Back to the Sulaco and LV-426
Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place months after the events of the Aliens movie. The player takes on the role of Corporal Winter, a United States Colonial Marine who has just awoken aboard the USS Sephora. His mission is to find out what happened aboard the spaceship Sulaco, as well as figuring out why it's back in orbit over LV-426 when it was last seen above Fury-161. For that matter, what actually happened on LV-426? This mission is hilariously short lived however, since Keyes, the marine players go in to save, promptly kills himself with the flight recorder in tow. He also almost Winters and O'Neal when a chest burster decides to pop out of his chest in the umbilical between the Sephora and Sulaco. Normally I would question why the anyone would do something so incredibly stupid, but Keys shows that he is not the sharpest tool in the shed right from the start, especially when he decides that taking out an entire drop ship along with its armament is worth killing one drone.
That's about as far as anyone goes into investigating the events of the USS Sulaco and LV-426. Weyland-Yutani, being the evil corporation that they are, moved the Sulaco back to LV-426 for the sake of "science", since they love poking at aliens and trying to find out how to control them even though this practice constantly blows up on their face. The Colonial Marines are then stranded on LV-426 while trying to get off of the planet and rescue all the other marines trapped with them. I hope you like hearing "We don't leave marines behind" and "Oorah to Ashes", because these marines certainly love those lines.
Weyland Yutani may be an incredibly important part of the Aliens universe, but I feel that their inclusion in Aliens: Colonial Marines was executed rather poorly. There is evidence of their presence on board the Sulaco right from the first mission. The reason for their presence is made fairly obvious, but we don't know when they were there or whether they are still on the Sulaco. Of course, whoever was writing this story didn't think too much about this as Weyland-Yutani shows up in full force in the second mission, which is entirely dedicated to them. This detracts from what could have been an interesting addition to the future storyline and reduces the threat they represent.
Over all, the story isn't particularly deep, nor is it well put together. At several points in the campaign players may find themselves wondering things like "How did we get here?" or "But wait, what happened to the two ships falling apart in orbit?". Even the characters completely failed to make me care about any of them, except the Captain, who was a badass for the brief amount of time he was around.
Then there's the ending of the game - a boss fight that boils down to pushing four to six buttons and is less than five minutes long even on ultimate bad ass mode and an ending that tells us absolutely nothing about the mysteries of the Sulaco, LV-426 and Weyland-Yutanis involvement in the entire mess and blatantly sets up for a sequel. Out of all the cliffhanger endings I've seen, this one has got to be the worst. I can only imagine how much worse this ending is for people who have never seen Aliens.
It's really sad to say this with a story that's supposedly the canonical sequel to Aliens, but unless you're already a fan of the Aliens series there's nothing here for you. Fans will enjoy visiting the Sulaco and LV-426, which all look and feel pretty good, even if the graphics don't look at all like the 2011 Gearbox demo. If you are a fan of Aliens though, there are legendary weapons scattered about from the original crew of the Sulaco, like Hudsons Pulse Rifle and dog tags from the crews of both doomed ships. Still, even as a fan of the series I found myself having a hard time enjoying the story.
Oh well at least I have my pulse rifle and xenomorphs to shoot...
I know I'm just nit picking here but the Pulse rifle is supposed to have 99 rounds of ammunition per clip. That's the way it was in the movies and almost all of its incarnations. In Aliens: Colonial Marines the Pulse Rifle only carries 40 rounds to start with and can later be expanded to hold 60 with an "expanded" magazine, but that's still nowhere near the amount it normally has. I would've even taken a 95 round counter since it was common practice among marines to load only 95 rounds to keep their rifles from jamming, as seen with Hudsons Pulse Rifle. But I digress!
Like any other game that I played I began the hardest setting available, Ultimate Badass, with three other friends. Aliens: Colonial Marines offers four player co-op through the campaign, though it honestly feels tacked on at the last moment. Rather than playing any of the available marines, the players joining the hosts marines play as Corporal Winters imaginary friends who help him shoot his way through the Sulaco and LV-426 which makes Corporal Winters the most powerful psyker in the Aliens universe. I say they're imaginary because, as far as I can see, they have no names, little to no voice acting, and they aren't in any of the cut-scenes which play through Winters point of view.
