Review: Aliens: Colonial Marines [PS3, Xbox 360, PC]
Ah, a game based on my favourite movie franchise. A game that’s intended as a true sequel to Aliens – and is regarded as canon by 20th Century Fox. A game that simulates another glorious day in the Corps. I love the Corps!
Ok – I need to get the apologies out of the way. I love Aliens. I’ve watched it countless times since I got hold of a VHS copy as a 12 year old. I was turned away from the cinema for Alien 3 as I was only 13 – so I read the novel. I had a huge double-quad cinema poster on my wall as a youth. I read the comics, I read the books. I am a full, utter geek for this franchise.
But – fortunately there are other people out there like this, and a game has finally been made for people like us. Are you also an obsessive fan of the movie and the franchise? Do you often quote lines from the film in day-to-day life? Can you stand an overly-long review that obsesses on tiny details from the film? If so, come with me, my friend – and I’ll give you the straight dope on the new game…
Aliens: Colonial Marines tells a new tale – set 17 weeks after the events of Aliens. You play as a Colonial Marine named Corporal Winter, serving aboard the USCMC ship Sephora – on scene to assist the stricken Sulaco. Immediately, there’s a lot of unanswered questions. Why is the Sulaco back in orbit around LV-426, instead of around Fury-161? Why wasn’t the Hadley’s Hope colony completely destroyed in the atmosphere processor’s explosion?
Why is the Sulaco now full of xenomorphs, alien hives and abandoned Weyland-Yutani technology? Why do you fall under attack from company mercenaries soon after the beginning of the game? The answers are in here – along with many lethal alien foes.
Let’s talk for a bit about facehuggers. I hate facehuggers. Hate them. Of all the ways to die, falling, burning etc – is there any worse way to go than to be knowingly infected by a facehugger? Just think for a second about how they work. What a brilliant horror invention they are – and throughout the game I rejoiced in blowing scores of them to their component molecules.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realise that the scariest scene in Aliens is when Ripley and Newt are trapped in the med-lab with two escaped facehuggers. Pure terror. Naturally there are plenty of them in this game. Usually they are to be found in eggs – if you have time to see an egg before it opens you can shoot it, grenade it, burn it. Sometimes they beat you to the punch and get out. Sometimes they are already out of their egg when you arrive at a place. So they jump at you, hard.
That always, always makes me jump – and usually yelp like a huge coward. It is possible to deflect them by bashing a button hard enough – we’ve seen that in previous Alien games. However – when you throw them away, they react just like the scene in the med-lab. They scuttle off at sort of a right angle to when you’re aiming your gun, and hide out of sight. Liberal use of grenades, firebombs, flamethrowers help to cleanse a room of them if you can see them, just keep going until you hear their sweet, screeching death throes…
Ahem. But the point is – the med-lab is perfectly recreated in the game. The overturned bed is still there from when Ripley flipped it over. The fire sensor in the ceiling is in the right space. It’s possible to look out of the windows to the desk where her pulse rifle was left in mocking, unreachable sight.
Of course, these locations all have some more damage than when we last saw them in the film, but it’s all here. All of the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426 is faithfully recreated, from the torn up corridors with acid-pitted floors, to the operations centre, to the red-tinged octagonal air ducts. It’s a great joy to be there, walking around the locations from the film.
The game also takes us to the Space Jockey’s derelict spaceship, now full of Weyland-Yutani equipment, offices and troops. And he’s still there, sitting in his huge chair. But arguably the most enjoyable part of the campaign is the very beginning – the realisation that you are playing as a Colonial Marine in the USCMC, about to board the Sulaco for the first time.
Very quickly, the first chapter of the game takes you to the dropship bay from the end of the film. Bishop’s legs are still there. The grates that the queen alien pulled up are in the same spot. The acid pits on the floor are in the right place. I just ran round the location and looked at it all for a few minutes – smaller than the film makes it look, but all very faithfully recreated.
So the locations are one of the game’s great joys. The other is the weapons and equipment that you use. Happiness, in this game, is a warm motion tracker. It’s just great to have it, pinging and ticking just as in the film, with threats coming closer and the note rising. But the tactical cost is that it takes half a second or so to put it away and bring your weapon to bear – plenty of time to be jumped by a xeno or a hugger.
And when it comes to weapons, really, it’s all about the Pulse Rifle. Or rather the M41A 10mm Pulse Rifle with 30mm pump action, over-and-under grenade launcher (feel the weight). One of the first things that fans noticed, when images first surfaced of the game in development, was that the Pulse Rifle now has iron sights – they didn’t have that in the movie! The game gets around this by making it clear that this is the M41A Mark II Pulse Rifle…
But, they are useful and it’s only a minor change. Aside from the fact that the gun takes a 40 round mag as standard, instead of 95 in the movie, everything else is just right. Most importantly it sounds just right. The flute-like, brushed sound of its gunfire, saturated with the Doppler effect is so, so evocative and reminiscent.
So, although there are many weapons available for use in the game, everyone is going to major on using the Pulse Rifle because it looks so good and sounds so very good! There is an ammo counter displayed on the screen – to hell with that, look at the fabulous eighties red LED digits on the side of the gun!
It’s upgradeable too – all of the weapons are. It is possible to add such niceties as a red dot sight, a laser sight, larger magazines, a choice of under-slung weapon and more. Crucially, none of these upgrade look too out of place, even the red dot sight kind of fits. Also, for the real die-hards, Hudson’s Pulse Rifle is hidden somewhere in the game. This is a Mark I – so authentic to the movie with a 95-round clip and barely any sight. However it only fires triples, not full-auto!
