It's difficult to think of another concept that's spawned so many spinoffs from just two good movies. Alien 3 and 4, Prometheus, the AVP series, not to mention the games that have hit the shelves in various formats, have all gestated our hopes before exploding them like a gory chest burst. Which brings us to Aliens: Colonial Marines, a rescue-style sequel to Aliens, yet the successor in spirit to the rest of the franchise. A hotly anticipated title launched surprisingly prematurely, many of the reviews are in, and they're not good.
The story goes something like this: The Colonial Marines head to LV-426, the sight of Aliens, to investigate the distress call by Corporal Hicks. Arriving 14 months later, chronologically after Alien 3, the proverbial excrement hits the gravity control units and you're left fighting for survival through the familiar locales seen in Aliens against both various Xenomorphs and soldiers from the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Wey-Yu being up to their old antics of capturing and researching Xenomorphs. It comes as no surprise then that you and your fellow marines must escape the planet.
But of course not before having to tick off AusGamers Predictable Science-Fiction Videogame Experience Checklist (not yet a registered trademark).
1. Investigate unknown situation and wonder what the hell is going on? Check.
2. React frantically to some catastrophic situation and ironically end up being stranded and in distress, much like the call you answered in the first place? Check.
3. Connect power relays and enable comm towers? Check.
4. Obey direct orders in favour of apparent suicide missions? Check.
5. Discover there is more going on than originally assumed and a human corporation is also your enemy? Check.
6. Mount a rescue mission and/or press some switches? Check.
7. Find yourself separated from the group? Check.
8. Discover a way off planet? Check.
9. Fight enemies in increasingly significant wave before an ultimate showdown? Check.
Now it's not that the Science-Fiction Videogame Checklist is a bad thing, but it's all about how the game wraps it all up in it's own package, polishes the edges and creates a momentum from one point on the checklist to the next. It's disappointing then that Colonial Marines succeeds in doing none of these.
The problem begins with graphics, they lack texture, variety, clarity and just about everything that we've been spoilt with playing games like Far Cry 3 and Skyrim. In fact, it's not too far removed from Oblivion or the original Half-Life in visual fidelity. Meanwhile, walking around the colony on LV-426 you might not be surprised they didn't survive. With all the science labs, morgues and locker rooms creating such a depressing work-first environment, they spent all their time drowning their sorrows under the one bar sign and never got around to building anything else. The cut-scenes are similarly disappointing, lacking facial expression with the dirty and gritty marines coming across as strangely discoloured.
Graphics from five years ago is not necessarily a deal breaker, yet Colonial Marines also fails to shine in other areas. The gunplay for one is lacklustre. Armed with standard issue pulse rifle and a shotgun, looking through the sights is mostly inaccurate, and after unlocking upgrades and fitting a laser sight, shooting from the hip proves to be much more effective and accurate. The flamethrower is largely a joke unless torching alien eggs given that enemies, both Xenomorphs and Wey-Yu soldiers, are completely unperturbed by being on fire. The upgrades you can purchase through ranks you earn are at times useful but largely pointless. You can unlock a sound suppressor for the pulse rifle, which comes in handy for the three minutes of optional stealth you come across. It would have been more useful to have progressive reload speeds, magazine sizes and accuracy upgrades that reflect the apparent skill you gain through ranks. For a quick aside, what the hell is with the shotgun sound? It's reminiscent of a pillow banged on a table, not the thundering sound of pellets on a trajectory to rip apart flesh and bone.
As for the story, well it's tough to not give away any spoilers, but a character from one of the movies makes an appearance with an explanation inspired by a Lance Armstrong press release, with the large canyons in plausibility fobbed off with "it's a long story". But at least you don't get called fat. While a rather specific gripe, the missions themselves end abruptly and often unexpectedly. At one stage an alien jumps out and before you can react the end mission screen comes up. There is no bigger killer of mood than an end mission screen at the point of a cliffhanger. Why even have missions? The experience points could be fluid and by transitioning from one mission to the next without a screen would create a much more visceral experience. Instead it's like you're going through Doom, mission by mission.
Well actually, Doom had more atmosphere, an aspect killed in Colonial Marines by the decision to include a coop mode. Not to say the coop mode is bad, in fact it's fun, but playing solo and having one or more invincible colleagues by your side detracts from the tense and alone feeling that could otherwise be generated. It also makes the tracker obsolete, just hang behind a fellow soldier and wait for them to say something or start shooting. Well at least at times, they are known to occasionally walk straight past Wey-Yu soldiers into the next room, perhaps with a prior gentleman's agreement not to shoot at each other.
What's left is to jump into the body of a Xenomorph and take revenge on Marines in the online versus campaign. A fairly bare bones feature it contains a fraction of the modes of something like Gears or CoD, featuring deathmatch, survival, extermination and elimination. On the marine side of things you can customise your loadout and change your appearance while on the Xenomorph side of things you can choose a soldier, spitter or lurker. Each of the three types have different attacks you can unlock as you gain experience, a feature which means to begin with you are fairly impotent as an alien. With the lacklustre feel of the Marine controls it's more preferable to play as an alien which, teething problems aside, allows you to say “I played as an alien from the Aliens films!”.
With all the flaws in Colonial Marines it's easy to discard it as a failure, but for all its glitches, poor visuals and less-than-pristine controls, there is still fun to be had in this shoot-by-the-numbers sci-fi title. Although it may be listed as official canon it raises more questions than it answers and leaves you slightly perplexed at times. There are bonus audio logs to pick up but given that they do nothing beyond tell you that experiments have gone wrong and the situation is precarious, they're worth collecting only for having collected them. In essence if Colonial Marines were chocolate it would be Cadbury's; it's chocolate, has all the ingredients of chocolate, but the only real attraction is the name, the quality leaving you somewhat hollow and unfulfilled.