I’m of two minds when it comes to Aliens: Colonial Marines. On one hand, I like that it exists as a piece of official Aliens lore. But on the other hand, taken as a video game, I just didn’t enjoy physically playing it, like, at all.
For the uninitiated, Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place between the films Aliens and Alien 3. The story goes as follows: a bunch of Colonial Marines have picked up a distress call from the U.S.S. Sulaco, which you should remember from Aliens, and they decide to board the ship to see what’s the matter. As these things tend to go, it turns out a lot is the matter, and shortly thereafter, the marines are fighting for their lives against xenomorphs and shady Weyland-Yutani mercenaries.
Like I said, the fiction of Aliens: Colonial Marines is one of the game’s best attributes. The development team at Gearbox Software got the original voice actors of Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to return. The narrative even manages to amend an important story beat that makes the transition from the excellent Aliens to the sub-par Alien 3 an easier pill to shallow. However, it must be said, you’ll walk away from Colonial Marines not giving a damn about any of its characters, as they’re all pretty much run-of-the-mill army grunts. Additionally, the forced love story comes off as more hokey than genuine. And lastly, the climax of the game breeds one of the most disappointing cliffhangers I've come across in quite some time.
Moving away from the game’s story, Gearbox does manage to hit the nail on the head with the sound design of Colonial Machines – from the unique burst of the pulse rifle, to the terrifying blips of the franchise staple motion tracker, to the squeals of incoming xenomorphs. The only areas in production that fall well below expectations are the horrendous lip-synching, the frequent texture pop-in, the bland environments, and the laughable explosion effects. Okay, maybe there are quite a few places where Aliens: Colonial Marines misses the mark after all.
But even if Aliens: Colonial Marines was a hypothetical slam-dunk on all fronts from a production standpoint, the game still boils down to being a pretty generic shooter. Think of Aliens: Colonial Marines as Call of Duty light, only with worse enemy artificial intelligence. The xenomorphs basically run straight at you, using a power-in-numbers approach as their only means to overtake you, while the Weyland-Yutani troops tend to run into the middle of an open room and practically beg for you to riddle them with bullets. This does not make for an engaging or fun shooter experience.
Ironically, Aliens: Colonial Marines is at its best when the guns and firefights are removed from the equation entirely. There are a few moments throughout the game where you become separated from your group and are left to explore the dark, dank hallways by yourself, with nothing but a pistol (if that) and your trusty motion tracker. It’s in these moments that you actually get to appreciate the atmosphere Gearbox has created for the game. While the “Aliens” namesake has always been more “hoorah!” than its predecessor, “Alien,” Colonial Marines could have benefitted from more of the latter than the former, honestly. It’s the latter that actually injects this game with some truly fun, tension-filled beats. Otherwise, Aliens: Colonial Marines feel like just another drop in the shooter bucket.
Even the game’s multiplayer component, which pits teams of marines against xenomorphs, feels like a half-baked time waster. There might be a number of different game modes to try out, ranging from standard team deathmatch to more unique experiences like “Escape” - a game type where a team of marines must navigate a linear level and reach the exit before being picked off my a team of xenomorphs - but nothing offered here competes against some of the more refined multiplayer experiences found in other games. Sadly, Colonial Marines’ multiplayer suite just doesn’t bring enough to the table to get more than a passing glance from shooter fans; its only redeeming quality is that you can immediately access your weapon upgrades earned from the single player component.
Overall, I have a hard time recommending Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s probably worth a rental if you’re a diehard fan of the franchise, solely to see how it fits into the grander tapestry of the Aliens series, but don’t go in expecting a shooter that knocks your socks off. As far as Gearbox-developed shooters go, Aliens: Colonial Marines is more Duke Nukem Forever than Borderlands. It’s a subpar shooter hoisted up by a powerful nostalgia factor. To put it bluntly, this one isn’t worth full price.
We received a review copy of Aliens: Colonial Marines for Xbox 360 from Sega. We were held to the embargo date of February 12, 2013, at 1am PST. Before starting our review, we played the game’s single player component to completion. We also played multiplayer for a handful of hours.