In Ultimate Bad Ass my group and I were constantly running low on ammo, and your ammo count is carried out through the entire campaign. Unfortunately, the campaign gives players the ability to swap out weapons from their arsenal at any given moment which does take away a lot of immersion and tension from situations where you would otherwise be down to your side arm. It turns out that other reviewers complaining about the difficulty of the game were playing on soldier or rookie which are normal and easy and thus offer no real difficulty like in any other game. So please, do yourself a favor, play this game only on hardened if you really enjoy your HUD and don't want friendly fire, otherwise Ultimate Bad Ass is the way to go.
Aliens, the stars of the show, don't really feel like they were treated with as much care as they should have been. On one hand, aliens seem to have some fairly hard scripted spawn points and paths out of them they refuse to deviate from, making the awesome motion sensor relatively useless as anything other than a collectible finder. A player that finds these spawn points and paths can easily dispatch groups of xenos before they even really become a threat or self-aware for that matter.
Once they're free of their spawn path however, they start behaving better. Some soldiers behave as fodder, going straight for the player since they are more durable while other soldiers, usually the lurkers, go in for the kill, coming at the player from every direction they can and trying to pin them to the floor. Sadly, the design of most levels doesn't give the AI much room to play with. You wont see aliens coming out from under the floor panels, walls or ventilation shafts and dragging players and AI off into the darkness like they did in the movies. So, most of the indoor levels that would lend themselves really well to xeno surprise attacks and and flanking end up funneling Xenomorphs right towards player's guns.
These would've worked much better if the maps had more pathways for xenos to take that players couldn't get to themselves, or if places that looked like they were sealed up were suddenly ripped open to release more xenos. More xenomorphs to force players to either back off or try to run through a horde would have helped a lot as well. I never really felt overwhelmed by their numbers at any point in the campaign. However, when the game world opens up they do have more room to move around the player and there are usually enough to keep your guns busy but still not quite enough to overwhelm you. The open maps tend to give xenomorphs even less of an environment to use, often leaving them out in the open rather than carefully stalking their prey or simply overwhelming players.
Then there's Weyland Yutani. You fight them right out the door and they seem to take priority over the Xenomorphs as an opponent. I honestly felt more threatened by the private corporate military than the most dangerous form of life in the galaxy. That's a massive red flag right there. Their AI isn't much better than the Xenomorphs, they do take cover and occasionally try to flank, but their accuracy coupled with carrying the same arsenal players have access to makes them put up quite a bit of resistance. Worst of all is running into their SMART gunners. I was really expecting more moments where I had to deal with an alien dragging me off somewhere than a corporate SMART gunner turning me into a fine red mist.
Out of the eleven or so missions the campaign had, three were dedicated to dealing with aliens, three to Weyland Yutani and three where you face both Weyland Yutani and aliens at the same time. Then there are two levels with boss fights in them, one a flimsy excuse for a fight against a queen. The other one of these boss fights was the in single best mission out of the entire game, The Raven, where marines are stripped of their weapons and forced to move through a dark sewer system. There they encounter a new type of alien which can only detect sound, while at the same time being chased by this massive xenomorph who players have no real hope of engaging until they get their weapons back, or a power loader to play rock-em sock-em xenos, minus the promised flamethrower attachment.
The atmosphere in The Raven level was extremely thick, and unfortunately this was the only point in the entire game where there was a glimmer of genius, and this gave me hope that the rest of Aliens: Colonial Marines was going in this direction - more survival horror mixed in with the action. Sadly this never came to be.
Multiplayer. Because a player controlled Xenomorph is much scarier than an AI controlled one.
Aliens: Colonial Marines fares much better in the field of multiplayer. The motion tracker that is little more than a collectible finder in the campaign finds a great amount of use here, and xeno players help to really sink in the atmosphere that the game presents by stalking their prey. As much as I loved playing a Colonial Marine, I have to admit it was incredibly satisfying to play as a xenomorph. While crawling on walls felt clunky at times it was still awesome to stalk marines, freak them out by hissing when all was quiet and when they least expected it to pick off their squad one after another, or better yet, hitting them from all sides at once and wiping out the group. They even give xeno players four different fatalities to chose from per class, so you can execute marines like the xenomorphs would in the movies in all of the game modes except Escape and Survivor. Sadly you still can't drag a marine off into the darkness, but you can still create a lot of chaos in even the most organized groups.
