Aliens: Colonial Marines [Review]
There have been a handful of games that live in the Alien universe; good ones at that. However, none of them really touch too much on the story. There may be a reference here and there, but for the most part they follow their own path. This is probably because the developer or publisher doesn’t want to be burned at the stake by devout Alien fans. Apparently this doesn’t scare Gearbox, because the story of Aliens: Colonial Marines continues a bit after the conclusion of Alien 3.
A distress signal from the USS Sulaco results in your unit being sent to investigate what happened. A team that went ahead of you has gone silent and now you need to recover them and find out how the Sulaco has reappeared over LV-426. As you can imagine, shortly after that all hell breaks loose.
Part of the game is played on the Sulaco and the other portion is played on LV-426. Both iconic locations were brought back with painstaking detail. From the hangar where Ripley fought the queen and the cryo-chambers on the Sulaco, to the medical room and sewers on LV-426, everything is there as you would expected to be. There is a lot of new territory you will cover as well, and it’s not just something that Gearbox threw together. In the case of the Sulaco, Gearbox worked with Syd Mead (creator the USS Sulaco for “Aliens”) on how to create the ship and the corridors you’ve never seen. You’ll hear some familiar voices and also see some familiar faces.
It’s not just the buildings and the structures that help put you back in the Alien universe, it’s the overall atmosphere. Most of corridors are dark with just enough light so you may barely see something slither past. Watching a door open and seeing the Alien goo spreading apart put a smile on my face. There isn’t much music, but the parts without music are better because you get to hear deadly silent ambiance. Just the air moving through the corridors and maybe the hiss of the killer you can’t see yet. You combine the ambiance with the sound of a firing pulse rifle and it’s hard not to get sucked in. For those who like to explore there are dog tags, weapons left behind by known characters, and audio logs to collect to help pull you deeper into the story. Gearbox spent a great deal of time on the atmosphere; making sure it was perfect. I just wish they put a bit more effort into the game play.
One of my early complaints was the overall lack of difficulty. Playing on Solider should be a cake walk for anyone that plays shooters on semi-regular basis. You can bump up the difficulty but this doesn’t change two things: the level design and enemy AI. I guess one of the downfalls of sticking so closely to the architecture of the Alien universe is that you get some fairly straightforward levels to move through. In quite a few places you get to fight in rooms with multiple walkways or that are configured in such a way that you can attack from various angles, but for the most part you will be pushing forward a lot.
The enemy AI also isn’t the brightest. It felt like they were aware of how many allies they had around them because the more of them that were in one area, the dumber they got. Human enemies will use cover more if there less of them, but pretty much say “fuck cover” if there quite a few. Aliens tend to work in the same way, except they all try to rush you at the same time. It’s a shame, because the way Aliens fight when they are alone is very fun and can be tense.
When solo, or only accompanied by one or two other Xenos, they will use the darkness to their advantage and spring out from cover if you get close enough. They will pounce you if possible; which you can knock them off by jamming your action button. When that happens though, they don’t just keep attacking you; they retreat into the darkness and try to find another opportunity to attack you. They will also do this if there originally was a horde of aliens, but you managed to thin the herd without killing them all. I wanted more of this! I can understand that they may have the horde mentality when grouped together, but even in the movies the Aliens were sneaking around and pulling people into the catacombs to cocoon them.
The enemy AI mixed with the level design turn many parts of ACM into a shooting gallery. Yes, as I said you can increase the difficulty. However, all this really does is make enemies harder to kill and have them deal out more damage. It would have been more fun to fight a human AI that worked together to try to flank you or even a Xeno AI that used darkness and surprise to their advantage all the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that its not fun, it’s just only as engaging as most modern shooters.
The game isn’t a meat grinder; just you going down corridors blowing through enemies. At some points you will need to get from point A to B, but other times you may need to make a stand in a certain area, or stealthily make your way through corridors. The difference is there was an opportunity here to be better than your average shooter due to the unique atmosphere and enemies, and that opportunity was missed for the most part.
