The Alien franchise is one of the most-loved sci-fi creations, so much so that it spawned about seven films that focus on the Alien breed. Hollywood is no stranger to turning a film franchise into a gaming franchise - and Aliens is no exception.
As any Alien fan should know, a number of games have been made that have focussed on either the Aliens or their uglier cousin the Predator.
There have been 38 officially licensed video games, a trading card game and a tabletop miniatures game based on the franchise in some shape or form.
Aliens: Colonial Marines, developed by Gearbox Software and published by Sega, is the latest title to be added to the list of Alien-inspired games – but does it live up to all the hype that was created before release?
In short, Colonial Marines sees the player take control of Corporal Christopher Winter, who is on a search and rescue mission in the U.S.S. Sulaco in search of Ellen Ripley (main character of the Aliens films), Corporal Dwayne Hicks, and a few other stragglers that went missing during a heated interstellar battle. To add context, this takes place after the events that unfolded in the second film, Aliens.
The game features a multi-arch story line, in the sense that players will be aware of the desired end result, but a number of smaller factors will constantly hinder progress. It follows standard video game script-writing procedures that involve a lot of fetch missions and ‘kill-everything-between-here-and-there-to-progress’ missions.
In terms of graphical style, it is typically a Gearbox title that makes use of the Unreal Engine 3. Users of previous Gearbox games will immediately recognise the engine, which makes this a little bit easier on the eyes.
But the new renderer is not without it faults. There are a number of instances when the drawing distance causes nearby objects to be pixelated and blurry, and only by moving slightly closer will they render the way they should be. Gamers can also expect a few occurrences of clipping and objects falling into each other.
Other than that, the engine is fairly stable, but graphical quality still somewhat standard. There are no cut scenes or environmental graphics that will make the gamers sit up and take notice, and it could feel as if the developers skimped on the high level of graphics available today. Speaking of which, there is no environmental damage – none. When players fire at walls, doors or barricades, the bullets leave only a little trace, while one or two bullet holes will be left in (unbreakable) glass.
Combat, which is slightly different, is also a standard affair. Apart from the usual weapon-switching buttons, players make use of a radial menu to select which weapons they want to use during fire-fights. Which weapons they use is actually irrelevant, as the hit detection is completely off. Players will be in clear view of an enemy’s head, taking aim, and squeezing the trigger – and completely miss. It is not a question of the guns not being able to fire in a straight line, but rather that the engine does not detect a hit.
While playing the game for a number of hours, we came to the conclusion that the best weapon to use during any fire-fight is unsurprisingly the shotgun. There are three shotguns to choose from, and they are all equally as deadly at close range. Another oddity is that ammunition is not universal between the same types of weapons. For example, if the tactical shotgun’s ammo runs out, players can easily change to the pump action or Hicks’ shotgun and continue firing.
Because of the missing hit detection the shotgun makes for the perfect weapon, as you will either hit your target, or you will hit something/someone standing next to it.
Naturally it is best used up close and personal, which brings us to the cover system.
Or we should rather say the lack thereof. There exists a cover system, but it is more of a hiding system than one used to actually take cover. Players do not have the ability to hug a corner and peer around, or slide into a wall or table from a running position. The “cover system” has the player crouching behind stuff – that is pretty much it. Couple that with the ineffective hit-detection and it makes for a frustrating title.
Another aspect that will see gamers pulling their hair out is the difficulty. It might seem like a petty thing to say, but the title can be unreasonably difficult and players can expect a lot of cheap deaths. To make matters worse, the accompanying AI is not really the brightest light in the night sky - but more on that a bit later.
We started playing the title on the second hardest setting (Soldier), but after only two chapters and numerous deaths, we decided to restart on the Rookie setting. The deaths were just as unbelievably cheap, in the sense that two enemy shot would deplete your armour and then another two or so hits would kill you.
In terms of the AI that accompanies the player through their interstellar journey, the game also suffers from the problem where enemies would spawn behind the player for no reason, run past the AI and fire at the player. While the enemies (alien or otherwise) are running past squad mates, they are naturally looking at the décor on the spaceship’s wall and completely oblivious to the screeching, spitting and foul-smelling alien that just passed! We know the player is central to the title, but that is a bit unfair.
From a design point, all the levels are fairly linear as players will not have to scratch their heads to figure out which way to go. It follows the general formula that if you can go there, you are meant to follow that route. Occasionally there will be a few extra rooms or hallways that open up to other areas, but those usually just house extra ammo or armour.
One design aspect that is completely ridiculous (which also ties in with the controls) is that players have to press a button to bring up the Motion Tracker – a mini-map of sorts.
Pressing the assigned button, the character will bring up a handheld scanner that indicates to the player the proximity and direction of enemies nearby – leaving the player vulnerable as it takes a bit longer to bring the display up and aim a weapon.
We know that the Motion Tracker is featured in the films, but development studios tend to take a couple of liberties when designing from a film franchise, so one would think that in the future they could at least add a HUD mini-map or something.
As for the other controls, some buttons are a bit odd, but nothing that they player could not get used to fairly quickly.
A multiplayer element has also been worked in, but this is completely forgettable. Apart from the standard Team Death Match and objective based modes, the most promising mode is the 4 player cooperative mode. Just like Borderlands (which was also developed by Gearbox), up to four players can team up to complete the single-player campaign as a squad.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is not a horrible game, but it is definitely not going to win any awards this year. Once players get over the frustrations, drop the difficulty a notch and figure out how to work around the Unreal engine’s shortcoming, the title should keep them busy for a couple of hours.
Maybe it suffers a bit from the video game-movie adaptation problem, maybe it is suffering under the new renderer for the engine, or maybe it is a victim of its own hype – but one thing is for sure: people who love the Aliens franchise will find it enjoyable; others, not so much.
At the end of the day, Colonial Marines is a stock-standard shooter which does not bring anything new or creative to the table. It is actually a pity, as the title could have been so much better.
Our score: 6.9
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor