The Aliens franchise has been ripe for video games ever since we saw the first total conversion of DOOM. Over the years there have been a handful of shooters have taken on the task, most with varying degrees of success. Five years ago Gearbox and SEGA announced Aliens: Colonial Marines and it sounded promising, bringing co-op gameplay and a continuation of the canon created by the movies. But five years is a long time, especially in game development, and gaming has evolved since 2008. Can Colonial Marines overcome whatever roadblocks it hit along the way and be considered a "good" Aliens game?
Aliens: Colonial Marines tells the story of what happened between Aliens and Alien 3. Players join a group of marines aboard the U.S.S Sulaco sent in to investigate LV-426 and the events that transpired there. But as the marines arrive, things aren't what they seem as the Weyland-Yutani corp has plans of its own. While the story in most shooters takes a back seat, I'm happy to say that fans of the Alien franchise will have plenty of material to look forward to. Colonial Marines does an excellent job in the fan service department, even the collectibles like guns and dog tags are inspired by the movies.
There's nothing groundbreaking about the gameplay in Aliens: Colonial Marines, in fact, the basic way you play the game feels like a mixed bag. The best way I can explain it is how the game deals with item pick-ups. In a high intensity shooter like Aliens: CM you don't want to have to worry about choosing what to pick up, you just know you want armor, health, and ammo. Typically you'd just run over it to acquire it. But in Colonial Marines you need to "look" at the item and hit a button to confirm pickup. When you combine this with the fact that all pickups are automatically shared between players in co-op, there's no viable reason to use this method for item pickup other than to frustrate the player during combat. Basically since there's no item hoarding in co-op, what's the point of confirming a pickup?
The basic combat, at least initially, feels off. On the Xbox 360 the controls are a bit too floaty by default and definitely took some tweaking of the sensitivity to get the hang of. The staple Pulse Rifle is packing 10mm explosive tips, but actually shooting xenomorphs and other enemies feels like it lacks punch. There's that intangible disconnect in Colonial Marines, where at times, the "shooter" aspect of it feels unsatisfactory.
After some time Colonial Marines did grow on me. I think part of this has to do with the global character XP and challenge system that lets you purchase unlocks and customizations for your dozen or so weapons. Completing levels, killing enemies, finding pick-ups, and finishing challenges will earn you experience that counts towards a global player level. With every level achieved, you'll earn points to unlock attachments for guns like scopes, bigger ammo clips, or even custom skins. Once I began to upgrade my shotgun and assault rifle, combined with levels that became much more interesting later on - the combat seemed to finally settle on something more towards what I was expecting.
It's clear that Gearbox wanted to achieve some of the tense situations that have become a staple of Aliens. The motion tracker's ping plays a huge part in the gameplay, at anytime you can bring it up and see where the next horde of aliens are coming from. There's a constant ebb and flow of silence followed by the ping of the motion tracker and then the chaotic onslaught. It's fun at first, but eventually just becomes predictable. The early levels of the game feature combat with cookie cutter enemy soldiers - it's uninspired, the character models all look identical, and it's not why I am playing a game with "Aliens" in the title. It isn't until midway through the campaign that Colonial Marines starts to hit its stride with enemies and layout.
Co-Op changes Aliens: Colonial Marines and how you play it. While playing solo I found myself back pedaling quite often, the co-op made combat a more aggressive push. This is aided by a revive mechanic, while in single player you'll die and restart, co-op allows a teammate to revive you, helping the difficulty factor.
It's interesting to see Gearbox's influence in the design of co-op, with the main menu being a party system similar to Borderlands 2. Unfortunately things aren't quite a seamless as we've come to expect. You can only start off at level beginnings, though you can jump into a game in progress. Split-screen is supported though combo co-op is not, and the game features built-in matchmaking as well. It's obvious the game is pushing for people to play co-op and I definitely enjoyed it more while playing it with friends.
All of that said, Aliens: Colonial Marines was littered with technical problems. NPCs would get stuck and fail to make it to a trigger to kick off a required in game event, animations would glitch causing characters to jump around spastically. The enemy AI can be downright laughable. Did IQs drop sharply over the past 5 years? I'd witness NPC marines and aliens battling it out in comical fashion... It didn't even look like they were trying to kill each other, but rather see if their breath was of proper freshness. Graphically, the game is a mixed bag, at times it looks like a five year old game with textures and models that are simply subpar for a game released in 2013. What's worse, on the Xbox 360 texture pop in is rampant and can be really distracting.
I really wanted to like Aliens: Colonial Marines. At times I can see the game I wanted buried beneath what is presented. The game is shockingly short, especially in co-op. It took me less than 5 hours to complete the game, with over half of the missions being played in co-op with random folks online. There's some minor replayability if you want to continue to level up for the game's versus modes, which are actually a pretty fun distraction if that's your cup of tea.
Overall Aliens: Colonial Marines misses the drop ship and falls short of its potential. While the co-op is still a lot of fun, the overall lack of polish and antiquated feel simply bring the game down as a whole. Perhaps the material and technology still isn't quite there to make the Aliens game so many of us have in our heads. Hopefully we won't have to wait another five years to have another chance.
Be sure to check out our Co-Op FAQ for full details of the cooperative experience in Aliens: Colonial Marines.
The Co-Optimus review of Aliens: Colonial Marines is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.