Many opportunities for the element of surprise were also missed. Aliens will typically stay silent until they are spotted or engaged. Sometimes you may be walking around a corridor and hear a hiss to let you know death is close. Add to the fact that you can’t use your radar and gun at the same time and you can have some serious tension there. You also have a radar that alerts you when something is almost directly in front of you by a few feet. That’s where the tension bottoms out. Moments that would have been huge surprises were ruined by that little blip letting me know something was in front of me and would probably attack me soon.
There were several location where the game genuinely shocked me. Walking down a hallway with a flickering light, only to have an alien appear between flickers. Seeing how radiation from the blast mutated some Xenos. Or just sometimes the way Xenos would slide out of a vent completely unnoticed until they were right on me. There should have been more of these moments, but various aspects that I mentioned above remove the shock value from many moments. Instead of cautiously moving through corridors, I moved through them as if there weren’t hundreds of nature’s perfect killing machines around me.
Some moments that should have been a big deal were nullified by the fact that there is almost nothing drawing your attention to major events as they are happening. The biggest letdown for me was when the queen got free (you knew it was going to happen). I hear one of the friendly AIs screaming “the queen is out!” or something of that nature, but I just don’t see her. Finally she comes strolling around a corner and the battle begins. There are a few locations I could have been where I would have seen her coming or perhaps heard her stomping around, but I wasn’t there and her arrival was completely “meh” because of it. A bit more direction would have been nice to get that tense feeling of the queen coming.
At times the storytelling feels a bit rushed and other times just sandwiched together. The chapter transitions toward the beginning the game were the biggest offenders. At the end of one chapter you are looking out a window after watching something explode. The next chapter you are on the ground because apparently sometime between the end of the last chapter and the start of this one there was a collision. The dialog isn’t bad, but sometimes it needs a bit more fleshing out. A few conclusions were reached in the dialog without a logical reason, and at times it makes the plot hard to follow.
ACM was definitely built for co-op. You can see that in the way your score screen looks, but I felt it mostly when dealing with the friendly AI. As much as I complained about the enemy AI, the friendly AI is worse. They will walk right past enemies, get stuck, and just generally not give a fuck about what’s happening around them at times. I was unable to find a co-op partner since the game wasn’t released while I reviewed it, but I can only imagine it would have been better than what I got.
Something I did enjoy is the weapon selection. There is something for everyone: shoguns, sub machine guns, rifles, flame throwers, rifles with flame throwers, rifles with shotguns, etc. Pretty much anything you would want to dispatch Xenomorphs and PMCs. The most recognizable of all the weapons is the Pulse Rifle, equipped with ammo count right on the side of the gun, and it sounds kick ass. Even more kick ass is the Smart Gun that Vasquez used. Besides having a good weapon selection, you can also customize your weapons. You can upgrade them with various attachments like switching the sights or scope, changing the bottom attachment to give you a different alternate fire, or perhaps something to help reduce recoil.
You unlock these upgrades by building up your rank; which increase with kills and challenges completed. Once you have unlocked an upgrade you can purchase it with commendations earned. These weapons and upgrades stay unlocked if you decide to play co-op or just start up the game again on a higher difficulty. You’re not going to unlock all the attachments in one playthrough, so it gives you good reason to run through the campaign again with friends or perhaps just play multiplayer. Unfortunately I was unable to play the multiplayer and co-op due to no one really having the game yet. I will be posting a separate article later this week after the rest of the world gets a chance to dig in.
Despite its shortcomings, for the most part I enjoyed myself. I am a huge fan of the Alien movies and the atmosphere that Gearbox was able to create makes this game the closet thing I’ve seen to any of the films. The added story with additional backstory you can discover makes this game a real treat for fans. You can see that Gearbox really wanted to do good by the series and the fans. For the most part I believe they accomplished that. However, with more polished AI and tweaks in a few key places, this game could have been amazing for everyone. Instead it will be a great game for fans and an average game for everyone else.