Platform Reviewed: X-Box 360 / Price: £32.99 / Time Played: 8 Hours (and it hurt!)
Where do you start?
Okay, here’s where I will begin; Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game. Terrible, in fact. And yet, somehow, it’s just functional enough as a video game for avid gamers to glean something from. That’s not to excuse Gearbox for what is frankly the most embarrassing modern video for some years; aside tat like Daggerdale on the digital download sphere, there’s nothing that feels like this big a let-down. There are plenty of videos comparing the frankly gorgeous demo shown last year to the disappointing retail release; it’s almost as if someone, somewhere, ended up having to redo pretty much the entire game on a severely restricted budget and on a demanding deadline. It’s that noticeable; the difference between the Rolex of the demo and the Rolez of the retail version. Along the way, someone has been scammed, and we’re the ones paying for it. Literally.
That’s not to say that Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn’t try to be a game. Every aspect of it is cleverly and clearly placed and spaced to give the player maximum recall of the original Aliens movies. Not the rubbish Resurrection mind you, sorry Winona, but the first two in particular. Everything is very clearly designed to give you this sense of deja vu, this feeling of connection to the franchise, and yet that is clearly one of its first faltering steps. It’s so clinical, so cynical, so utterly devoid of love and passion that it is hard to take it seriously. The infamous M41A pulse rifle with pump-action grenade attachment is there, the xenomorphs are there, the architecture is there. It’s all there, but it never seems entirely right. To continue the whole fraud-comparisons, it’s like a copy of a painting that doesn’t quite add up. You can see it, it’s very close to the real deal and very professionally produced, but it’s not the real deal. It’s a cheap fake, a copy of a masterful work that now seems lost in the ether. Like the works of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, there are many many fakes out there; 100,000 attributed works to him even though he barely managed 3,000 finished pieces in his own lifetime. They’re works of art, to be sure – but they’re not Corot. And when you know it isn’t Corot, it’s… it’s not the same sensation.
That’s largely the biggest criticism that you could level at Aliens: Colonial Marines. Sure, there are Xenomorphs. But it’s all floppy, woollen and generally a bit too flimsy. Remove the iconic aliens from the title and you could be looking at any bland, generic science-fiction action-FPS you want. The sonar motion-detector is there, but utterly pointless; by the time you get a blip on your monitor, they’re running headlong towards you with AI that wouldn’t have been out of place in Quake 2. Actually, I take that back as it really isn’t fair to id’s classic. The toys – turrets and flamethrowers – turn up at key points on your linear and generic A-to-B journey for a little while and are then forgotten about. The xenomorphs themselves throw themselves about and feel plastic and cheap, the acid nowhere near as devastating as it should be, the aliens themselves little more than cannon fodder with no real impact or weight to them. There is an experience system; but it’s utilised so poorly that it feels like an afterthought than any real addition to the proceedings. Everything is there that counts, yet it counts for nothing – utilised in such an amateurish fashion that you very quickly get the sensation that this probably was a version knocked up on the cheap very quickly. There’s no sense of unity and cohesion to the overall whole, which it itself tied together with very bog-standard effects and graphics that frankly seem out of place at this point of the generational cycle; when you have titles like Zombi-U pushing the horror world into a new tomorrow, as well as Dead Space 3 (for all its faults) demonstrating how to seamlessly blend action and set-pieces in a manner where you can barely see the join, and then to technically dodgy but lovable and ambitious stuff like Dark Souls and Anarchy Reigns, Aliens: Colonial Marines seems out of place. With what we have to come this year – The Last of Us, Watch Dogs, Bayonetta 2 and Dark Souls 2 – it’s a game that feels like a step backwards, not a step forwards.
All this is before we get to the technical limitations and bugs that we’ve had to endure; characters glide about above the landscape, look closely and it’s like World of Warcraft; there’s no sense of actual connection. The lighting is terrible and bland, lacking any real substance. Xenomorphs and characters get stuck on scenery. Explosions lack any sense of exploding – oh there’s a bang, but a bang does not equate to a decent explosion – you can’t have a small puff of smoke creating such terrible damage when the fire looks weak and weedy, when the visual effect is terribly small and ineffectual. The multiplayer experience offers little respite for the weary; whilst it’s all there, the errors and bugs are worse and more notable in an online experience where things need to work. And even here, there’s no originality or sense of identity; taking already well-worn ideas from classics such as Unreal Tournament and Left4Dead and trying – and failing – to put an Aliens-style stamp on them. It rubs off after a few minutes and what you end up with is seeing where the ideas came from, and a load of ink on your arm you hope will wash off in the shower.
It’s all the more troubling when you realise that the story of the game is technically canon – this is a Fox-approved continuation of the Aliens series. There are details in the game which directly denote this; the remains of Bishop, the landscape of LV4-26. the fate of some of the old characters. All of this would be wonderful if the AI wasn’t so utterly broken at every stage; accompanied by O’Neil, who you’re supposed to like and carries a big-ass Smart Gun with him and ends up being about as smart as a lobotomised hamster in a goldfish bowl. He is so stupid and so poorly scripted that it’s a good job there is no friendly fire; his insistence to get in the way, his ability to always run into your line of fire and his inability to actually note the greatest threat and do anything about it just makes you want to repeatedly shoot him in the face. This, dear readers, is the sort of AI that does make us consider violence, because there is simply no need for it. None of your other marines – two more guys and two girls – have a personality anything above, “We’re probably going to die at some point.” Again, there are moments we’re supposed to care and sympathise but they’re so wooden and so poorly acted out that you just can’t. There’s no reason to want to care. There’s nothing in the game that makes me want to give a toss, make me think that someone tried their hardest. Even the canon segments are so straight-laced and methodical that they come in and out with an audible clunk, you can hear the game remember it’s supposed to follow a timeline here and it fails perfectly in its duty 95% of the time. The rest is scripted and stupid – like a chap who blows up a glass tube corridor because he’s about to be chest-bursted. Great, so umm, don’t want us to live then huh? Alrighty then. Fair do’s. It’s just… it’s so amateurish. It’s so clumsy and so ridden with stupidity that even Uwe Boll can now get a sound nights sleep, knowing that nothing he has ever done can come close to this atrocity.
