Aliens: Colonial Marines
Developer(s): Gearbox... and TimeGate, and Demiurge, and Nerve...
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, & WiiU (eventually)
Spoiler Alert! You shouldn't play this game anyway so I'm going to spoil it in full...
Walking in on your grandfather watching the chestburster scene in Alien when you're nine years old is every bit as scarring as you'd think. A few days later, after I stopped hyperventilating, I convinced him to let me watch the entire movie and the crusty old bastard actually agreed. It's very likely the source of my arachnophobia and my fear of being raped in my face. No matter how many facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs I've gibbed in various video game incarnations since then, it's always remained a primal fear of mine.
When I found out that Gearbox was developing a first person shooter and supposedly canonical sequel to the second movie, I was immediately on board. When I saw the demo footage they showed at conventions, I got excited. Rumors of a troubled six year (!) development and a lack of any real gameplay footage prior to release tempered that excitement but I still picked up the game on day one figuring, well, even if it's crap it'll give me something to write about.
And... I am definitely writing about it.
Watching the explosion of pointed fingers around this game happen (which has been well-documented by Destructoid) seems like it could threaten to overshadow the actual content of the game. The game has been roundly (and rightly) panned by critics but reading those reviews you could pick out a lot of criticisms there were simply nitpick-y. The game failed so utterly at getting you to suspend your disbelief that suddenly everything became suspect. So, is it really as bad as all that? Is it possible to salvage some sense of fun from it?
Thus far, the only people I've talked to who defend the game are avowed fans of the series. This confuses me, for reasons that I'll get into later, but their argument seems to boil down to the fact that you can successfully play it from beginning to end... and they managed to get a lot of the fan service right. Ripley's pulse rifle/flamethrower combo was a pre-order bonus. Scattered through the game are things like Hicks' shotgun, Vasquez's smart gun, Hudson's pulse rifle that you are free to use which, I guess, evoke some nostalgic feelings for a movie that's become a cultural touchstone. You can also find dog tags for the now-deceased Aliens marines, recreations of certain areas from the movie, and other callbacks. Clearly, the developers (whoever they ultimately were) are familiar with the lore. Honestly, though, unless you're the kind of person who is enchanted by the idea of "oh, that's a thing I recognize from another thing" there really is nothing to recommend the game. It is, at best, a mostly functional FPS that ties into a beloved series.
I should note that the least worst experience you can have with this game is on the PC where it looks marginally better. Plus, savvy PC gamers have already come up with mods to improve the graphics of the game. If you absolutely, positively must play the game, go for the PC version. I played the game on the 360 which is clearly the worst available option.
It's hard to know where to start when talking about a game that fails at absolutely everything it tries to do. As shooter, it looks and plays like a last gen title. As an Aliens game, it insults established canon, hand waves away giant plot holes, and misses all of the subtext inherent in the series.
Slogging through the single player campaign, I witnessed so many bugs and glitches that the whole thing become a comedy to me. Kill a xeno on a wall and it'll stick partway into the wall and twitch endlessly. Gib a xeno and little bits and pieces will hover in the air, spinning in circles because they can't touch the ground. The stealth sequence, already widely mocked for the hilarious stick-up-the-butt walk of the Boiler xenos (which neuters any tension of crawling in a dark sewer without a gun), had the additional hilarity of one of the xenos just walking on top of the water like Suicide Bomber Jesus Alien. During a co-op run, one of my teammates fell halfway into the ground and we had to execute him in cold blood in order get him to respawn. Those are just the ones that come to me off the top of my head. You can find gifs and YouTube clips of other people's experiences with the glitch-y, damn-near-broken game for additional laughs. I couldn't even do a quick 100% of the game because it glitched a pair of dog tags, robbing me of the achievement for collecting all of them.
Co-op was the most fun I had playing the game because it allowed myself and three other people to Mystery Science Theater our way through the game but even that presented a whole host of other problems. If you imagine what a focused Gearbox Aliens game could have been, four player drop-in-drop-out class-based co-op (like a more linear Borderlands), it only highlights how much of a mess the game really is. You load up a map and you are simply dropped into the shoes of one of four random character models. There's nothing exciting or different about them. The game only plays differently in the sense that it's infinitely more crowded and hard to manage, especially when you factor in having additional brain dead, computer-controlled AI characters. The game shudders nearly to a halt the minute you get into a big firefight. Misery loves company and there's laughs to be had but it's not enough of a justification to play the game.
Plenty has been said about how ugly the game is, especially in light of the infamous "vertical slice" demo and the promises made by Gearbox, and what you heard is true, and it's especially true on the 360. The game looks not unlike a launch title. Dynamic lighting was promised and not delivered. The screen tearing, lazy textures, the flat animations. It looks genuinely, shockingly bad. Enemies crawl out of black squares that are supposed to pass for vents. A broken light fixture hanging from the ceiling will completely block you from moving. These aren't nitpicks, these are things that any B-grade shooter has evolved past years ago. Where Alien made the chestbursters a drawn out, horrifyingly painful experience, Colonial Marines has them popping out immediately (through body armor) like a game of Whack-A-Mole.
