Aliens: Colonial Marines review
Alien is one of 20th centry's all-time classic movies. In that typical Hollywood style it's spawned sequels, a prequel in the shape of Prometheus - so what was that all about? - and, of course, its fair share of video games. The latest of which is Aliens: Colonial Marines, a first-person shooter that feels like it's been in production ever since the 1979 original Ridley Scott movie. Okay, so that's an exaggeration, but then the five-year production cycle has been witness to more delays than a Monday morning Tube on the London Underground.
Developer Gearbox may well carry some weight with the likes of Half Life ports and expansion packs as well as Borderlands under the back catalogue belt, but it's also the same studio that bought us Duke Nukem Forever. And we all know exactly how that re-imagined title went down - and, if you don't, then let's just say that it made a lead balloon look positively light. So, is Colonial Marines - which puts you in the boots of US Marine Sergeant Winter in the midst of a post-third-movie storyline - doomed to the same overworked fate?
Fortunately not. Well, at least not by totality. The positives are clear: the xenomorphs, bugs and other alien original nasties are modelled with wonderful accuracy, the soundtrack and effects are ripped directly from the original movie's score, while the USS Suluco and other environments are undeniably moody thanks to a real-time lighting engine. Combined there's so much potential, yet in the same breath - and much in the same way as the masses largely rejected Prometheus - Aliens: Colonial Marines is a mixing pot that serves up as many lows as there are moderate highs.
Anticipation can be a bitch. But, used correctly, at least it can be the basis for that brooding, tense sensation of fear; those hairs on the back of the neck moments. The movies managed it but, and despite the technical accuracy, Colonial Marines - at least initially - fails to slather on that tension properly. Sega has kept us waiting for the release, granted, but that's not the kind of anticipation we were hoping for.
Why? It's a two-fold thing: The Marine characters are about as wooden as Pinocchio and have moments where they look as graphically dated in the cut scenes. At least our wooden Disney friend was capable of rousing some emotional response. It's all just a bit Starship Troopers rather than Aliens in the latter stages of the game.
Secondly the gameplay, and indeed the build up to the first alien encounter in the game's first act, has all the mediocre scares of an episode of Battlestar Galactica... possibly no surprise seeing as the game was co-written by the same chaps behind the on-screen series.
It's a real shame because later down the line in the single player campaign mode there are moments where flash-lit dank sewers demand caution to character movement as to not disturb the alien newborn. Stealth is often regarded as that done and dusted genre, but it works here in this isolated section of the game. This and other more striking, exploratory elements make Colonial Marines more than your average first-person shooter.
But an average first-person shooter is otherwise exactly what Colonial Marines is at its core. Striking the balance between such genre and the subject matter of the original movies was never going to be an easy task. As such hardcore fans may feel let down by the onslaught of lazy and AI-dumb aliens - we've had some get stuck in fixed positions for no reason, while others bounce around the screen with all the fear-mongering of a domestic cat - that can be mown down easily for the most part (the aliens, not the cats). They may crawl on walls and ceilings and yet, somehow, never manage to make skin crawl; it's more Gears of War through-the-eyes shooting at the masses than the sort of proper scare-tactic fun we were expecting.
At times that's great: A good mix of grenade lobbing, shotgun blasting and pistol-whipping aliens in the face delivers some satisfaction. But first-person shooters are ten a penny these days, so it's nothing new. The acidic explosions of blasted xenos are also short lived as bodies evaporate into green clouds, while the blood at the wrong end of the pH scale does little of concern - aside from the acid-spitters the other close-encounters of the green kind don't diminish health, which seems an oddity given the movie connection.
It's got its glitches too: we had issues with checkpoints not loading up in the latter stages, a stuck-on-screen load on one occasion, and, a key boss character that decided to get stuck on nothing and required a reset. Oh and rather than use loading screens, there are doors that take an age to load - not a glitch, but just a bit boring.
But despite such glitches and groans it's no Nukem-level disaster either; Colonial Marines bubbles along somewhere between delivering nuggets of Alien fanfare fun that's enough of an homage to the movie series as it is to the FPS genre. That said, it just fails to truly excel in managing to combine those two elements in a format that excels.
But here's the thing: we did find Aliens: Colonial Marines to be a lot of fun. It drew us in, kept us coming back for more in the campaign mode until we'd bashed our way through every last blip on the radar, right through the - inevitible spoiler alert - finale with the queen. It's no Fallout - the sort of title that we think a decent story and Alien concept could face-hug itself around nicely - but that was never what this title set out to be. Colonial Marines is what it is: a big US-flag-waving Marines shoot 'em up that has its highs, but doesn't do total justice to the horror element of the much-loved franchise.
In space no one can hear you scream. But over the internet they can - well, if you have a headset. Another inevitable Colonial Marines mainstay is its multiplayer mode. This particular section we've only experienced for a couple of hours on PC at a Sega launch event. It's possible to play marine or as alien to add a twist to the usual floor-run game and, for the latter choice, the ability to spit acid and climb up the walls sure does add a twist to the fun. Play alone, play as a team, play for hours - there's a different dimension to be taken from the multiplayer, though we'd have liked more other-wordly gun selections to be on offer.
There's fun to be had in Colonial Marines, even if the wooden characters, who-cares storyline and often feline-like aliens don't deliver the face-hugging depth to the game that they ought.
Expectation from the Aliens series has always been high, even if it hasn't quite been on the mark since Aliens was released back in 1986. Some of Colonial Marines' delays show up as a dated patchwork of a game, yet there are enough first-person thrills to keep it bobbing along and we do love the sound effects and lighting engine.
The letdown comes from the anticipation and expectation that's associated with such an A-list franchise. Colonial Marines will definintely find its audience, but - and just like Prometheus - it'll leave an equal-sized audience wondering "what the...?" It's no Duke Nukem Forever either, but then Colonial Marines isn't a classic game by any stretch. Cult classic, perhaps - we enjoyed blasting our way through it.