Oh, so that’s why they call it a smart gun.
The large, heavy cannon being toted by my character comes with its own eyepiece, a red lens that automatically detects and targets enemies. At first, I’m gingerly stalking down the dark tunnel, wary of the murderous Xenomorphs I know are hiding in the shadows. But the weapon earns its moniker as it zeroes in on the unseen aliens, then gently nudges my eyes and arms toward them. The only thing left for me to do is squeeze the trigger.
With a loud shriek, the cannon shreds the beasties apart. More of them come, but with the smart gun’s guided precision, I’m soon mowing them down. In no time at all, I’m confidently jogging down the corridor and, like a certain bad-ass character in the movie, I can’t help but yell, “Let’s rock!”
It’s moments like these that Aliens: Colonial Marines gets so right. The game is a first-person shooter that serves as the official canon sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi masterpiece Aliens. Unlike many movie-licensed releases, which are often just quick knock-offs designed to cash in on their respective properties, it’s clear this one was intended as a faithful and respectful homage. For the most part, it does feel like Aliens.
The story takes place a few months after the end of the movie, with the titular marines dispatched to answer a distress call from Aliens survivor Corporal Hicks aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco. The thing is, the ship is deserted upon their arrival.
Before they know it, the marines are doing battle with the acid-spitting Xenomorphs, as well as a mysterious human militia. The Sulaco can’t contain the action, so it soon spills down onto LV-426, the inhospitable planet where much of the film took place.
Corporal Christopher Winter then leads his squad mates in the search for Hicks, and soon he’s unravelling of the nefarious plot at the centre of his disappearance. If you’ve seen Aliens or are familiar with the overall franchise’s lore, it won’t be too hard to guess what’s going on and who’s responsible.
The ship, the planet and the various bases on it are lovingly recreated, with the developers at Gearbox Software paying special attention to Cameron’s signature lighting style. Everywhere you look there are strobing effects, overhead lights flickering on and off and siren lights spinning round and round, all helping to create that foreboding feeling of a functioning yet recently abandoned colony.
Similarly, the sound is bang on. The motion sensors click and beep when Xenos are approaching, the aliens hiss and scream while the same bombastic drum-and-horn music from the film flares up during action sequences. And then there’s the shriek of the pulse rifles. Oh, sweet joyous rifle shrieks. Like the sizzle of lightsabers igniting in Star Wars, there are few sci-fi sounds as definitive as space-marine guns firing.
Colonial Marines also pays proper respect to H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist who designed much of the aliens’ look and feel, and gives a nod to Prometheus, last summer’s disappointing quasi-prequel from original Alien director Ridley Scott. Without getting into any spoilers, let’s just say the infamous “space jockey” makes an appearance.
A few actors from Aliens also pop up in the story, which is peppered with the sort of macho military talk that has by now become thoroughly clichéd. Yet the “oorahs” seem at home here since the film – and Cameron – did much to popularize that sort of banter in the first place. It’s sort of like how we can’t fault Eddie Van Halen for perfecting cheesy guitar solos and thus spawning a wave of imitators.
Unfortunately, the game’s atmosphere and feel can’t mask the fact that Colonial Marines is, at best, an average shooter – or at worst a dated one. And while there is a lot that the game does right, there is also plenty that it gets very wrong.
As with virtually every similar game on the market, there’s the requisite upgrade system, where experience points unlock new weapon attachments, as well as efforts at stealth and vehicle sequences. After all, it simply wouldn’t be an Aliens game if you didn’t get to pilot an exoskeleton loader in combat with a giant Xeno. It’s too bad these parts are clumsily executed and disappointing.
The aliens themselves don’t seem very terrifying or particularly tough. It is disconcerting the first time they charge at you along the walls and ceiling, but you soon figure out the aliens can be easily dispatched with a few calm shots from your pulse rifle or shotgun. And despite being described in the movies as nature’s perfect hunter, the Xenos don’t seem adept at doing anything other than rushing right at you. As such, at no point did I freak out in exasperation and yell, “They’re all around us, man, game over!” like Hudson did in the movie.
This is especially true during the final boss battle of the game, which is laughably easy. The “fight” is followed by a short cut scene in which the story’s mystery is laid bare, followed quickly by an abrupt rolling of the credits. Aliens: Colonial Marines must have one of the worst, most curt and anti-climactic endings of any game I’ve played. It’s almost like the developers ran out of money and decided to wrap things up regardless of where things were. Either that or they’re saving the proper ending for an additional paid download.
The letdowns carry over in multiplayer, which seems at first to be a real hoot – but only for a short while. Up to four players can play through the main campaign online, or two via local split-screen. In versus mode, two teams take turns playing as marines and Xenos, with each unlocking abilities or weapons as they advance.
The humans start out considerably more powerful, since weapon unlocks from the single-player campaign carry over into multiplayer, but the aliens quickly level up and add new attacks and abilities. Playing as a Xeno is ultimately more fun, since the monsters have X-ray vision, can climb through vents and scale walls.
Of the four multiplayer modes, “Escape” is probably the best, with marines trying to get from point A to point B while the Xenos try to pick them off one by one. Survivor mode has the marines trying to run out the clock against endless waves of aliens while Extermination sees them try to occupy certain points. And of course, there’s Team Deathmatch. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough variety in either what the characters do or the game modes to really get a lot of mileage out of multiplayer.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a decent love letter to a great sci-fi movie, but it falls short of being something special in its own right. It’s an above-average licensed game, but a below-par shooter. Fans of the franchise will either love it for the subtleties and little details it gets right, or hate it for missing some of the most important parts.
With Aliens being one of my favourite movies ever, I really wanted to like this game. In the end, I fell somewhere in the middle. There were parts – like the smart gun sequence – that had me feeling like I was smack in the middle of the film universe. Unfortunately, those moments were too few and too far between, leaving me wondering why the whole game couldn’t have been as awesome.