Name: Aliens: Colonial Marines
Genre: First Person Shooter
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Price: £37.99 on Xbox 360 from Amazon
£37.99 on PS3 from Amazon
£24.99 on PC from Amazon
In space, nobody can hear you scream. But your neighbours can when you're in front of your console, sitting down to play the long-awaited Aliens: Colonial Marines. Will they be screams of gaming joy or sighs tinged with acidic disappointment? Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen - here's our full review!
It sounds like a match made in heaven. Gearbox Studios, the developers behind the excellent team-based shooter series Borderlands putting together an Aliens game (a franchise with a long, beleaguered history when it comes to gaming adaptations) with a co-op focus starring the gnarly Colonial Marines. Few movies have had as much of an influence over modern gaming than James Cameron's 1986 classic Aliens; there's a lineage that can be traced back to the movie every time you see a gung-ho Modern Warfare squad or someone wielding a flamethrower in Gears Of War. However, despite the fantastic art to fall back on, the monstrous Xenomorph aliens and the kick-ass weaponry, Aliens games for the most part have fallen flat.
Gearbox, insisting that they have a devotion to the Aliens series that verges on being religious, promised to right that wrong. Have they succeeded? No, but they've come closer than any other developer has yet managed.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is set between the events of the Aliens and Alien 3 movies. You take on the role of Corporal Christopher Winter, one of a team of Colonial Marines sent on a search and rescue mission aiming to find Ellen "Sigourney Weaver" Ripley and the squad of missing marines that were sent to explore the Hadley's Hope colony overrun in Aliens. A first-person shooter, Aliens: Colonial Marines ticks many of the boxes that franchise fanboys and fangirls pine for. You'll trek cautiously down the decrepit halls of Hadley's Hope, listening to the iconic beep of the motion tracker as xenomorph hordes bear down upon you. You'll wield the iconic Pulse Rifle and auto-aiming articulated M56 Smart Gun with head visor. You'll even visit the scene where Ripley took on the xenomorph queen in the Power Loader robotic suit, and eventually get to wear one yourself.
At its best, Colonial Marines puts you right in the heart of locations minutely, accurately detailed when stood up against the film versions they're based on. You'll be pointing out spots you recognise from the movie and quoting along as you explore, and coming across Newt's abandoned doll in a creepy sewer or the near-spent sentry guns of the original marines' last stand (with the exact ammo count as left over in the film) are great moments.
But once the novelty of the setting begins to wear off, the cracks begin to show. Apart from a few notable exceptions (including the afore-mentioned Power Loader set-piece and a lengthy, weaponless stealth section), the game is very much a shooting gallery, and little else. You'll run from point A to point B, sometimes needing to defend a barricade, other times cleaning out a hive of every last xeno inhabitant.
There are moments when these firefights are thrilling, particularly when the severely underpowered alien foes attack in large numbers in open space; panic sets in when the beasts are literally crawling over the walls to get to you. The addition of different classes of xenomorph (from heavyweight crushers to tiny spider-like facehuggers), as well as gun-toting Weyland Yutani forces (the evil corporation always looking to profit from the terror of the aliens), are also welcome. But even when faced with differing foes there is little need to change from an all guns blazing approach; xenomorph ambushes remain too telegraphed to capture the tension of the movie, and require no real tactical nous to overcome, even on the hardest difficult levels. They're meant to be the smartest, most-dangerous apex predator to have ever lived, but only ever choose to run straight at you, easily toppled by a few well placed shotgun blasts. Aliens wasn't as out-and-out terrifying as the original Alien movie, but it had its moments of suspense. Colonial Marines proves to be all firepower and no feeling.Though there's a little brainless fun to be had in the campaign, there's little to recommend about the game's graphics, at least on the console versions. While the level design and props stay true to the source material, they're let down massively by muddy textures, excessive screen tearing, occasional slow-down and regular texture pop-in. The six-year development cycle has not been kind to the game graphically, but our brief experiences with the PC version fared much better. Pop Colonial Marines into a rig with a decent graphics card and the game benefits from slightly higher resolution textures and anti-aliasing techniques, making the PC version definitely the one to go for if you've got the option. There is also the potential for the modding community to touch up the rough edges in the future too, not that they should have had to do so to begin with. Of course, we expect visual discrepancies between console versions and high-powered PC equivalents, but the disparity here is significant, even when compared to other recent multi-platform titles.
