A game based on existing media has three options. It can strive to be faithful to the original work, privileging authenticity above all else. It can try to do its own thing, using the original work as merely a jumping off point for something else. Or, it can try to find a balance between authenticity and originality. Aliens: Colonial Marines fails spectacularly at all three of these possible approaches.
That's a lot of words. Let's cut to the chase: Aliens: Colonial Marines is an awful game.
As its title suggests, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a game based on the world created by the Alien movies—specifically, it's supposed to take place after the second film, Aliens. You play as a marine named Christopher Winter, and the game revolves around finding out what happened to the missing marines aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco.
...at first, anyway. Your aims evolve as you go along—they go from, say, solving a mystery to also trying to save a fellow marine, to getting vengeance. The constant among these ever-shifting objectives is that with each new one comes the sinking realization that you're going to have to play this game some more.
The appeal is supposed to be that you get to explore locations from the movies, meet some key characters, and use iconic weapons. I'm not a huge Aliens fan, but I know that the movies bank on the use of tension, atmosphere and knowing when to unleash the alien threat on its characters. In the first film, you don't even see the actual alien much, but that doesn't matter.
There's also all the thematic stuff about motherhood, rape, impregnation, amongst other things—but let's not kid ourselves about their applicability here. The sophistication of the writing in the game can be boiled down to quick one-liners and occasional quote from the movies; there is no meaningful exploration of ideas like motherhood in the game. It comes down to you, your gun, and aliens that need to die. Occasionally humans need to die, too.
That meathead approach is a part of the problem when considering the game as a continuation of the movies: there is too much shooting and not enough tension and anticipation. This would be fine were the game interesting mechanically—if it was trying to be its own thing—but the shooting falls flat.
None of the guns are fun to use, even when you upgrade them. Actually, they can be a major pain. The pulse rifle for example "features" a similar sound to the guns in the movies, but it's not a pleasant sound. The movies could get away with it because actually, they didn't feature an extravagant amount of shooting.
But after four hours of hearing the same grating sound endlessly in the game, I found myself mentally blocking out what was happening on screen just so that I could get through it.
Once, I believed that the worst crime a game could commit was boring a player—and at first, that's what I thought Colonial Marines would do, bore me. An hour in, I thought it was merely a mediocre shooter, a licensed game that hides its boringness behind its source material. It's loaded with idiotic AI that either barges at you or stands completely still, and monotonous gunplay that fails at eliciting a response from the player at best, or actively repels her at worst. You'll see most of what there is to see about an hour in, after which things start repeating with mild variation—and ultimately lacking any of the atmosphere that make the movies so good.
But it's worse than that. The horrible sounds, bad writing and grating sound effects become a sort of psychological torture, and it was literally a pain just to get through the game. I'll take boring over nausea and headaches any day. I realize not everyone will deal with the claustrophobia thing—some levels feature ridiculously low ceilings—but other folks I talked to noticed the audio, and it'll be impossible not to notice how incredibly bland it all is.
The worst part is that the first twenty minutes of the game had promise. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, Gearbox stumbled on to the formula for a proper Alien game. Right at the start, when you don't quite know what's happening, you see everything falling apart, and you have to rely on a motion tracker to show you an enemy you cannot actually see. You hear sounds in the walls. Something's coming.
Then, the alien appears—briefly. You catch a glimpse of its body melting back into the shadows, but it happens too quickly to react—and then it keeps darting in and out of the darkness.
You shoot blindly, stupidly—hoping to land even one errant shot. Eventually you kill the alien, but your racing heart knows that in a way, it's actually bested you. It's dead, but the fear isn't gone.
That's not my type of game, but I recognize good tension and fright when I see it. Colonial Marines would have been fantastic had it stuck with that formula, but from that moment onward it opts to mindlessly throw countless aliens at you, one after another. Any semblance of fear these creatures once conjured is erased by constant head-on exposure, and quickly the entire experience becomes dull.
That makes it sound as though the highlight of the game happens right at the start, and it's all downhill from there. Actually, there was another spike in my enthusiasm, and it happened right at the end.
I got to the end in about four hours (yes, four hours). I'm going to describe this part to you, spoiling it, because realistically you shouldn't waste your time with Colonial Marines anyway. But, if you're going to play the game anyway, I suggest you stop reading now.
The final boss battle is against a Xenomorph queen. Your job is to get rid of her by ejecting her out of the airlock. (Does this sound familiar?) To do that, you'll need to turn a series of switches alongside a track, until you get to the final button. At that point, she's supposed to stand squarely on the track so that she is pushed out into space.
It would be one thing if this battle was simply obtuse and anticlimactic. But in my game, there was a glitch of sorts that made it impossible for the structure on the track to connect with the queen, and instead what I often saw was the queen skipping in a weird animation.
So there I was, trying to eject this idiotic, hulking beast for maybe an hour and a half—in what was supposed to be a four and a half hour game at most—continually failing despite how simple it was supposed to be. Flip like, 5 switches. Make sure she's standing in the middle of the track. Eject. Nope.
Eventually the game righted itself and the ejection worked, but I didn't actually do anything different from the dozens of times I'd tried before. But you know what, I didn't question it. I felt overjoyed when it happened, because thank-effing-god, Aliens: Colonial Marines was finally over. Done. Never again.
It was during this boss fight that the game went from 'there was a salvageable moment in the game at the start and perhaps an interesting discussion to be had about what to do with a game based on an already existing property' to 'I never want to touch or hear about this game again.'
After beating that loathsome final boss, I got an achievement named for Bill Paxton's iconic line from Aliens: Game over, man. If only that were the case. Unfortunately for me, I actually do have to play a little bit more. I'll be updating this review sometime later this week with impressions on the multiplayer, which hopefully has something worthwhile for people to play. The single-player certainly doesn't.