Aliens: Colonial Marines

“Marines! We. Are. Leaving!” What about FBT?! “Leave him, he likes Aliens Colonial Marines”

There’s few recent games with such a bad reputation as Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines. Except Gearbox’s Duke Nukem Forever. Some games fail because they don’t live up to the hype, some are mauled for being dated or half-finished and some are rightly slated for being shit, but A:CM was like a GOTY disaster; all fails included. Announced in 2008 and released in 2013, it was hammered by critics as an unfinished, generic FPS that skated by on the good will of its inspiration, it looked bad and it played worse; a buggy, glitchy CoD-wannabe wrapped in a hasty, nonsensical story - the whole thing stank. Then it got worse.

Those involved protested their innocence even though they looked more guilty than Burke holding a Facehugger over a sleeping Ripley; stories of a tortured production involving multiple developers and a Borderlands-distracted Gearbox there were recriminations, lawsuits and insider-leaks that made A:CM less a game and more an exposé of game production processes; developer hyperbole, publisher pressure and sly marketing culminated in a class-action that saw Sega paying a $1.25 million settlement to customers who bought it in good faith.

But, despite all that, I was curious about the Howard The Duck of gaming. Finding it on Steam for a fiver with all the DLC, I decided to try it for a laugh; expecting a quick Rage Quit, I was all set to ask "How do I get out of this chickenshit game”. And then …

Set as a sequel to Aliens, we open on a garbled distress call from Hicks, explaining the Aliens backstory. Several months later, a Colonial Marines rescue ship, the Sephora finds Sulaco, mysteriously back in orbit around LV-426. All right sweethearts, what are you waiting for, breakfast in bed?

To look at, you can see why folks back in 2013 were a bit disappointed. It does look very 2005. Even though it was built on Unreal 3 - the graphical marvel that powered worlds like Bioshock Infinite - this is a bit rough (one of the biggest criticisms; the trailers looked next-gen). But while it’s not breath-taking it’s not bland either. There’s references to Aliens’ Art Design, the layouts are nice and not too linear, there’s good light effects and detail. I do feel like I’m in Aliens. I’m Corporal Winter, just a grunt. No offence.

Expecting a bug-hunt, aboard the Sulaco we’re in a stand-up fight. Xeno’s come running, leaping and scratching consistently; it almost reaches Serious Sam levels of hissy mayhem. Don’t get attached to the armour you find, it lasts for seconds and health even less. Not sure if it’s the game being unbalanced or I’ve just gone full Gorman but I die a lot. We’re equipped with a motion sensor, but there’s so many aliens you rarely need to use it. Instead, it’s a handy mission marker as we scramble our way through a completely FUBAR’ed mission. Let’s just bug out and call it even.

As if dozens of Xenos weren’t enough, Weyland-Yutani got to the Sulaco first, diverted it from Fiorina and returned to LV-426, using it as a self-contained research base for Xenomorphs. Do they ever learn? The outbreak is one thing, but WY are more concerned with Public Relations. They don’t want news of this getting out, and the Sulaco begins firing on the Sephora. Winter, along with Hudson-a-like O'Neal, Vasquez-a-like Bella, Apone-a-like Cruz and Bishop-a-like Bishop escape as both warships explode, stranding the Marines in the ruins of Hadley's Hope. Which has become prime Xeno real estate.

I keep expecting this to get really awful or just really crappy but it’s not. It’s not without it’s fair share of ‘quirks’; the Aliens tend to target you over any other marine – who don’t even block their path; the Aliens just pass right through them. Maybe because Marines haven’t fully woken from cryo-sleep. Often they stand placidly as Aliens pass by or fire at a distant Xeno while one slashes away right in front of them. There’s times where Aliens just pop into existence if I get past a trigger point before the game is ready, and I lost a lot of ammo firing at my own troops when they’d suddenly transport in in-front of me. This isn’t Star Trek. Stuff sinks into the floor, NCPs get stuck, ammo is unreachable and once I passed through a doorway only to see my team running against thin air, unable to catch up – it wasn’t a door, I’d walked through an unbreakable window. It is buggy but this is Aliens where it counts; Hadley’s Hope is a murky, rainy, muddy place full of tension and the Xenos are unforgiving foes – they seem to come from everywhere; indoors they’re bursting out of the vents and from the shadows, while outdoors you spot them clambering over rocks and walls, leaping across buildings; there’s enough to keep both your inner grunt and geek happy; we visit Bishop’s lab, spot the open floor Hudson got pulled through and even find Casey’s head. It’s not exactly taxing to add those iconic elements, but when you consider most game/movie tie-ins, A:CM is trying. At least this isn’t Starship Troopers the game. There’s even Prometheus references, thankfully subtle enough that you might miss them.

