By Steve Wright
First off, Aliens: Colonial Marines was bad. Really bad.
Now that we’ve got that little tidbit out of the way, let’s make another thing quite clear: you probably knew that already. The internet is awash with reviewers desperately trying to one-up their peers with the most damning critiques of Gearbox’s latest release. I’m not going to follow suit.
Instead, I want to talk about my own experiences with the game, and that’ll take us back to a point almost two full years ago. In one of the first interviews I’d ever conducted in the video games industry, I got to speak to Randy Pitchford, Gearbox’s head honcho. His enthusiasm for both Aliens and Colonial Marines was infectious.
Randy’s eyes lit up as he described how Gearbox was fortunate enough to have been selected to take the reins of Colonial Marines, and how he couldn’t believe he was doing things like pouring over H.R. Geiger’s original sketches of the famous xenomorphs to make the game as real-to-life as possible. We heard how even the smallest details of the game were being scrutinised to make a game that would end up as a thank you gift to fans.
Guiding us through the game as a colleague played it beside him, Pitchford actually paused the playthrough at one point, just after one of the Marines had dispatched a xenomorph. He told me that the sounds were all wrong in a previous build, and die-hard Aliens fans were dispatched to assist in making the game as accurate to its source material as possible. In the end, Pitchford said, most of the sounds for weapons like the pulse rifle were scrapped so they could be recorded again, and properly. Unpausing the playthrough, my fellow journalists -- okay,and I did as well -- all literally leaned in toward the screen to concentrate on the noise as a weapon was fired.
It was glorious.
The thing about the way Randy has talked this project, is that you couldn’t help but be excited by it. On paper, it’s a science fiction fan’s wet dream. From what we saw at PAX 2011, and in subsequent (dub-stepped, perhaps CGIed) gameplay videos, the game looked and sounded amazing. Pitchford filled in any doubts in your mind with pure, unbridled excitement. Unfortunately, after a seven year wait and a string of production problems that almost rival Duke Nukem Forever -- another failed Gearbox project, I should point out – Aliens: Colonial Marines simply falls short.
Yes, the game looks about seven years old. Animations are stiff and extremely dated, and even voice acting from Lance Hendriksen himself can’t cover for the others in the cast (on that note, I know Ashly Burch’s brother works for Gearbox, and she’s popular because of the Hey Ash, Whatcha Playing? podcast, but that doesn’t make her qualified to be a video game voice actor. Stop it.).
Alien AI – somehow applauded by Electronic Gaming Monthly – consists of having each xenomorph run to attack you in a straight line. The motion tracker that’s always looked so damn cool is utterly useless; you can’t wield it and a gun at the same time, and since the vents at which xenomorphs will pop out are pretty much telegraphed to you, you’ll just run and gun.
In fact, it almost hurts to use the motion tracker. Once a tool that caused so much tension and terror in the films – cause you didn’t want what was on it coming for you – it’s now just a mini-map that allows you to casually saunter over and pump lead into whatever you can find. Popular locations from the Alien movies are thrown at you, more because it’s cool than for any reasons relating to the game’s plot… and all-in-all, it’s just not enough. We won't even get into the brain-numbingly stupid decision to retcon the beginning of Aliens 3 simply to make a character available in Colonial Marines.
That being said, there's always a silver lining. There are some actually decent things in Colonial Marines. It is neat to be back in the world of Aliens, even if it feels you’re playing a game from 2003. Those sounds that Pitchford was praising? They’re spot on. Close your eyes while playing the game and you’ll be transported right into James Cameron’s Aliens, no question.
Multiplayer had its moments as well -- but in the end, most of the game modes end up with the under-powered Aliens having to charge at the over-powered Marines... so in effect, as an Alien, you're having to take on the same bad patterns as the AI does when it comes to attacking.
In short, we’ve already been waiting seven years for this game. As excited as Pitchford was for this, I wish he and Gearbox were brave enough to trash the game, like they once did its sounds, to start again. I wouldn’t mind waiting another seven years if it was able to deliver on all the promises that Gearbox had made to fans.
This is not for most gamers, and will only work for (the most patient) die-hard Aliens fans out there. Use your motion tracker to stay away from this one.