Aliens: Colonial Marines is an unfinished, ugly mess
Aliens: Colonial Marines is the sort of game that makes us hate publishers and developers.
It’s hard to tell what happened during the game’s extended development cycle, but there is no one who can look at the final product and say that they see a good, or even finished, game. Yet there it sits on the shelf, for the asking price of $60.
I once attended a preview of the game with Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford, and he stood in front of the screen and quoted Aliens the entire time. You get an achievement in the game for looking at a doll’s head, because Newt had a doll’s head in Aliens. You win the Game Over, Man! achievement for finishing the game.
The tone deaf adoration of the source material is only the beginning of the game’s problems.
The game is not finished
Let’s start with the most basic problems. There are animations missing in the game and the cutscenes are ugly to the point of distraction. The characters don’t seem to have any physical boundaries, or are unaware of each other. When you have two characters in an action scene, they tend to stand inside each other for some reason. “I’m going to be okay,” a woman tells a man in one scene, and then reassuringly places her hand inside his chest.
You fight a squad of enemy marines in a few missions, and they sometimes open a door and run through it to escape. You can’t go through the door, of course. You can’t shine your light in the door. It’s just a black texture on the wall. It’s not rare to see the aliens themselves walk out of rock formations to attack you.
The aliens, or xenomorphs as they’ve become known, are supposed to be one of the most brutal and vicious opponents in modern science fiction. Here they run around like clumsy men in suits, and they often swipe at you and then take a step back to either make sure you’re okay, or to give you time to shoot them. Their animations are either broken or don’t exist, and the only way you can tell your weapons are hitting them is by watching for the ugly splashes of green acid that explode out of their bodies every now and again. The guns have no sense of weight or accuracy. You can put a red dot sight on a pulse rifle. This is Aliens: Black Ops, with all the satisfying gunplay of that series removed.
I winced at the use of the term “Oscar Mike.”
The combat itself is like being inside a haunted house and not playing along with the actors. What are they going to do, hit you? The aliens don’t seem to know what to do if you don’t kill them all the second you see them. They like to run around each other, only attacking human characters on occasion. You’ll sometimes find them just kind of hanging out with their heads butted up against walls. I missed a jump during one scene, and found myself in a pit with two of the new aliens that are supposed to blow up near their enemies. Instead, they just walked around me. I tried running in circles to get their attention. I shined my light at their heads. Nothing. I had to restart the game.
It gets worse
The writing is awkward. The story makes little sense. The voice acting is painful. At one point, a character says that “shit is all blowing up and shit.” It was an accurate assessment of the situation. The graphics are a blurry, indistinct mess, featuring low resolution textures and a liberal use of mist. The game looks, feels, and acts like a pretty decent Half-Life mod from 10 or so years ago.
There are no real physics to speak of. During one scene, I ran into a chain hanging from the ceiling and it stopped me completely, as if it were a metal girder. Even the sound design is terrible, as the chestbursters sound like congested puppies. You don’t want to run in fear, you want to ask them to blow their nose. The in-engine cutscenes feature characters that look like plastic while they just kind of wave their arms around as they speak.
My absolute favorite part of the game was the moment they brought a character back from the film, and another marine pointed out the giant plot hole this created. “That’s a long story,” the returning character said, and I’m pretty sure he waved his hand as he said it. He didn’t have time to explain the impossible situation. When you have to write in a character literally hand-waving away something that made no sense, your story is a mess.
Even the power loader is wasted; there is no feeling of weight or power behind its actions, and the first battle where you wear one to fight a larger-than-normal alien consists of the player basically jamming the buttons while the models clip through everything they touch until the battle is over. The pieces of the alien you kill sink into the ground.
The game showed me a few snippets of code in the moments between missions, because apparently there was an issue with one of the wheel textures on an APC? Or something? I’ll be sure to let the developer in charge of that know. That’s the sort of thing you want to fix before the game is sent to the press or, for the love of God, paying customers.
There was a scene where I was ordered to set up a sentry gun to support a marine who was trying to hack through a door. There was a sentry gun pointed the wrong way. So I walked over to it, picked it up, turned it around, and planted it in the same space. Mission accomplished. Someone, somewhere, thought that moment needed to be in the game. In another scene, I had to help another marine to his feet while the aliens around us politely waited for the animation to be over, as their claws and tails clipped through our bodies.
I could go on and on. The game shipped unfinished, but the hackneyed story, poor writing and voice acting, and atrocious pacing of the missions won’t be saved by a post-launch patch.
I went back through my notes to find something nice to say about the game, and I’ll put this out there: Ashly Burch did a great job playing the pilot, and Colonial Marines proves that she’s not a one-note voice actor, something that fans of Tiny Tina may have feared. It also helps that in most scenes you only hear her voice, so you don’t have to put up with the terrible character models and their dead eyes reciting the game’s dialog.
If the game were finished, it would be an artistic failure. If the game were fun, it would be a technical failure. At least the game is short, as you can beat it in around six hours. The fact this took me four days to beat should tell you everything you need to know about how painful the game is to play. Colonial Marines made me wish for a 9 to 5 job in the city. Something with a nice cubicle and a packed lunch.
I’m not even mad at the game, I’m disappointed. I love the Aliens series of films, and James Cameron’s take on the material proved that he understood how to make a good sequel. You begin with what the creative individual did before you, you put your own stamp on it, and you make sure you move the franchise forward in a way that makes sense. Colonial Marines feels like fan fiction written by a group of developers trying to figure out how to make their first game, and the fact Colonial Marines is being sold for full price in this condition is unacceptable.
For my final thought, I’d like to leave you with the already-infamous image of the derpy alien. There are entire rooms of these guys, and they all just kind of walk around. It’s amazing. It’s like Gearbox used their money, time, and resources to finally answer the question of what would happen if science fiction’s greatest predator had to hold something between its buttcheeks while walking around a dimly lit room.
I played on the PC, by the way. I don’t know if the console versions are any better. They didn’t send any and I don’t hate myself enough to find out.