The single biggest flaw in multiplayer mode, on the PC at least, is that there is no option for players to run dedicated servers, part of what feels like a growing trend. When a player disconnects, that's it for the match and any experience points earned through it, not to mention that you don't really get to pick a server with a reasonable ping, and ping makes a world of difference in Aliens: Colonial Marines - more than in most games. It's the difference between surviving a close encounter with a xeno or being ripped apart. The lack of dedicated servers also makes me wonder if it'll even be possible to run modified games for multiplayer. Mods in general could have gone quite a long way to improve this game over all.
First, there's the co-op mode for the campaign. While it does feel clearly tacked on to the single player campaign of the game, running through with friends always makes it more fun. The host plays as Corporal Winters while the three other players play three nameless marines which rarely speak while fighting and aren't really included in any of the cut-scenes. Players, however, are much more useful than even O'Neal, who's with you through practically the entire game. This is really saying something because O'Neal carries a SMART gun, one of the deadliest weapons in the marine arsenal, that seems to fire spit balls out of it. It's also entertaining to hear your friends freaking out over VOIP because they're wrestling with a xenomorph or got separated from the group and are being swarmed, and this does help immerse players into the game far more than running through solo with your immortal AI companions ever did.
Team Death Match
A classic game mode with a twist you might recognise if you've played any of the previous Aliens Vs Predators games. Marines fight xenomorphs, trying to wipe each other out before the timer runs out. It's fairly simple, but I can't stress enough how incredibly satisfying it is to play as a xenomorph. After the end of each round, like in all the other game modes, players switch sides and the winning team of the match is decided at the end by adding up their kills as xenomorphs and marines.
Extermination is when things start to get a little dicey when it comes to game balance. It's basically king of the hill with moving objectives, except that only the marines can capture points. The xenomoprh team has to prevent marines from bombing their egg clusters, limiting the amount of points marines make. The xeno's can have over a hundred kills but none of them are counted towards the team score. Basically the winning team is whoever did a better job at blowing up egg clusters as the marine team.
Escape was not at all what I was expecting it to be. I thought it was going to be a Left 4 Dead style game mode, where player and AI Xenomorphs hunt down players, trying to prevent their escape with occasional objectives along the way to split or slow down the group. What we got instead was team death match with objectives. Marines get an incredibly large bonus to their health, so melee xenos will have a much harder time taking them out than the favored spitter that still hits like a truck, making it feel rather unfair. Marine players can pick up their knocked down comrades, but once a marine is dead that's the end of them until the next check point. Xenomorphs on the other hand get to spawn as much as they want until the marines are all killed or escape. Still, this game mode was a great deal of fun, I only wish that it had swarms of AI controlled xenomorphs to help even the odds between the buffed marines and otherwise normal handling player controlled xenos..
This is my least favorite game mode. In a nutshell, it boils down to the marines reaching their supply locker right at the beginning of the match, which usually contains a bare minimum of a SMART gun and sentry turret, and then proceeding to lock themselves up in a room with the least access to it. The marine team then proceeds to camp their little corner until the time runs out or the xenomorphs happen to find a boiler or crusher power up. Both of these power ups are fairly rare spawns and hard to find. The marines do have objectives to further secure the location they are surviving in, but they usually don't bother once they've found their happy place. They make more than enough points to win just killing any aliens trying to get into their corner or staying alive. I really can't recommend playing this game mode unless you have to deal with the challenge tied to winning a match of survivor.
As progression has become more and more common in shooters this day, Aliens: Colonial Marines has to have such a system as well. While it is fun to watch your xenomorph and marines level up to see what's unlocked next it heavily favors marine players over xenomorphs.