Structurally the game is broken into levels with performance results, book-ended by cut-scenes. How retro. The levels always work well though, be it the close-quarters of Sulaco or Hadley’s Hope (check those corners), or the open-space of LV-426. The Aliens always have the upper hand, but even when it falls into ‘watch my back’ waves to fight off, it’s still freaking Aliens and there’s some great cinematics including kills if you melee just at the right moment, and some nice scripted events too, like when an errant grenade in an umbilical tunnel causes it to ripple while you’re trying to run through it. Each level includes a legendary weapon like Hudson’s Pulse rifle that fires in short controlled bursts while DLC also gives us Ripley’s Pulse/Flamethrower combo, the phased plasma rifle (not sure if it’s within the 40-watt range), and the best backup weapon in the game, the ‘SHARP’ Rifle (aka “sharp sticks”) which fires explosive bolts; Alien Goo a-plenty (which of course, burns your armour). Although Winter can only carry two main weapons the entire loadout is available throughout, and level-ups allow attachments like grenade launchers or a shotgun under the rifle for close encounters.

There are some new encounters too, courtesy of WY's labs. There’s the Spitter alien who snipes you with acid, and the insane Crusher alien, a huge bull that charges – the one time I was thankful for a glitch, it got stuck in the scenery letting me circle around and sharp stick it from behind. A standout moment is a sewer level that features husks of long-dead aliens. Except not all of the husks are quite dead. Movement causes some to shamble around looking for the source of the noise; if they get too excited they explode. It’s a really good level that starts with an unkillable alpha Alien known as the Raven – avoiding it isn’t exactly the stuff of Alien Isolation but there’s some hairy moments as you desperately cut open/weld shut doors as it chases; that’s after a Newt reference where you scuttle through under-floor tunnels while Raven rips open the vents; it culminates in a mano-a-mano with you in a power-loader. You can take those references as derivative or a homage but either way, you can’t deny how much you wanted to experience Aliens as a kid; that’s what A:CM is, wish fulfilment. I LOVE the Corps!

Occasionally we get a break from the Aliens, only to have them replaced with WY Mercs. Then we’re into standard CoD fare with missions like take out AA Guns; certain levels are generic but the WY shenanigans turn the final quarter into a great little actioner. Turns out WY captured a survivor from Sulaco’s crew and we’re tasked with recovering them for their intel. The Aliens are also headed into the complex, creating some fun cross-fire battles between them and WY as it turns out our target is not the only prisoner WY has; there’s a new Queen on the block.

While the gameplay isn’t new it is an effective shooter, and as a continuation of the Aliens narrative, anything is better than Alien 3. While the new Queen reveal isn’t so much a shock as it is expected, the prisoner we free is a huge surprise. Because they’re very dead. It’s made worse by the game papering over the huge continuity hole it’s just created with ‘that’s a long story … anyway,’. As it happens it’s not a long story, it’s a DLC; ‘Status Interrupted’ where you play three different (and tragic) characters caught in events that led up to the Sephora’s arrival – it is a brave bit of retcon but it must have really pissed off the reviewers and fans who played the game on day one. Being expected to buy the Season Pass to find out how this reveal makes sense is not how you win back fans.

Our new friend explains our only chance is a supply ship that services the research base, which of course is next door to none other than the Engineers' space craft. It’s is a great mash-up between Kane’s tense walk through the egg-filled mist and “they’re coming out the goddamn walls!” panic. This game is like an Aliens Greatest Hits Compilation. It might be the source material triggering the thrills, but A:CM never feels lazy and the final is a hectic chase to stop WY’s plans; it’s no spoiler to say it comes down to Winter vs the Queen – how could it not be? It’s a well-done boss battle (except if I get far enough away she uses the Marine’s teleporter …). As the credits roll I’m still waiting for A:CM to suck. This was worth waking up to Drake’s face for.

This doesn’t feel like the thrown-together cash-in originally reported. Perhaps the stories of its tortured development coloured the early reviews, but five years on, A:CM seems to have been unfairly judged. Its heart is in the right place even if it’s a little buggy and under developed in places, especially the storyline; having one of our team slowly succumbing to an alien embryo doesn’t land quite as emotionally as it should, and the prisoner recovery falls flat narratively (they just become a follower and an exposition expert) and the reveal takes you the gamer completely out of the moment because you’re going ‘wait, what?!’ While it’s a welcome return from the dead, there were other Aliens characters that would have made things more interesting when considering the WY element.

Based on the extended WY Merc scenes (and the open ending), clearly Sega wanted a CoD franchise; they also invested heavily in multiplayer (most of the DLC was MP levels including recreations of the movie locations) but we’re just here for the Aliens and it does succeed at putting you right in that hectic Hive scene. You’re never safe, never on top of things and almost everything goes wrong; A:CM takes the scene where Hudson says they won’t last 17 hours and makes a game of that panicked thought. I lasted 10 hours, and I had fun start to end. Get on this express elevator to Hell.

2013 | Developer Gearbox Software / TimeGate Studios | Publisher Sega

Platforms; Win (Steam), PS3, X360