The selection of weapons is impressive. Every once in a while it’s possible to find a flamethrower (very powerful, but manage your distance, as the burning xenomorphs will keep coming), or best of all – a Smart Gun. Now that’s a lot of fun. They have a 500 round mag, and you merely have to face the right point on the compass and the gun will target itself. Just hold the trigger down and shout “LET’S ROOOOOCK!”.
Ahem. There’s also a good choice of other rifles, pistols, and shotguns. Really – it’s good to have a well-set up shotgun as a secondary weapon - I like to keep this handy, for close encounters (sorry). But there’s a good choice of these too – and some of their upgrades are damned destructive.
The other use for the motion tracker is that is also shows the location of ammo, health packs and collectibles to find in the game. These range from Weyland-Yutani audio logs, to dog tags from fallen marines – some familiar from the film, but best of all – the legendary weapons. These include Hudson’s Pulse Rifle, as mentioned earlier, Vasquez’s Smart Gun, Frost’s flamethrower and more – and they are all subtly different from the stock weapons.
So there is fun to be had in finding everything, enjoying the atmosphere, revelling in the authenticity of it all. I wish this review could be entirely one-sided and glowing with praise.
Sadly not. The worst problem here is the quality of the graphics – better on the PC version, but still inadequate for a game of 2013. For every accurate location we find, there is an equal amount of low res textures, tearing, poor quality graphics for the human characters – in both their appearance and their animation. It’s a damn shame. I know we’ve been spoilt by sumptuous visuals from shooters such as Halo 4 – but I was hoping the game would at least look as good as, say, the most recent Medal of Honour, or Call of Duty titles.
The weapons still look good – the xenos look good and accurate too, even if their animations can be a little unconvincing and disjointed. Small details jar, like the way they will just stand over you if you are killed by one. The way the ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES logo is constantly splashed on the screen whenever something is loading – this all harks back to lower quality stuff, from years gone by.
The campaign isn’t too difficult on default Soldier mode – it can be fairly easily completed in 6-7 hours, all 11 chapters of it. Things do get a little more interesting on maximum Ultimate Badass difficulty – the foes are lethal and there is no HUD displayed, forcing the player to keep a mental count of how many rounds have been picked up and how many are still in reserve. I kind of like that.
But the AI is just… kind of second-rate. Your squad mates are invulnerable and never run out of ammo. The company mercs just keep coming and coming with no visible signs of intelligence. The xenos are effective with their sheer speed and weight of numbers, but really – it’s just the fact that they relentlessly rush at you that makes them lethal. I wasn’t expecting AI to rival the Elites from Halo – but I was hoping for a little more. At least the facehuggers are quite tricky to find (curse them).
It’s not all bad though. The campaign does feature co-op gameplay, for up to four players – either privately or matchmaking online. That’s a good touch and will more than treble the campaign’s lifespan for me. I’ve already played through individual bits many times with other people online – everyone seems to like playing on Ultimate Badass, myself included.
The multiplayer does also deserve a special mention. It’s quite different to any other shooter currently out there. First of all, there is the minor detail of alternating between playing as marines, or as xenomorphs. Playing as the marines is fine, no problem, instinctive.
Playing as an alien is a different story. The first couple of hours are a damned steep learning curve – with many inevitable deaths. But, if you persist, there is real depth to be found here. There are three types of xeno to master and they each have their own loadouts that can be customised – rapid attacks, regular attacks, fatalities and more. They each vary in terms of speed – there is also one type of alien that can spit acid – providing a projectile weapon.
Most of all, it’s important to learn not to even attempt a frontal attack on a marine, invariably with his squad mates close by, possibly with sentry guns set up to defend their position. Instead, take time to learn how to jump from floor, to wall, to ceiling, to pounce at your foe in the blink of an eye. Learn how the air ducts and cracks in walls let you flank your enemies. Wait until you can truly get the drop on an unsuspecting marine. When that all starts to come together – it is pretty rewarding, but you do have to work for it.
There’s a good selection of multiplayer modes too, ranging from regular Team Deathmatch, to Extermination (objective – destroy clusters of eggs), to Escape and Survival – these two are probably the most rewarding, requiring close squad co-operation on each side.
There is another new mode coming soon as DLC – Bug Hunt mode, another heavily co-op biased mode. According to the Gearbox and Sega devs, this could well be the best of the bunch. But this leads us neatly on to the issue of DLC.
There is a season pass available for all of the DLC content and the Collector’s and Limited Editions of the game all have various desirable unlockables. These range from characters from the movie to play as in multiplayer (Hicks, Hudson, Apone etc) to weapons such as Sonic Electronic Ball-Breakers. If you pre-order the game on Steam, I believe you unlock the S.H.A.R.P. Stick Rifle…
That makes part of me giggle and part of me groan. But I’ll say it again – at least the geeks, the true fans, are catered for here.
And it all comes down to what makes you happy when playing a game. I do realise that this is a pretty flawed game, both cosmetically and technically, but was I happy when playing it. Absolutely. Did I love firing those familiar weapons, in those familiar settings against terrifying, familiar old foes? Definitely.
I know I’m heavily biased here, because of my love of the film, but there are many more people like me out there. This game is intended for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say there is little point in picking this game up unless you love the film.
But if you do love the film, I do recommend checking this out. Get on the ready line, marine and drive your APC down to the shops. Then poke the shopkeeper with a sharp stick until they give you the game. I do hope that this game is a hit (from small-arms fire)…
Aliens: Colonial Marines is out now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. Xbox 360 and PC versions tested.