Most articles concerning the recent release of Aliens: Colonial Marines seem to consider all the Alien films at the same time for their comparisons. I’d rather just focus on Aliens. It’s the flick Randy Pitchford promised this game would be when Gearbox announced that they’d be handling the next Aliens shooter. It was sold as the experience we’ve wanted to play since first we saw Apone climb out of his cryotube with a cigar in hand. Aliens practically created what Space Marines are in modern gaming. Halo’s Sgt. Johnson is a carbon copy of Apone and every Halo marine is armored up exactly like the Colonials from their helmet cams down to shin guards. Countless other games have aped off the Colonials for decades. Despite years of quality military science fiction from the likes of Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and many others, James Cameron’s Aliens set the mold for human beings in space gunning down aliens.
So Aliens holds a place near and dear to myself and many, many, MANY others. Fans have memorized the entire film to the point that people who scream “Game over man!” to prove their love only earn eye rolls and sighs. Pfft…tell me exactly what a day in the corps is like and maybe we’ll talk.
Trying to please a community that lives on such a level of fandom is a daunting task. When Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced, Gearbox made the claim that they understood the task of trying to address such an absurdly high benchmark. Hunger is said to be the best spice, and we’ve been starving for an authentic Aliens shooter for years, so despite what common sense and history have taught us, we all got our hopes up.
Sure, the game is technically a mess of outdated design and poor production, but there are morsels of fan service stowed away inside this largely uncooked meal. From the moment you board the Sulaco—never mind why it’s even in the game, no good will come from pulling on that thread—the game is giving you locations steeped in the series’ lore. Bishop’s legs are strewn on the floor, tossed away from the pool of android (or synthetic person) goo left behind from the Queen’s stab and rip combo. Tossed grates are lying around from the Queen’s attempt to snag Newt. Even down at Hadley’s Hope there are environments I couldn’t put together better myself if it were my job. In the Ops room, you can make out the exact grate where Hudson was taken. In the Medical Labs, you can see Ripley and Newt’s trashed room complete with upturned bed and a dead face hugger pinned to the wall with a desk. Walking around those environments with a Pulse Rifle in hand and a motion tracker with perfectly licensed sound effects and tones of James Horner’s distinct soundtrack is half the dream of a beautiful Aliens game. And yet, even those moments of fan service and recognition are tainted by the entirety of the whole experience. This happens because the other half is of that dream is the right cohesion of gameplay and story. This is where A:CM misses the mark entirely.
By now everyone knows how bad the game is. It’s not the worst title to ever be released and it’s not broken in the sense that it can’t actually be played. But, when you take into account the poor level design, terrible animations, gunplay that’s as old as the Quake series, and the whole Texas switch controversy surrounding the E3 demo that Pitchford himself narrated against the quality of this final product, this is a design travesty studios will be referencing out of fear for years to come. It feels like a rushed project. And that seems to be the case: according to a source that told Kotaku the game was made inside of 9 months after being tossed between Gearbox and their third party developer, Time Gate. While I played the game, and wasn’t busy thinking about asking for some pithy beta tester pay, I found myself saying, “If this were my game, what I would have done is XXXX here and XXXX there.” Everyone has played an armchair game designer from time to time. But Aliens is territory we all know. So I got to seriously thinking, what would it take to create a good Aliens game?
There should be a feeling of immense isolation and despair. This is Aliens we’re talking about! You should be terrified at the blips pinging off your motion tracker as it picks up the ocean of twisting, squirming aliens behind every wall, floor, and ceiling. Think about it: you slowly make your way from corridor to corridor with your team. You cover every angle and pray you can make it out safely before the Xenomorphs spring their assault and charge you from every surface. One marine is sacrificing his gun at the ready so he can monitor the tracker and tell the rest of your team where to expect enemy movement. The attack commences and lines of defense are stressed. Realizing that you absolutely have to carry on through the assault, you try to make it to any exit or safe haven while members of your squad are picked off one by one as the Xenos figure out smarter ways to attack and hunt. You barely make your escape only to find yourself in a worse setting with more options angles for Xenomorph attack and less marines to fend them off. And then it starts all over again.
I’d want an Aliens game to focus on the terror and futility of fighting an endless hive of Aliens. Start the game anywhere! LV-426 works and (ignoring that the Atmospheric Processor detonation should have wiped the entire damn place out) go ahead and set up some locations throughout Hadley’s Hope and the Jockey’s derelict ship. Why not? What’s important here is how the game plays. Give me a jacked up version of Left 4 Dead’s Survival mode to start with. Marines should be covering their brothers in arms as they set up auto turrets and smart gunners covering medics trying to do their job while hordes of aliens break in through every opening. The entire area starts closing around you as the bodies of Xenos leave behind pools of toxic acid. Then, in what seems like the last few moments of desperation and struggle, escape arrives! An elevator door finally opens, something blocking your path is moved or, hell, a damn APC crashes through a barricade and saves the lives of all remaining marines. (Hey, it worked in the movie.)[pullquote align=”right”]The sound effects, motion tracker and the look of some of the locations get my fan boy excitement going right up until the first Xeno comes at me with hands outstretched as though he’s offering hugs and consolation over how off the mark everything else in the game is.[/pullquote]
Don’t worry about the game’s individual story or drawn out plotline. People just want gameplay stories in that world of Xenomorphs, power loaders, and sunglasses wearing dropship pilots. The stories that come from Left 4 Dead are all driven by the experience and how each team pulled through the zombie apocalypse and reached the end when all hope seemed lost.
The well-known locations in Aliens are nice starting points but you don’t have to focus on re-telling a story as enjoyable as the original. This world with its characters already exists. Fans don’t want some new story that just replicates and copies as much as it can of the old. Give us a new story that embraces the best qualities of the series instead. Fans want to relive the feelings they first had when they experienced that initial story, not just play through a copy of it.
When I pick up Aliens: Colonial Marines and play it now, I’m only interested for the briefest of moments. The sound effects, motion tracker and the look of some of the locations get my fan boy excitement going right up until the first Xeno comes at me with hands outstretched as though he’s offering hugs and consolation over how off the mark everything else in the game is. Most Aliens games have terrified me but A:CM is just too silly to evoke any sort of dread. Even when everything in the atmosphere lines up just right, and the dull thumps of the motion tracker suddenly turn to sharp beeps you don’t have to fear being rushed or killed by anything as it’s a rare occasion that a Xeno will actually descend upon you without getting stuck on or behind something. Not to mention the game prompts you to use the tracker every time there’s something around. The hell?! Knowing when you have it out and when to have my rifle pointed down a hallway should be the life or death decision that I have to make. The game shouldn’t just tell me, “Hey, we’re tracking stuff. Get that thing out that tracks stuff.”
It’s decisions like that which reduce an already poorly assembled product into a bigger mess. Possible sources from Gearbox, Sega, and Time Gate are all over the web claiming that the title had too many cooks in the kitchen from day 1. This is why we ended up with a glorified Call of Duty mod. In the end, I feel that the game just takes all the piss out of Aliens as a whole. It doesn’t bring any fear, dread or sense of danger. Instead, it barely touches upon poorly implemented tropes that have made better titles successful in their own rights rather than focusing on harnessing the true potential of Cameron’s Aliens and the universe it created. The fan service nods are nice but they don’t feel as if they came from the minds of people who truly cared for the world, and it’s that level of disassociation that permeates every single aspect of Colonial Marines.