"There are two... no, three... from the left!"
My motion tracker reached fever pitch as I relayed the grim news to my fellow marines. We'd already lost two squadmates to a cunning spitter who melted them into slop with molecular acid, and the slavering hunters had hounded us into a dank stairwell. Lowering my beloved tracker for the pulse rifle, I assumed position and waited for the inevitable assault.
The first Xenomorph broke cover, hissing out of the thick steam straight into a claymore mine, but the second was on the ceiling. It pounced past us, pinning our sniper and tearing great gouges out of his armour. I turned and dropped it with a snarling burst from my pulse rifle, but a scream of pain from behind let us know our point man was dead. Reflexes took over, my pump action shotgun decapitating another opportunistic Xeno as I wheeled back to the staircase. "Come on," I yelled to our injured sniper, "we need to move!" And I ran... straight into the sneering embrace of a perfect killing machine. Why hadn't I checked my motion tracker one last time?
This is what Aliens: Colonial Marines is like... in multiplayer. Though sorely lacking in maps and polish, the competitive suite absolutely gets what the Aliens franchise is all about.
So it's doubly tragic that the singleplayer campaign is a such a shoddy, hateful mess. Sorry Aliens fans, but you're in for some chop.
We were promised greatness from the beginning. Colonial Marines garnered Fox's blessing as an official sequel to Aliens, with Gearbox free to plunder the art assets, music, sets, props and even some of the original design team. In fairness, they've managed to absolutely nail the little details.
As Corporal Christopher Winter, you'll arrive at LV-426 (which has somehow survived a full-scale nuclear detonation in one of the least ridiculous retcons you'll find here...) to investigate the fate of Hicks, Apone, Vasquez and our favourite leathernecks. Hadley's Hope, the Sulaco and the blighted surface of LV-426 feel like sets from the films and positively crackle with nostalgia value. The iconic weaponry, from the Pulse Rifle to the Smart Gun, sound and handle exactly like their cinematic counterparts, while some new arsenal additions have been beautifully worked into the experience. Nods to the film abound, not limited to finding Bishop's severed legs and Newt's doll, but also in terms of discovering some of the cast's legendary signature weapons complete with graffiti and battle damage. Yes, you will get to wield Hicks' pump-action shotgun and Vasquez' Smart Gun. Adios!
All the little details are all present and correct. Which would be all well and good, except that Colonial Marines' campaign manages to totally screw up the basics.
Once the thrill of the setting wears off, you'll settle into a grim trawl through narrow, linear corridors against painfully idiotic foes. Despite this being an Aliens game, you'll spend much of your time grinding away against Weyland Yutani mercenary forces: brainless cookie-cutter combatants who mask complete ineptitude behind unerring accuracy. When they're not taking cover behind an open window or firing into walls, that is. Propelled from a switch to a lever back to a locked door, punctuated by small-scale gunfights in hopelessly cramped arenas, you'll rarely enjoy any sense of dread or foreboding. It plays like a low-end shooter from years past, a primitive throwback that attempts to switch up the stodgy formula with a few hilarious 'boss battles' that usually resolve when you press a switch or two.
This is Aliens: Colonial Marines at its best: a mediocre corridor shooter that aspires to be little more than another Call Of Duty clone. But wait, there's more! I can't believe that I'm about to write this, but things actually get worse when the Aliens show up.
A far cry from the perfect predators we're used to, these shambling puppets resemble dumb animals who deserve to be put down for their own good. Bereft of even the slightest hint of cunning or intelligence, they'll jerkily amble towards you while under fire after telegraphing their presence to all and sundry. You'll feel genuinely sorry for them as they intellectuality flail at you with poorly-animated floppy limbs, not terrified in the face of an implacable force of nature. Xenomorphs only walk on walls or squeeze through gaps in scripted events or when their broken pathfinding embarrasses itself time and again. They walk - walk, mark you - right past your fellow marines in a transparent attempt to engage the player character, oblivious to other threats and sometimes just standing dead still in the open for the merry hell of it.
In fact, unless you play on the hardest difficulty setting, you'll probably take more damage from acidic blood spatter than Alien attacks during the course of the campaign. The Xenomorphs are more dangerous dead than alive, and Winter is little more than a glorified exterminator. That can't can't be right, surely?
If the Aliens are idiotic, your fellow marines are downright certifiable. They'll do little more than block corridors, almost always facing the wrong way, ignoring Aliens right in front of their faces, standing motionless in front of sentry guns or sprinting back to the start of levels when they should be opening a door for you (enjoy plenty of checkpoint restarts). Sporting painful dialogue and no personality to speak of, it's impossible to care about your hapless brothers in arms, even though the hamfisted script desperately tries to force you to.
