I still remember my geek-googlies lighting up when I saw this at E3 back in 2011. Sitting in a dark theatre, listening to developer CEO Randy Pitchford talk about his love for the Alien franchise and how much of a major influence the movies had been over his lengthy career.
Since then, we've seen heart-palpitating trailers of marines being tormented and hunted by Xenomorphs in dimly lit, eerie corridors. I'll be honest and admit I was already at half-mast just taking the disc out of the box.
I was flaccid shortly afterward however. Launching into the singleplayer campaign, I was presented with a poorly put-together opening cinematic that featured unimaginative camera angles, clunky character animations, overlapping lip-syncing, and an uninspired script to match. While an attempt to capture the aesthetic style of an Alien film was present, all of the polish and class was completely absent. It was more Starship Troopers (the direct-to-DVD sequels) than the brooding atmosphere of Aliens.
Things improve slightly when given control in the game, but only very slightly. Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place in the movie canon after Alien 3, but is more reminiscent of James Cameron's Aliens. Players assume the role of a United States Marine, Corporal Christopher Winter, a member of a search and rescue team sent to investigate the U.S.S. Sulaco. Fans of the movies will remember the Sulaco as the large transporter ship that housed survivors Ellen Ripley, Dwayne Hicks, and the android Bishop after the catastrophic events of the second Aliens film.
In the gap between the second and third Alien films, a mysterious fire aboard the Sulaco resulted in the survivors' cryogenic sleep tubes being launched from the ship. However, the reasons behind the fire, current condition, and whereabouts of the Sulaco is unknown.
This is where Aliens: Colonial Marines kicks in, with an opening portion of the game taking place onboard the infested transporter. Creeping around congested corridors, sweeping shadowy corners for Xenos, and trying not to soil yourself over a sudden crash or an opening door. This is what fans have been screaming for; a cat and mouse encounter set in the rich environment of one of the best sci-fi horror films ever. There is nothing quite like pulling up your sonar (which leaves you defenceless) and hearing that famous 'bing' that indicates something very bad is heading straight for your face.
This is the most frustrating issue with Aliens: Colonial Marines. There are occasional glimpses of the greatness that could have been. The love and explicit attention to detail that Gearbox and TimeGate Studios have poured into the game's environments are stunning. Dead facehuggers litter the laboratory floors, slime drips and glistens off surfaces, and nearly every area has some fanfare treatment, such as Ripley's damaged power-loader or other Weyland propaganda. On top of the Sulaco, fans get the pleasure of exploring other iconic landmarks from the movies, including the LV-426 and Hadley's Hope.
But the problems lie with everything knocking around in this beautifully realised world. The character animations, both for the human marines and the aliens, is extremely disappointing. Which is a major issue, given that the slick movement and agile abilities of the aliens should play a large part of their terrifying presence. Their unnatural locomotion and slow AI certainly makes them alien-like. But unfortunately, it's more of the drunken E.T. variety, than a nimble double-jawed killing machine. In a nutshell, Xeno encounters in this game are just not scary.
In fact, the human enemies are more of a threat than the aliens. Players will encounter rival soldiers from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who are after the Xenos for their own 'scientific purposes'. Weyland's troops will flank and vaguely shoot from cover, but ultimately the AI for your teammates, other humans, and aliens is all broken. Probably the smartest enemy in the game was the guy who decided to spawn inside a wall; so that he could shoot me and I wouldn't know where he was. Or maybe this was a bug?
In the developer's defence, the Xenomorphs exhibit a lot of the attributes seen in the movies. They do run along walls and ceilings, hide in dark spots ready to pounce, and attack with alarming speed and in numbers. But their animations are so archaic, their jerky actions not only make targeting difficult, they're quite jarring on the eyes. Agreed - targeting fast moving, graceful ninja-like creatures should be a challenge - but not in this manner. To make matters worse, there are collision detection issues that prevent effective melee attacks and 'hit boxes' on enemies are occasionally non-existent. Sometimes an enemy will fall over after a single bullet, other times you'll unload an entire clip and still have a Xeno on your chest.
Naturally, the annoyance of poor AI is lessened when playing online. In fact, the multiplayer might be the saving grace of Aliens: Colonial Marines. But it's still not without its faults. The team deathmatch component is asymmetrical, meaning the two teams have unique abilities and play styles.
As in games like Left 4 Dead, it's the humans versus the 'bad guys' scenario. The Xenos have different classes, such as Hunters who rely on speed and melee strength; or Spitters who have long-range attacks of firing acid at their targets. But the more interesting class is undoubtedly the Lurker, who uses stealth and surprise to lunge at vulnerable marines.
Being able to scamper around like an ebony killer is every fan's dream. But while the controls allow players to traverse any surface and leap out onto unsuspecting prey fairly easily, it still looks incredibly awkward to anyone watching. Aliens quite often snap to walls or ceilings and often appear to be running at you sideways. Granted, it's possible that every time we played online we were up against complete muppets who didn't know what they were doing. But the gameplay wasn't much better when we swapped sides and tried out the aliens either.
Technically the multiplayer is generous, featuring four player co-operative and even split-screen two player gameplay. The upcoming DLC might help broaden the multiplayer component too, such as a recently announced horde-esque mode which sounds promising. But the whole experience is likely to be hindered by clunky animations and uninventive gun-play.
It's a shame that a title seven years in the making could result in something so lacklustre. Aliens: Colonial Marines had the foundations of a solid game, involving writers (David Weddle and Bradley Thompson from Battlestar Galactica fame) and a talented artist (Syd Mead from Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron). It even had the right voice talent, bringing back Lance Henriksen as a Bishop-model clone.
But it appears that the elongated, 'stop-start' development ultimately resulted in an inconsistent and disappointing final result. It's a double-miss for Gearbox after the awful Duke Nukem Forever. Aliens: Colonial Marines might be best jettisoned into space alongside it.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3