The single player campaign also offers four-player co-operative play, and is by far the best way to enjoy the game. Not only does the challenge ramp up to match your expanded squad size, you'll have far more fun listening to the quips and hollers of your pal over a headset than the scripted chats with your AI team mates. While they can hold their own in a gun fight, they lack the personality of their silver-screen counterparts - many will inevitably meet gruesome ends, but you'll care little. There's the odd collectible dog-tag to uncover and audio logs to listen to (as well as a few hidden "legendary weapons" left behind by recognisable characters) but the information gleaned by acquiring them adds little to the shallow story. Even the challenge of discovering these collectibles is undermined by the extremely linear nature of the levels.What the game does get right is its implementation of an addictive experience points levelling system. Every baddie you pop earns you experience points, while every level you take on tasks you with specific challenges to perform to gain XP bonuses and unique rewards. Blasting 20 xenos with a pump action shotgun might bag you an extra 500xp and a new paint job for your shotgun, for instance. These experience points gain you ranks, which in turn open up new weaponry and the ability to modify your arsenal with upgrades including but not limited to extended magazines, improved scopes and a wider array of secondary fire options. Best of all, the experience system and the rewards you earn with it along the way are universal across all single player, co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes, meaning that even if you aren't a frag fiend in competitive matches, you can still bag yourself the best weapons by playing through the story missions again.
This experience system makes the surprisingly robust multiplayer suite even more compelling. In it, you'll not only play as the titular Colonial Marines, but also take turns to play as the xenomorph enemies, which are split into three classes. There's the regular grunt Soldier xeno, who both has average movement speed and attack strength, a Lurker that benefits from increased mobility and the ability to jump huge distances, and a Spitter which, as its name suggests, is the only xeno to have a ranged attack, spitting acid at the marines. Xenos are played from a third person perspective and can also climb up walls, as well as having their own unique skill and trait levelling system alongside that of the marines. Though initially jarring, once you've got to grips with the quirks and skills of each class, the xenos can be even more formidable than their gun-toting opponents, even if you'll suffer a fair few deaths during the first few rounds getting used to their differing moves and skills.There are four multiplayer modes on offer. Team deathmatch is a standard 6v6 shoot out, while Escape, Survival and Extermination are objective-based matches. Escape is great fun, taking the best bits of the campaign and putting them in a competitive scenario as a team of marines aim to escape a map and get to an extraction point while xenos have to kill and prevent them. Survival encourages tight team play by rewarding players who stick together and defend each other, with the aim being to wipe out the opposing team. Lastly there's Extermination, Colonial Marines' equivalent of Modern Warfare's Domination mode. Here Marines need to plant explosives next to alien egg clusters and hold positions until they're destroyed, while xenos need to prevent them from blowing up their incubating young. Each mode feels distinctly different, and each is fun to play through. There's enough here to keep gamers playing well beyond launch, and plenty of worthy unlocks for both sides to strive for.
We can't even begin to express how desperately we wanted Colonial Marines to blow us away. On paper, it's the game that franchise fans have been waiting for ever since the credits rolled on the 1986 movie. In reality, it's achieved only half of what it set out to do. For every pro here, there's a con: an accurate recreation of the Aliens world hampered by at best mediocre graphics; strong gun play let down by repetitious, unimaginative objectives; the promise of a compelling story that never satisfies considering its canonical nature. If anything, its the XP system, the thing we were most weary of going in, that proves the most satisfying aspect of the game. Colonial Marines is not a bad game, but it's not a great one either. It's mostly just an average one...mostly.