It’s easy to say Aliens: Colonial Marines is criminally bad and I’m very sure there is certainly a lot more fallout to come over the business-side of what went wrong; but you do have to wonder how long the con has been going on. Everything has been masterfully orchestrated and restrained to keep a tight lid on the finished product; arguably, this is what people want. They want a surprise in their final product and Gearbox seemed to understand it. We admired the beauty of the demo, we revelled in all the talk and pomp and ceremony and we bought into it very quickly that this was going to be it; this was to be the defining Aliens game, the one that we’ve been waiting for. I can imagine the red faces of reviewers at Eurogamer, IGN and Gamespot, all with finished products that bore little relation to the artistic visions that they were sold last year. If these people can be fooled, what chance to the rest of us have? Aliens: Colonial Marines may be a functional game at the end of the day, no-where near the unusable pile of shite that was last years stinker, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, but this is a different kind of disappointment. It’s that sheepish sense that we’ve been fooled, tricked, taken for a ride. We were promised the moon, and at the end of it we got a rock. It might be from the moon, but hey, your guess is as good as mine, right? It’s the dishonesty. It’s that real sense that our trust has been abused by people that we trusted – people who have made good, no, great games in the past. Somehow blind and oblivious, or in denial, about how shamefully poor the end result really is. How technically lacking it is compared to many games of the current industry state, how lacking it is compared to its own demonstration not six months ago.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a fraudulent artwork masquerading itself as the definitive Aliens experience. It takes not ten minutes before that illusion wears thin, and a half hour or so before it dissipates into the ether, and what you’re left with is a game that has no soul, no passion and, if you removed the Xenomorphs, could be any generic sci-fi shooter of the past ten years really. No ambition, no creativity and nothing worth writing home about, it’s not a complete disaster – but a disaster that hangs by one lonely, solitary thread; that in spite of all its failings, it is mostly functional and performs as a game. It somehow just gets by, throwing up occasional references and ideas from the series in order to fool you into thinking it is better than it is. And it isn’t. This wouldn’t have been an acceptable product six years ago when they began, and in an era moving into a new generation with such polished examples of what is technically and narratively attainable in a game – The Walking Dead says hi – it’s even less acceptable now than it ever could be. Heck, compared to what Gearbox can do with Borderlands 2, this isn’t just unacceptable – it’s downright insulting!
The saddest thing however is that in 2010, we got a game mimicking the classic Aliens vs. Predator. It wasn’t much cop; generic, bland and rather dull. But ultimately it worked, by and large. The online play was more solid, and that counted for something. The single player wasn’t thrilling or exciting, but it had some weight to it. It felt properly done, in spite of the lack of ambition. It makes the inevitable comparison to Aliens: Colonial Marines even more damning than you’d think. It’s all the more painful that Sega canned an Obsidian-based Aliens RPG for this. A lot of eggs were put into this basket and not once did someone mention that someone might have swapped the basket, and that there were no more eggs in it. Someone, somewhere knows what happened to this game, and there are lots of very annoyed and disgruntled buyers looking for an explanation as to how it came to this, why the end result is so FUBAR (F***ed Up Beyond All Repair), why anyone who played this in QA could have given the go-ahead to this.
Somehow, I still believe the original master copy of Aliens: Colonial Marines is out there. That somehow, Gearbox and Sega were fooled into releasing this version into the public sphere. Because it is impossible and implausible to think anyone could look at this title and genuinely think it was okay, let alone good. And it sold; not least because of the secrecy, not least because of the Aliens licence and not least because it came with actual content that Aliens fans wanted and were happy to part cash for. It sold on the back of a lie; it’s a fake, a phoney, a forgery – whatever you want to call it, it’s just not right. It’s saving grace is that it’s not as broken as Steel Battalion; but to be honest, it’s made its own crater in the ground.
It’s terrible because it is a terrible game. And it has come from people who seemed genuine and enthusiastic about it. And we must ensure this doesn’t happen again. As much as I don’t like spoilers, it’s clear in this case that the secrecy was concealing more than a few sins from us. We cannot allow this to happen again.
But on the upside, it does make Prometheus look like Dances With Wolves. We’ve hit the bottom of the Aliens barrel.
It’s just a shame it’s going to ruin the reputations of many good people in the process…
- The pre-order content is at least sort of nice.
- It’s not nearly as broken as Steel Battalion.
- It makes even Aliens: Resurrection look good.
- Feels so rushed and insincere.
- The game engine is completely FUBAR.
- The xenomorphs feel so wimpy… come on!
- Many other things with words that I cannot use in polite company.
- That this game got released at all.
- DLC had to creep in at launch.
- Why is it the demo is better than the finished product again?
- There ain’t no explanation for this one, Ash.
OVERALL CONCLUSION – GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER!!! (3/10)
Aliens: Colonial Marines is set to be one of the highest profile and likely highest-grossing cock-ups the games industry has thrown up for some time. It takes a real sense of effort to end up in such a position, and for all my referring to somehow feeling like we’ve been conned, there is a fundamental question to be asked here; how does a game as big and as potentially huge as this one end up with such an abhorrent release build? It seems somehow terrifying that such a thing got past quality control… now, it’s about containment. Failing that, just kill it with fire. Most of us are beyond caring now.