It would be easy to write an incredibly long “What’s Wrong with Aliens: Colonial Marines” piece, simply listing its faults. Indeed, such is the catalogue of horrors that mar Gearbox’s sci-fi shooter that many reviews read as exactly that. But is it really that bad? I don’t think so (and for a broad strokes opinion you can read my review here); in fact, I think the issues with Colonial Marines can be boiled down to just three key areas – the problem is, they just happen to be vital to a licensed FPS such as this.
(Please note: This article contains major story spoilers!)
The first major issue is the script. The God-awful, ham-fisted script. Gearbox made the mistake of presuming that because Jim Cameron’s Aliens is so effortlessly quotable, we all want to hear recycled lines from it for 10 hours. We don’t. Aliens was released in 1986. That’s 27 years ago, in a time before Halo or Call of Duty or Gears of War, before Full Metal Jacket or Predator. Quite simply, it was before everything about Aliens – from the set-up to the setting to the characters – became cliché thanks to overuse in a multitude of games and films. It worked in Aliens in 1986 because it was fresh, it works in Aliens now because we know that’s where it originated – but the same gung-ho, marines-don’t-quit dudebro-ing has been used so many times in the last three decades it has become yawn-inducingly, eye-rollingly embarrassing.
The script is clumsy, occasionally crude and a bit stupid. Character-establishing revelations that should deepen your connection to the marines joining you in the mire are handled with butter-fingers. For example, O’Neal (your gruff, smart-gun toting partner) reveals the depth of his relationship with Vasquez-alike Bella with the Shakespearean announcement that they “had a sex thing once”; and when Bella is finally located, standing next to facehugger that also recently indulged in a “sex thing” with her, her actual spoken line is “I pulled it off when I woke up, so nothing is gonna happen to me”. It’s not only bad writing, it’s also completely indefensible from the developer’s standpoint. It might be endurable as a gamer, laughable at times, but it should be better than it is.
The second major issue is something I predicted a year ago when the first details of this game began to filter through. Hadley’s Hope was destroyed at the end of Aliens. It doesn’t matter how you twist it or how you try to get around it. The explosion rocked the escaping dropship as it entered orbit for Christ’s sake, resulting in a “cloud of vapour the size of Nebraska”, as Bishop put it. It was an event described by Paul Reiser’s company man Burke as a “thermo-nuclear explosion”. Hadley’s Hope was gone, and this fact was never up for debate. To call Colonial Marines a canonical sequel when its very existence must bastardise established lore is not just a misnomer, it’s fucking stupid.
And of course, there’s the core mystery of how the Sulaco came to be in orbit over LV-426 once again. Having seen Hicks’ mangled body complete with eye-bandages at the start of Alien 3, we know he’s dead. We know it, and as much as I love Michael Biehn and felt that Hicks’ death was a travesty, I had made my peace with it. Bringing him back by means of a clumsy, half-explained sequence of events is inexcusable even if it is nice to see him – but the biggest kick in the balls comes from Hicks himself who, when pressed about the third body in the stasis pod on Fury 161 replies “that’s a longer story.” Excuse me, but WHAT? Not only do the writers attempt – and fail – to smoothly sidestep the biggest narrative question in the whole sorry plot, but they do so with such a blatant disregard for the canon that it’s almost insulting to James Cameron, and is certainly insulting to the player.
Maybe the bad canon and schlocky script can be worked around – plenty of games fall foul to similar traps, after all – but the third issue, in my eyes at least, is the one that really damages Colonial Marines beyond repair.
Gearbox picked the wrong genre.
It’s almost a no-brainer when you get hold of the Aliens license to go straight down the FPS route, but it was Gearbox’s first and most damning mistake. The xenomorph is a predatory hunter, not a full-on zerg machine that charges blindly out of the darkness into a wall of gunfire; It’s a silent kidnapper whose primary concern is the propagation of its species, one that takes live victims as often as possible and kills only when hungry or cornered. Colonial Marines forgets these facts, presenting the xeno not as an intelligent lifeform that can cut the power to a facility because it knows we rely on it, or can brutalize one of its own to use the acidic blood to make an impromptu exit, or that keeps its prey alive for impregnation, but as a mindless idiot that runs helplessly into hot lead death. The xenos in Colonial Marines don’t flank, don’t creep, don’t steal marines away, they run and jump and hit at you with flimsy claws. And they have to, because working suspense, tension and true horror into an FPS is way beyond the capabilities of Gearbox – perhaps of anyone.
So why an FPS?
Why not go down the Dead Space route, or take a leaf from X-COM: Enemy Unknown‘s book? Add strategy, base-building, relationship management, resource management, foraging, survival. Why not tell a story from Newt’s perspective, making you helpless, defenceless, forcing you to survive against the xenos using your wits, reflexes and whatever you can scrounge up? Why not take it to a point between Newt’s story and Colonial Marines and strand Winter In the ruins of Hadley’s Hope and give him only a motion tracker, limited bullets and the tools to defend himself, to perhaps uncover a conspiracy if you feel it really needs one and, somehow, find a way off planet? Why not be creative?
As a shooter, Aliens: Colonial Marines succeeds by the skin of its teeth. As a game that recreates the stress, tension and excitement of its source material, it fails, regardless of how much it gets right aesthetically. It’s all compounded by the need to mix up the action by adding human enemies in the form of Weyland-Yutani’s mercenary army. Their arrival heralds a decline in gameplay quality that almost swamps the few high points in Colonial Marines’ run-time, becoming a horridly cut-and-paste Medal of Honor impersonator.
Had a developer like Firaxis or Visceral taken the reins on this game, we might have seen true tension, experienced true fear. Imagine developing your surviving marines, even naming them, creating them as you would in X-COM, only to have your actions lead to their demise. Imagine being in a dark corridor armed only with a hand-welder, with the way back sealed and only an ominous blip on the motion tracker hinting at the prowling, one-hit-killing terror waiting for you just ahead.
That’s what I want from an Aliens game.
I want stress, tension, fear, panic even, not aliens that charge me and present an easy target at every turn.
I want companions I care about and whose deaths have meaning, not invincible damage-sponges who spew cut-price crap from the cutting room floor of a Paul WS Anderson movie.
I want a story that’s new, fresh; that works in the established universe without bastardising what has gone before – even if said bastardisation does bring back one of my favourite movie characters and favourite actors ever.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is not a horrible game. It didn’t deserve a lot of the rancour it received, and some of the negative assertions in its reviews come close to outright trolling – but as an Aliens Game it is a marked failure, and one that could have been avoided had the developers given more time and consideration to the story, script and set-up – and less to recreating a 27-year-old film.
This article is an expression of one person’s point of view, and is intended to generate discussion rather than anger. Whether you agree or disagree, we invite you to add your comments and let us know what you think.