felt that the game's particular brand of monster-spamming wasn't generic enough already. So, in a market already saturated with first-person shooters, how does Colonial Marines fare? Honestly, to call it "functional" is almost a stretch. It controls fine, I suppose, but within the first half hour, I was already seeing soldiers firing into the cover they were hiding behind, facing the wrong direction, or facing the right direction and not seeing me anyway. There are already videos up on YouTube of people clearing missions on higher difficulties by simply running straight through them and never firing a shot, with neither the mercs nor the xenomorphs caring enough to put up much of a fight.

Aliens: Colonial Marines asset

So the AI in Colonial Marines is jokingly awful from beginning to end. It's so bad, in fact, that a forced stealth section midway through the campaign is weirdly the game's high point simply by virtue of it being a forced stealth section that isn't terribly frustrating, since the (self-destructing) enemies are so easy to outwit. Gearbox quickly bungles it, however, by following it with the game's worst sequence, in which you're confronted with a particularly large xenomorph that can one-hit you, because that's always fun. You finally bring it down by climbing into one of those yellow power loaders and mashing the left and right triggers for several minutes, a disappointingly lifeless boss battle with absolutely none of the physicality that made Ripley's famous fight with the alien queen so memorable.

That's another thing. For a game that purports to be the ultimate fan service by leading us through many of the same settings and events depicted in the movies, Colonial Marines does a shockingly poor job of capitalizing on the things diehards are looking for. The nadir of this is a late-game visit to the derelict spacecraft in which the aliens were originally found. This is one of the coolest and most iconic set pieces in cinematic history, and here, not only does it look as awful as everything else, but it's simply the backdrop for more gunfights against more faceless goons, with none of the scope or grandness such a locale deserves. The fanboy in me is struggling not to call it disrespectful.

And the list goes on. Motion trackers barely serve any purpose since there's never any rising tension over when or where xenomorphs will attack. The act of welding doors shut to keep enemies at bay – something they did quite a bit in the movie – is a potentially interesting mechanic that is required, by my count, precisely once in Colonial Marines. Close encounter with facehuggers are reduced to uninteresting quick-time events, and the first instance of an alien bursting out of someone's chest is treated with such nonchalance that you might not even realize it happened. When it's revealed that one of your fellow marines has been impregnated, she says, "I pulled it off when I woke up, so nothing's gonna happen to me!" Gearbox, man! Get a load of these foreshadowing maestros over here!

Aliens: Colonial Marines asset

This brings up an interesting point. I'm not denying that Aliens is a classic. It's a great and influential film, "influential" being the key word here, as nearly any modern game that could be fitted with the phrases "sci-fi shooter," "space marines" or "bug hunt" can trace its lineage back to Aliens. Call the series a victim of its own success, but if Gearbox can't nail down the details that make this particular mythology intriguing, any shooter based on this franchise will inevitably wind up feeling homogeneous with the countless other shooters inspired by said franchise. Polish Colonial Marines up and you'd still be left with a hopelessly uninspired corridor-fest through drab outdoor landscapes, metallic hallways and slimy alien hives, one that flits between tired monster-spamming and tired merc-shooting.

Instead, it's all of that with the additional handicap of being a horrendous-looking technical catastrophe, one with laughable AI and an engine so bad that on-screen events don't often appear to be occurring in the correct planes of existence. There have been rumors flying around that Sega outsourced the living hell out of Colonial Marines, with Gearbox handling only a fraction of the development, and perhaps having only worked on the equally underwhelming multiplayer. We may never know the full story behind this game's creation, but I hope that's true, because it's the only way I can wrap my head around such a demonstrably talented team producing something so embarrassingly amateurish.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (February 13, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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