A couple of tense moments aside (an all-too-brief section in an alien nest and sewer gives us a fleeting glimpse of what could have been), Colonial Marines' campaign is a disaster. Missed opportunities abound, as an example, fans will be horrified to discover that you'll use the power loader and Smart Gun for about ten minutes in total. Cooperative play completely misses the mark since the cramped levels haven't been balanced for multiple players. You'll end up spending more time jostling for position than actually helping each other, and the disgraceful linearity of the Alien spawn locations rob the experience of any replay value. Colonial Marines is a botch job, pure and simple.
Graphically, Colonial Marines disgraces itself on all but a decent gaming PC running the highest settings. The console versions are frankly embarrassing; exhibiting low-resolution textures, awkward animations, static lighting and woeful draw distances. Even our Core i7, GTX 600 ti, 8GB test rig couldn't make it look any better than a reasonable id Tech 4-powered Xbox 360 title on maximum grunt, and still showcases textures that would have made John Carmack piss himself laughing seven years ago. Worse still, glitches and cut corners betray a woeful lack of polish, evidenced by hilarious dancing aliens who get stuck in the scenery, plenty of untextured vents, bosses disappearing through walls and sometimes randomly dying for no particular reason. For starters. I'm afraid to say that most of the pre-release screenshots are works of total fiction, so here are a few more of my own to balance things out...
Fail gallery: click to embiggen. Remember, this is at maximum settings.
And yet, I feel that all could have been forgiven, were it not for Colonial Marines' most tragic flaw. Despite the hype and pretensions towards authenticity, its storyline is utterly, stonkingly, unforgivably awful.
Instead of expanding upon the Aliens canon and delivering new insight into the events of the original film, Colonial Marines sadistically massacres its source material at every opportunity. Gaping plot holes and nonsensical retcons are delivered without the tiniest shred of respect for the franchise, and new questions get needlessly raised before being left unanswered. Two of the biggest looming inconsistencies (the appearance of the Sulaco over LV-426 and the inexplicable survival of someone we know to be dead) are shocking enough, but to add insult to injury, support characters actually voice our concerns before being told that 'it's another story.' Newcomers will be utterly baffled, while Aliens fans will likely garotte themselves with their mouse cords to try and asphyxiate themselves long enough for the plot to make sense.
Without the broken AI, unlikeable characters and terrible story holding it back, Colonial Marines' multiplayer suite is a revelation. It's a perfect synergy of teamwork, raw power and vulnerability, with Marines having to work together and call out targets while Aliens plan stealthy, deadly assaults. A robust progression system makes continued play incredibly addictive as you continually build custom classes to suit your playstyle. Sadly, the pathetic complement of five maps make the whole thing feel undernourished and flimsy, while Alien traversal still needs a lot of polish to avoid getting stuck on the scenery.
More to the point, it doesn't even matter. Colonial Marines could have delivered the best multiplayer experience of this console generation and it wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference. We were promised a sequel to Aliens. A promise that was ultimately broken.
The first three Alien movies are so magnificent because each was crafted by a single director with a coherent razor-sharp vision. Scott, Cameron and Fincher knew exactly what they wanted their films to be, whether it was claustrophobic horror or a masterclass in British acting talent. In stark contrast, Colonial Marines had so many hands on its campaign – Gearbox, Nerve and Timegate Studios for starters – that the end result lacks focus and identity.
The same can be said of Gearbox themselves, who deliver the likes of Brothers In Arms and Borderlands when they have full custody of their own IP. But, as we saw with Duke Nukem Forever, they fall apart when asked to finish someone else's job. If any good comes from this bug hunt, we'll see Pitchford and crew sticking to their guns in future.
- Excellent multiplayer mode
- Impressively authentic level dressing
- Nails atmosphere and attention to little authentic details
- Unambitious, boring, stodgy campaign with nil replay value
- Broken AI makes Xenomorphs pathetic and marines useless
- Visually underpowered and riddled with glitches
- Shockingly awful (borderline insulting) storyline, poorly delivered
- Five multiplayer maps (only two in some modes) is not enough
The Short Version: A smart if undernourished multiplayer experience can't save Aliens: Colonial Marines from the crushing jaws of disappointment. Mediocre at best and genuinely insulting at worst, this is a triumph of brand power and marketing over competent design and respect for the legendary source material.
Here's hoping that we won't have to wait another six years for a stand-up fight.
Editor's note: I can only apologise for how long it took to get this review on-site and how useless it will be to many of you who bought the game at launch. SEGA only sent us review materials several days after Colonial Marines released, which is rather suggestive in and of itself.
I also feel responsible for anyone who pre-ordered Colonial Marines on the strength of my hands-off preview, which as it turns out, was based on a made-to-order demo build that doesn't resemble the final product in any meaningful way. Many of my peers have already weighed in on this reprehensible bait & switch, but frankly, any of my feelings of betrayal will pale in comparison to paying customers and loyal fans. We'll have a little note on how we plan to approach preview coverage going forward this weekend. - Jonathan