While playing through the campaign, players will earn experience points for their marine. As players progress through the campaign, they level up and unlock more of their arsenal and the variety of weapon attachments for each of the weapons, essentially getting more and more powerful as they progress. Xeno players on the other hand get no progression at all until they get on multiplayer and play rounds as xenomorphs. Basically, a xeno only has to chose between three xeno types when starting out, while a marine player already has access to their full arsenal by the end of the campaign. This doesn't make a xeno player any less deadly when played properly, but it does give them a lot less room to customize how they play until they get themselves levelled up.
On top of tweaking their load out, players will also be able to customize the look of their character, marines more so than xenomorphs. Marines get a variety of faces, decals helmets and armor attachments to look as awesome as you like. Sadly you can neither customize your co-op characters nor get their look in multiplayer. This sucked for me because I really liked the set up that the Puerto Rican co-op marine had and I wanted it for multiplayer. Xenomorph customization is far more limited however. Each xeno type has access to three different head pieces which are all quite impressive to look at and are that much more intimidating when a xeno is running right at you. There are also a variety of skin colors for the xenomorphs, but why anyone would want to lose the advantage of their black shiny skin and blending into the darkness is beyond me.
Does it at least look scary?
Graphically the game does look as dated as when it was first announced back in 2006. Is this a side effect of development hell? Possibly. Even on the PC where the game does look and perform better, the graphics aren't all that impressive. It doesn't even support DX10! Consoles may have an excuse not to support it but it's hardly reasonable to deny the PC the use of their tech.
The background and setting is there. Even when you look outside one of the Sulacos windows or take a stroll on the surface of LV-426 the game does look like it was taken right out of the Aliens movies. However, the lighting and shading in the game isn't really effective at immersing players as well as it should. I never once felt the need to turn on the flashlight since the world was just about always fairly well lit and the flashlight it was about as effective as a dim candle that hardly illuminated anything.
Once again, The Raven was the single most immersive level in the entire game. There was a sharp contrast between well lit and dark areas and, as bad as the flashlight was, it actually served to light up the darkness while crawling through the muck and husk filled sewers. Husks could come alive at any moment and give the marines a tender, loving, acid covered hug.
If you did get the game on the PC, you can at least modify it and enable DirectX 10 as well as adding a mod called SweetFX, which ups the shadows and saturates the game some in order to greatly improve the atmosphere in Aliens: Colonial Marines. The difference is quite seriously night and day between the vanilla game and what the modification does for the games atmosphere. It's a must have for anyone that plays Aliens: Colonial Marines on the PC.
At the end of the day, Gearbox pulled a huge bait and switch that neither the series nor the fans deserved. Sure, Aliens: Colonial Marines went into development hell ,but even after it was in Gearbox's hands the game changed hands a lot and ultimately suffered from not having an unified vision or dedicated team. I'm honestly not sure how much of this game is made by Gearbox, Timegate Studios or any of the other studios involved. The impressive demos that were shown seem to have been made by Gearbox studios, but they weren't anywhere near what we actually got for a finished product, disappointing both the fans of the Aliens franchise as well as any hopeful new blood that could have been brought in by this game. That being said I can't say that I didn't have fun with it.
So is Aliens: Colonial Marines worth the 50 USD price tag, along with 30 dollars for the DLC season pass? Not really, especially considering the first announced DLC is Bug-Hunt, something that should have been in the game from the beginning. If it were a game under any other name it would've passed for an alright game at best, but being an Aliens title it is held to a much higher standard by the fans. Add to that the huge bait and switch Gearbox pulled on fans between that 2011 demo and the release of the actual game, and at most I would pick it up on a sale for 30 dollars along with all the DLC.
What Gearbox needs to do, though I highly doubt this will happen, is to completely fix Aliens: Colonial Marines. Do it all over themselves, they made an amazing demo after all. While some of the assets from those demos did make it in to the finished product, they were still two entirely different games. It would seriously help Gearbox fix the damage they've done to their standing among fans, and I'm fairly certain the damage they've done to their standing with Sega. If anything, fixing the game would certainly encourage those who hadn't bought Aliens: Colonial Marines already to pick it up and those who had already purchased the game would be encouraged to pick up the DLC, but right now, I can't recommend this game to anyone without a drastic reduction in price.