In all my years of covering the game industry, I’ve never felt so duped by a game’s preview than I now do for Aliens: Colonial Marines. I sat in a room with my fellow GamingExcellence Staffers at E3 2011 as Randy Pitchford passionately described his love for the Aliens franchise and how he was going to give back to Aliens for giving him so much inspiration in his game design. I watched the very impressive demo that featured impressive alien AI, excellent graphical presentation and intense action. I even played this game at E3 2012 and came away impressed with the multiplayer side of things too.
Nothing I saw in those two demos is in the final product; none of it. ACM is worse than simply a mediocre shooter. It’s a butchering of heightened expectations that is a black eye for everyone involved in the game’s development and release. Lots of rumours are flying around the industry about whether Gearbox is responsible, or whether TimeGate was the outsourced studio to blame, or even Sega for pushing a game out the door before it was ready in order to finally see a return on their seven year development investment.
None of that matters. Whoever’s fault it is, and I’m sure there’s plenty to go around in every direction, the bottom line is nobody wins when a title is released in this unfinished state. Gearbox now has two major bombs sandwiched around their awesome Borderlands 2, the other being Duke Nukem Forever. TimeGate looks bad for having a hand in the awful campaign. Sega continues their ugly tradition of terrible movie licensed games, and even the formerly respectable Alien franchise takes yet another kick in the secondary alien mouth here. In the end, any customer who spends 60 bucks on this crushing disappointment is the biggest loser of them all.
This game gets almost nothing right. The highly touted script from actual Hollywood screenwriters is missing in action, especially in the first half of the game. The story takes an interesting turn or two towards the end of the campaign, but nothing earth shattering enough to make playing the game worthwhile. It’s pretty clear that the script was butchered in order to fit the last minute level designs. The story, which deals with a group of marines stranded in the orbit of LV-426 (the planet from the Aliens movie) whom are surrounded by all sides by not only xenomorphic alien killers, but are also being hunted down by a private military force from the Weyland Yutani Corporation. The story mostly just serves as a flimsy pretext to the game’s shooting galleries.
At best, ACM is a very dated shooter and at worst it’s a mediocre and glitchy Call of Duty clone. All the guns are wildly inaccurate and barely any fun to use. My favourite gun, the self tracking smart gun, only appears once in the game and is never used again. The game is incredibly linear, leading you from the nose to one shooting gallery to the next.
Shooting gallery type games like Call of Duty can be fun as long as they feature solid AI and impressive set pieces, both of which are conspicuously absent in ACM. The PMC forces you fight are OK in the AI department in that they have to good sense to take cover and pop up for a few shots here and there. The Alien AI on the other hand, is atrocious. Most of the time, they’ll simply run straight at you, occasionally approaching from a wall or the ceiling. Sometimes they’ll just hang out in front of you without attacking. Never once in the entire campaign did I feel outsmarted by the aliens, even though I found myself overrun from sheer numbers from time to time. Your own co-operative marines are better in that they actually take out enemies for you, but they also constantly run right in front of your sights. It’s not that much of an issue because there’s no friendly fire, and you can shoot enemies right through your squad mates anyway. By the way, the aliens’ acid blood doesn’t even hurt you, it just stops your health from regenerating for a few seconds.
The terrible AI is not helped by a pitiful technical presentation that is simply put; unfinished. Transition animations are non-existent, awkwardly chopping from one position to another. Enemies, especially the Aliens, clip through everything including walls, posts and doors. Bodies twitch and spazz around after death like they’re being electrocuted. Sometimes high res textures will refuse to load, resulting in a blurry mess. I even encountered a few bugs where I got stuck on the environment and had to do a full restart.
Not even the atmosphere expected from an Aliens title is accounted for. The aliens are more comical than they are frightening due to the crappy animations and awful AI, but that’s only the beginning. One level in the middle of the game not withstanding; the whole game is just a lifeless blast-a-thon. Your marine is completely armed to teeth and carries all available weapons throughout the game. You can take a lot of punishment before going down too, so there’s minimal fear of getting killed. The design encourages full-tilt run and gun action. You also don’t have a flashlight in this extremely dark game, making it tough to make out enemies a lot of time, except when you’re randomly given a flashlight in the second last level. There’s just no scary atmosphere. The abrupt and frozen game over screen also hurts the game’s presentation.
With all these complaints, the campaign does have a couple of fun moments if you stick with it. One level in the middle of the game where you have to quietly stalk the sewers with no guns while surrounded by aliens is one of the few moments in the game approaching tension. A few set piece moments at the end of the game with all out war between your marines, the aliens, and the PMCs are good for a mild adrenaline rush too. The story also finally starts getting interesting just before it all wraps up with the easiest final boss battle I’ve ever played and a lousy ending that sets up a sequel or DLC. I haven’t decided if it’s a good or bad thing that the campaign is only five hours long too.
You can play the entire campaign in split-screen with a friend and with up to four buddies online. Playing with a friend makes things a little easier and more fun; but with so many other quality co-op options out there, you might lose a few friends if you force them to play this one with you. An XP system to upgrade weapons adds little value to the package.
The multiplayer could have been this game’s saving grace, but alas, it too is a crushing disappointment. The best mode is one called escape, which pits four aliens against four marines. The marines must accomplish various objectives while being stalked by the aliens. While the mode does capture the tension and intensity of the films better than the lacklustre campaign does, it’s still no fun to play thanks to some brutal balancing issues. If you’re playing as the aliens and the marines are sticking together, forget it, you don’t have a prayer. Aliens are blown apart with minimal bullets and I couldn’t once get their pounce attacks to work properly. There are three other modes to choose from like team deathmatch, but all of the issues I’ve mentioned like the jittery animation in the campaign carry over into multiplayer along with some new ones. Matchmaking is glitchy and sometimes takes forever. Aliens can apparently climb on walls and ceilings, but you’ll never know which surfaces you can climb on and which you can’t. The now stock XP and levelling up options are functional, but don’t make the game any more fun to play. Overall, it’s another blown opportunity.
On a technical level, ACM is an absolute mess. Aside from the aforementioned problems with glitchy animations, blurry and non-loading textures and clipping problems, this simply isn’t the game we were shown in demos and trailers. Lighting effects are particularly pitiful as there’s no dynamic range lighting to speak of. Everything is either illuminated or in pitch black. Facial animation is a joke. The marines’ eyes never move or blink. Fire and explosions look flat and two dimensional. Once you get down to the planet, the outdoor environments look OK, but there’s no interactivity to speak of. Bullets don’t leave holes in walls and even a camera on a tripod is completely bullet-proof. Sometimes you’ll be able to walk clean through your allies, and other times you can’t. Stand still in the right spot inside your squad mate and you’ll actually see their teeth and eyes from the inside.
Audio presentation fares a little better. You’ll hear familiar audio cues from the far superior Aliens movie in terms of music, the familiar beeping of the motion tracker, and the short, controlled bursts of the pulse rifle. Not even the audio is immune from the technical problems. More than a handful of times did the sounds of gunfire cut out entirely. In possibly the game’s most egregious flaw of them all, Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn reprise their roles from the film as Bishop and Hicks respectively. Henriksen does a passable voice job, but every else phones in the poorly written dialogue, even seasoned Hollywood veteran Biehn.
ACM is simply put, an unfinished game. It’s made all the more disappointing that this was a big budget production with lots of talent behind it. From developer, to publisher, to Hollywood assets, this should have been a return to form for the Aliens gaming franchise but ends up being one of its most humiliating moments yet. At least the awesome power loader figurine that comes with the limited edition is pretty cool. Sorry guys, but its game over, man!