The actual story of the game is astonishingly amateurish. As one-note as the characters in Aliens were, their one note was usually interesting and had a logical arc. The protagonist, Winter, starts and ends the game a hyper-competent bad ass. Your AI partner, O'Neal, on the other hand, looks like a biker and acts like child. The dialogue between him and Winter is terrible, most of the quips landing flat because they sound weirdly self-conscious, not like self-possessed bad ass marines. It's clearly nerds trying to write tough guys and falling well short. (It doesn't help that the voice acting is wildly uneven, vacillating between "okay" and "fucking terrible.") O'Neal doesn't even have a character arc so much as a bunch of stuff happens to him and he reacts to it. Other characters drift in an out of the narrative like the pilot, Reid. Voiced by Ashly "Tina Tina" Burch, she gets a couple of the only good lines in the game but, again, she has no arc. The plot randomly demands that she act like a bitch for a couple of minutes and then it's dropped.
This leads into a larger problem the game has: in a series that gave us characters like Ripley and Vasquez, where the xenomorphs are essentially rapists, there are no strong female characters to be found. Reid goes from smart-ass pilot to pulling rank out of cowardice for no reason. The other female character, Bella, who looks like she's on her way to the Bikini Bowl, is introduced as having already been face raped by a xeno (with the hilariously dead line reading of "It's dead now") and spends the entire game needing to be saved, first from her hidey hole and then on a Quixotic mission to have her chestburster removed. She doesn't even get to die with dignity as the chestburster pops out (through her body armor, 'natch) before anyone has the decency to put a bullet in her head like she asks. What should have been a tragic moment earns nothing but an eye roll.
Oh, and the whole fuss about adding female character models to the multiplayer last year? Well, the guys all look and dress like standard grunts but the women don't wear helmets and show more skin because... well, of course they do. I can hear the closet misogynists grumbling about being able to differentiate between the two but that's the whole fucking point. Vasquez only got to dress the way she did because she was lugging around a giant smart gun and it played into her badass character. Other women in Aliens like Ferro and Deitrich wore standard military uniforms. For crying out loud, they're called "uniforms" for a reason. Misinterpreting a call for equality by giving special treatment (and a bit of sex appeal) is such a standard dudebro move that you can't help but facepalm.
The bad decisions don't end there, though. Remember how bummed you were when you found out that Hicks and Newt died in the crash at the beginning of Alien 3? Well, never fear, because the game brings Hicks back from the dead, complete with Michael Biehn sleepwalking through his dialogue like he knows what bullshit he's reading. They don't even have the basic decency to give it a proper explanation. Nor do they explain how the Solaco went from crash landing on the planet's surface to back in space again. They could have brought fan favorite Hudson back, as he never died on screen, but instead you find his dead chestbursted body in the sewers. They can't even capitalize on such an obvious loose end.
The writers take such astonishing liberties with established cannon that it boggles my mind how even fans of the series can defend it. Generally, when writers play fast and loose with series canon, the fans are the first to get up in arms but it seems to be the one thing people defending the game fall back on. Considering fans still loudly disagree on which movies in the series are good, I suppose it should be expected to some degree. Is Aliens 3 crap or an underrated film with a troubled development? Is Prometheus utter shite or an ambitious failure?
The game ends with a resounding "thunk" as you eject a Alien Queen from an airlock by running around and hitting buttons. No need to fight her or even fire a bullet. Just hit a few buttons. To top it all off, they have the utter temerity to end this amazing crapfest with a cliffhanger. As if the game would ever get a sequel in the state it's in. For the sad, sad people who actually were invested in the story, you'd better hope that your $30 Season Pass nets you some single player DLC because that's the only resolution you're ever going to get. This is a game that will be quietly swept under the rug and ignored as quickly as possible.
If you were thinking you could justify your purchase by playing the multiplayer... not really, no. It's a serviceable but completely uninspiring suite of modes you've seen many times in the past. There's the requisite Aliens vs. Marines Team Deatchmatch and a couple more modes cribbed from Left 4 Dead. Controlling Xenomorphs is more of a chore than a good time with wall and ceiling crawling poorly implemented so that only there are only certain walls and ceilings you can crawl on. There's only a couple maps to choose from so the replay value is nearly non-existent. The persistent leveling system is fine, allowing you to level up in single player as well as multiplayer but the amount of customization you can do is fairly limited. One of the four pieces of DLC with the Season Pass is a Horde Mode that absolutely should have shipped with the game. Add a couple of much needed Map Packs and you'll be lucky if you get one piece of Single Player DLC to try and wrap the story up.
I haven't been reviewing games that long and I generally know enough not to waste my money on stinkers but I thought I'd buy this strictly for review purposes and the hope that it would be so-bad-it's-good. But it's not. It really, really isn't. It's a cynical, greedy mess only on the market to try and make SEGA back the money they spent in the six years it's been developed. If you paid $60 for it, you've been played. Allegations are already flowing from anonymous sources about who took advantage of who. Between this game and Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox has crippled any goodwill they gained from the Borderlands games. You will hear this game mentioned the next time Gearbox puts a title out.
Ultimately, Aliens: Colonial Marines will be more famous for the questionable practices surrounding it than the game itself... but don't let that fool you into thinking you should give it a try, even just to see what the fuss is about. This game should be retired the bargain bin as quickly as possible and forgotten as a thick, black stain on a beloved series.