Like walking into a movie…
This December marks the sixth year that Aliens: Colonial Marines has been in development. That’s 2191 days or 52,595 hours that Gearbox Software has been working on bridging the canonical gap between Aliens and Aliens 3 with players cast as kick-ass space marines sent in to answer the U.S.S. Sulaco’s distress signal and in turn learn what the hell has gone wrong on LV-426. That’s an awfully long time for any development team to “stay frosty”.
The thing is that amount of development time is impossible to ignore for Aliens fans who’ve been following this project from the very beginning. Those committed figures who a few months back were looking forward to Prometheus as a more important event than The Second Coming, before their hopes were crushed by giant ‘Baby Blue’ coloured hominids and scientists that didn’t know their epidermis from their anus.
For that particular breed of sci-fi fan, Aliens: Colonial Marines is an long-awaited opportunity to step onto Hadley’s Hope, back when the franchise was untarnished, and have a nosey around with a Pulse Rifle in their hands and armies of sleek, serpent monsters to send back to their feminine maker. To put it simply, the stakes for Gearbox’s licensed title really couldn’t be any higher which is perhaps why it’s hard to ignore that niggle that their work is ever so slightly anti-climatic when you finally sit down to play it.
The brief thirty minute campaign slice we were dropped into featured the speaking protagonist Pvt. Winter moments after he stepped onto LV-426 with his marine buddies Cruz, Bella, Reid, an android in the guise of Bishop along a few other meat-heads doing their best to channel Hicks and Hudson.
With the remains of the planet’s thermonuclear reactor spewing what look-liked lava and ash into the atmosphere, the team moved quickly to bypass the door leading into Hadley’s Hope with the same rudimentary circuit board hardware you see in the movie. Colonial Marines is nothing if not authentic with the ensuing hallway following the exact floor pattern of Aliens, with dead facehuggers suspended in brine in the medical bay and two turrets keeping a watchful eye on the dark hallway outside hastily sealed steel doors. Any one who knows the Aliens Director’s Cut will relish these kinds of details in all their fan-service splendour and in many ways Colonial Marines is at its finest when it’s being a slave to the universe that it’s based upon.
There’s a museum-like quality to walking around Hadley’s Hope and as you carefully survey the scene great moments from Aliens flood into your brain. For fans of the movie and the Alien universe in general, these details are an absolutely dream, but we wanted Colonial Marines to be more than that. The portion we sampled was as linear as it gets, with the group’s commander barking orders to Winter and a fellow marine telling them to get between Operations and Medical to set up a perimeter with some freshly unwrapped turrets. Deploying these bad boys is as stimulating as you’d expect, but where the appeal starts to get stripped away is when you get your hands on a gun yourself.
All of the weapons you’d expect are here, including the Smart Rifle in all its auto-tracking glory, the sublime Pulse Rifle with underslung grenade launcher, flamethrower and pump-action shotgun. All those guns work exactly as prescribed in the movie, with visual and audio effects recreated with the utmost accuracy.
We especially appreciated the fact that motion trackers aren’t artificially attached to weaponry, instead they require the player to get out the defensive apparatus independently making them vulnerable yet completely aware of the enemies in the 180 degree arc in front of them.
All that detail is fantastically implemented with the trademark escalating beep-beep-beep when xenos loom closer. It’s only once they get into firing range that the game starts to creak a bit. Rather than the sleek deliberate killing machines you see in Aliens, Gearbox’s emulation of xenos is skittish at best, with the beasts jumping from wall to wall one moment and running full pelt on the floor the next. They just aren’t very smart and because all their path-finding is procedurally generated some quirks can come in like them staying in the same spot for seconds making them easy prey. This isn’t quite the tense, desperate combat of the films, instead your fragile human form seems in the ascendency which doesn’t feel quite right to us.
Sure the lighting system does a great job of masking aliens when they’re clung to a dimly lit wall, and there are some fearful moments when you’re charged by a legion of xenos as your Pulse Rifle’s display slowly clicks down indicating that you’ll need to change that clip sooner that you’d like, but still fighting aliens just doesn’t seem quite as intimidating as it should. Instead the dark legions feel more like the zombies in Left 4 Dead, with their emergence proving alarming rather than genuinely panic-inducing.
After defending the bay Winter and his fellow squady were told to go down a poorly lit hallway in order to investigate some technical anomoly, both armed with Smart Rifles. Being able to use the auto-tracking weapon of choice with the authentic half-goggle display was really a brilliant moment. Gameplay-wise using this gun was a case of identifying when to fire as the darting reticule attached itself to any moving uglies in the dark. We actually died several times during this part thanks to our AI buddy languishing behind leaving us to cut down the alien horde as they rushed us down a hallway alone, but eventually we inadvertently made our way to the hive. There were times when we had to melee aliens away with the butt of our rifles and brief QTEs kicked in whenever when a xeno decided to grab hold, but still the whole set piece just seemed a bit, dare we say it, dull.
Gearbox has said that the campaign boasts various special classes of xenos in order to vary up combat, but the section we sampled just saw our character mowing down regular drones time after time. Adding different breeds of aliens could dial up the drama, but it’s going to be very difficult to make these new species seem like a natural fit for this universe. It would have been far better if Gearbox made more of the xenomorphy’s widely understood character traits, like acid blood. The green stuff’s implementation should be far more destructive than it is as present. Its destructive melting force should forcing players to genuinely think about engaging enemies at close range, instead acid just burns tepidly on the floor only occasionally splashing on the player and burning through armour.
Thankfully Colonial Marines is much more ambitious when it comes to the plot with events alluding heavily to the suits of Weyland-Yutani still guiding the cast’s misery with their subtle manipulative hand. Unfortunately Gearbox wouldn’t be pressed on how exactly events will challenge perceptions of this beloved license, but we wouldn’t be surprised if some kind of high-tech presence makes an appearance later in the game – make of that what you will.
This additional plot detail also extends to the game’s litany of collectibles which vary from dog tags, legendary weapon unlocks for multiplayer e.g. Hick’s Shotgun, and audio logs. During our playthrough we found a brief recording of Newt’s distraught mother Ann calling a friend to explain about her husband’s worsening condition thanks to an encounter with a Facehugger, and how she’s worried about the increasing number of disappearances in the colony. These kinds of collectibles unsurprisingly can be found throughout the campaign and they really add a sense of tragedy and emotional gravitas to the story which for the most part seems to be lacking.
After a short amount of time with Colonial Marines, we found it hard not to feel both excitement and a slight tinge of disappointment. In many ways this is another atypical first-person shooter with stand-off sections, bottlenecked hallways and repetitive slaughter, yet at the same time seeing this eighties sci-fi world be given a new lease of life and vigour is something we’ve wanted to see for decades.
Here’s hoping the rest of the campaign expands upon Colonial Marines unwavering fan service, as it’s undoubtedly its best asset.
Tags: Aliens Colonial Marines
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