Playing Gearbox’s Borderlands 2, it’s hard to imagine this is the same studio that stitched together and released Duke Nukem Forever. Playing Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s not at all hard to imagine.
After the jump, hopping xenomorphs
Sadly for Aliens: Colonial Marines, I’ve been playing Dead Space 3 lately, a sci-fi survival horror game with a superlative weapon progression system and over-the-top production values. It nails the fine art of shooting cool guns at freaky things in space dungeons. Aliens: Colonial Marines, on the other hand, utterly flubs the fine art of shooting cool guns at freaky things in space dungeons. And it has a terrible weapon progression system and cut-rate production values, to boot. Plus, there are no predators, which is apparently what it takes to make an aliens game that isn’t awful (see Rebellion and Monolith’s Aliens vs Predators games, which are the best things to happen to aliens since a young fella named James Cameron signed on to make a sequel).
I’m not sure at what point over the course of its drawn-out development Aliens: Colonial Marines seemed worth saving. It must have been a financial decision. This is an unremarkable linear shot through levels rotely nodding at the movie, with a pointless cutscene story smooshed between the levels like caulk. The artwork, animation, and gunplay are all bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, with a weapon progression system based on occasionally sticking attachments onto your guns, most of which are pointless given how this is nothing more than a simple point-and-shoot shooter. In Dead Space 3, or in any good shooter, the weapons and opponents and environments all interact. Here the weapons are simple to a fault. They’re little more than racks on which you dangle nearly pointless upgrades. At least the pointless upgrades in Black Ops 2 played to that game’s shameless gun porn. Adding a laser pointer to one of the two shotguns in Aliens is just something I get to do because I lined up five headshots with the service pistols and had nothing better to do with the ensuing unlock point.
Furthermore, there’s no narrative drive behind these weapon upgrades. Why do I care? I blame Dead Space 3, which has a goofy but effective story about an engineer in space building things from spare parts. In Aliens: Colonial Marines, I’m creeping down a corridor when suddenly I can hit escape and add an extended magazine to my pulse rifle because I leveled up. Ding! Hold on a second, aliens. Oh, look, now if I kill twenty enemies with secondary fire modes, I’ll get another unlock point for a silencer on my pistol. Wait, why do I need a silencer?
Out of a sense of devotion to the franchise, you might be tempted to endure a bad shooter just so you can shoot aliens. I can’t blame you. That sense of devotion kept me and my co-op partner going for most of the game. The thankfully short game. Aliens creeping along the walls, bursting out of ducts, and unfurling themselves from clusters of pipes are iconic images. Something so simple as the motion tracker sound effect or the purr of a pulse rifle goes a long way. But it all falls apart when the shooting starts, at which point you’re probably not using the pulse rifle anyway because you’ve unlocked the assault rifle and battle rifle, which seem to have been airdropped in from another game, just like these marines who use modern military lingo apparently learned in the 17 weeks since the marines from the movie Aliens were in service. Or maybe you are using the pulse rifle because, hey, it’s a pulse rifle, but you’ve upgraded it beyond recognition. What began as a cool pulse rifle turns into a stew of various shotgun flamethrower grenade launchers with sniper scopes and alternate electrocharge rounds. It’s some of the flexibility of Dead Space 3 with none of the personality.
The actual action does almost nothing to express the feel of the movie. Here the aliens scud along the geometry, stiffly pivot and jink, and leap like crickets. They mostly leap like crickets. In multiplayer, with you steering them and sticking upgrades onto the various classes, the aliens are even more awkward. Aliens: Colonial Marines is less like Aliens as Natural Selection 2. There are also a few non-canonical aliens that make David Fincher’s dog-alien seem downright sensible. What do you think of suicide bomber aliens who only make an appearance during an awful stealth level when your weapons get taken away, presumably by the alien that cocooned you? Fortunately, he left them all in a duffle bag at the exit to the next level. You also have to fight a whole mess of human opponents, of course, this being a shooter by a developer not confident in the premise that shooting cricket-like aliens can sustain a game for five or six hours so it therefore needs a stealth level against exploding pus aliens.
The story does a bewildering bit of retconning to justify Michael Biehn’s participation. His robotic line readings rival Lance Henriksen’s. The story barges into the game with the usual cutscenes — this isn’t the sort of game that supports much ingame narrative beyond “go there to press a button” — and proceeds to go nowhere until a five minute denouement after you’ve already finished the queen alien boss battle puzzle, which is effectively undermined when you play it cooperatively. I like to think of that final battle as a metaphor for what should have been done with this game: sometimes you should jettison a project into outer space and then scurry away from it at light speed.