Aliens: Colonial Marines was seen by many as one of the most anticipated releases of early 2013. Following a long development cycle under the supervision of Borderlands developer Gearbox, hopes were high that the video game would be the one the Alien franchise always deserved. When I had the chance to play the game at PAX East 2012, I was extremely impressed by the atmosphere the game created, as well as the way the presentation remained loyal to the film franchise. In addition, the multiplayer was beyond enjoyable, giving me extremely high hopes as the release neared that this would be a first-person shooter that could finally break Halo 4‘s hold on me.
Early warning signs
Sadly, as embargoes on reviews lifted, it became clear that something wasn’t right. It soon became painfully obvious that this was not the game that the legions of Alien fans had been hoping for. Reviewers took to Twitter to warn players to not only steer clear of the game, but to poke fun at what seemed to be, based purely off tweets, one of the worst games of this generation.
Since I was so impressed by the unfinished version of the game shown at last year’s PAX East, I had to see for myself where it went so horribly wrong. Not wanting to spend the full $60 on a game that has been so critically panned, I opted for renting a copy from a local Redbox. Upon starting up the game, I felt the severe weight of the pessimism I had experienced in the reviews and on Twitter. I navigated through the menus to start the solo campaign, and once the action began about 20 minutes in, I had a revelation: I wasn’t hating my time with the game.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not the game I witnessed in action at PAX East 2012. As VideoGamer.com so brilliantly examined, the 2012 demo shown to the press and attendees of PAX East 2012 was far superior to that of the finished product. The lighting, the textures and the animation were all beautiful on the next-gen-looking demo shown by Gearbox, but as VideoGamer.com notes, there are times when the finished game actually manages to look like an HD re-release of a title from a previous generation. Add to that the screen-tearing and the overall lack of polish (AI running through supposedly solid walls, enemy weapons pointing through walls to fire, characters’ legs being ankle deep in the ground as they walk, etc.) and Aliens: Colonial Marines can be described as nothing more than an absolute mess compared to the demo.
Letdowns beyond the lighting
While everyone has focused squarely on the presentational aspects of the game (understandably, seeing as how many are likening the graphically beautiful demo to false advertising), the disappointment goes deeper than simply the graphics. The very first thing I noticed outside of the game’s presentation was something that set it apart from the films in the Aliens franchise: the Aliens have absolutely no presence. When you’re watching the movies, you just know when an Alien is nearby. In Aliens: Colonial Marines, that feeling is nearly nonexistent You can see the Aliens on the motion sensor, but you just don’t feel that one is near. This lack of tension takes away an undeniably key part of the films’ experience that should have translated into the game.
The title also suffers from an indecisiveness as to what it wants to be. The game wants to make the player believe they’re in for a survival horror experience, but it then disrupts any tension it attempts (and subsequently fails) to build by completely removing the Aliens from the picture for a decent chunk of the game. Instead, the player goes head-to-head with other humans. The reasoning behind this shift is poorly demonstrated, and it is in these moments where the game tries to copy the Call of Duty formula that Aliens: Colonial Marines is at its absolute worst.
Logically, the most formidable enemy should be the Aliens, but I found myself having a harder time with the human enemies. I struggled to figure out why this was, refusing to blame it on unbalanced difficulty tuning. I came to the conclusion that when you’re firing at the sporadically-moving Aliens, you aren’t able to directly compare the gunplay to that of games with superior shooting mechanics like Halo 4 or Black Ops 2. But once you start shooting at human targets, you’re able to make that comparison, and it becomes glaringly apparent that the gun mechanics are woefully unable to keep up with the industry leaders, making the your conditioned virtual gun skills useless in this title.
While this may be in part thanks to poor shooting mechanics, it should be mentioned that the small selection of guns is also sorely lacking. In fact, every facet of the gameplay is woefully mediocre, leading to an experience that is frustrating and, to be blunt, inadequate. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a barely competent shooter with the luxury of having the iconic Aliens as the main enemy. Throw that concept out the window, and the player is left with a generic shooter that excels in no area but falls short in many.
The campaign as a whole falls short due to the unimaginative and unvaried levels, which are all grounded by a linear “Point A to Point B” mission structure. The monotony of this structure has brought down the experience of far better games, so when combined with the gameplay of Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s nearly a death sentence. Sadly, the AI is even worse than the level design, as human enemies favor standing out in the open over taking cover, and Alien enemies tend to sprint right past human enemies and straight for the player. There’s no logical reason for these things to happen, but the AI in Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t based on logic as you and I know it.
Aliens: Colonial Marines – Unable to deliver on promises
Despite all of these problems, I didn’t despise this game. It’s a frustrating experience overall, but nothing about the gameplay is downright terrible. In fact, there were times where I actually found myself thoroughly enjoying the game. Sure, those moments were typically isolated, but when you’re blasting your way through wave after wave of Aliens, it’s hard to not have at least an okay time. And, even with the single player campaign being as below average as it is, the multiplayer does redeem it significantly (though it’s still not as good as it could have been). There are plenty of worse games released in the last 12 months, let alone this generation.
In fact, the worst thing about this game is the level of disappointment I felt in the final product following my experience of the game at PAX East 2012. Had Gearbox not shown the stunning preview with the different lighting engine and better cinematics, perhaps the final product of Aliens: Colonial Marines would have been more well-received. Instead, it seems as though Gearbox succumbed to the hype monster and ended up promising things it couldn’t deliver. Instead of the atmospheric masterpiece the demo had us believing we were receiving, gamers got Aliens: Colonial Marines.