The Aliens franchise has certainly seen its share of high and low points, regardless of medium. With games, the quality of the offerings has largely been in decline, with 1999's Aliens vs. Predator still considered as the best release to date. It was hard not to think that Aliens: Colonial Marines had a really good chance to finally crest that mark, with Gearbox at the helm of what would be considered a canonical sequel to the events of the "Aliens" movie. The game does find itself at one end of the spectrum, but unfortunately, it's the complete opposite of what was expected.
If there is any high point to A:CM, it is that it serves as a case study of what happens when a game is released as a near-total failure. It would be a shorter list to describe what the game gets right than to detail the many areas where the game goes completely off the rails. If it's not misfiring at a nuts-and-bolts level with brain-dead AI and unsatisfying gunplay, it is doing so in its manhandling of the very canon upon which it was supposed to build.
All along, A:CM was touted as a direct sequel to "Aliens," and with that movie being the most popular in the series, it certainly gave fans something to latch on to. The game is set months after the events of the movie, with you playing as a member of a group of Colonial Marines sent to LV-426 in response to a distress signal sent out by Corporal Hicks. The idea is that the plot of the game further explores what happened on the planet and delves into why the Sulaco is back in orbit above it even though it was last known to be above Fury 161 (where Alien 3 is set).
The game certainly seems to try to deliver to this end, but it does so in such a disjointed way that it is hard to figure out what is going on. At the outset, it feels like you are thrown into the plot late, literally waking up on a ship next to the Sulaco and told that you need to go in and save some Marines. For the character, this jarring wake from cryo and a lack of information makes sense, but for the player, it's a disjointed start to the proceedings regardless of whether you've seen the movie. Without a briefing for either you or the character, you are kicked into the fray.
In all fairness, the beginning of A:CM isn't bad. You creep your way through the abandoned hull of the Sulaco, rescue a fellow Marine embedded in the wall of a Xenomorph chamber, and try to get back to your ship. There's not a lot of combat, it's fairly tense, and it begins to pull you in. Unfortunately, the umbilical between the ships is blown apart through a contrived series of events. At that point, all parties would have been better off if the player character had been sucked into space and the game ended right there.
From that moment on, you are almost constantly tethered to an AI companion. The number drops blessedly to zero at one point, but otherwise, you usually have between one and three other idiots running around with you. Of course, two of them are romantically involved, and one of them woke up with a strange spider alien on her face but is convinced she'll be fine. Beyond their inane (and sometimes inaccurate) quips during combat and their animatronic movement is a far bigger issue: Their mere presence destroys any tension the game could have had. Enemies are just as likely to attack them as they are you, and your AI companions can't die. Anything attacking them is an easy kill, with aliens fruitlessly pawing at your companions while you and your AI companion(s) mow them down.
It's not as if the Xenomorphs in the game are a threat. Their combat AI comes across as artificial and lacks anything resembling intelligence. Rarely do they do anything other than run and/or leap directly at the player, and even on the hardest difficulty level, their attacks rarely put a dent in your armor. Should their acidic blood and claws finally scrap your armor, your regenerative health system nullifies the former and makes it laughably easy to shrug off attacks. Games in the series are meant to invoke a panic-inducing sense of dread and tension, but in A:CM, the Xenomorphs are little more than brainless cannon fodder and a nuisance.
For a majority of the game, the aliens constantly come at you with a predictability that is rivaled only by the lack of satisfaction of each encounter. Although there is a slew of weapons in the game, such as the iconic pulse rifle and a selection of more "expanded universe" armaments, they are all cumbersome to use. The pulse rifle is the only weapon that seems to have a proper balance of damage, range and recoil. The shotguns are ridiculously close range and do weak damage, and the battle rifle does high damage, but its recoil makes it almost impossible to hit anything at a decent range. You'll us the pulse rifle for most of the game, not due to any sort of affinity but because the rest of the weaponry selection is woefully imbalanced and underpowered.
Through the course of the game, you also face down an inexplicably large amount of humanoid enemies, which only further compound the weapons issues. These humans take cover, which makes the lack of accurate weaponry all the more troublesome, as does their complete indifference to being shot. Nail one with a shotgun blast while he is out in the open, and he continues walking toward his destination without any reaction to being hit as he levels his weapon and returns fire. Again, the lack of anything resembling AI is jarring and completely removes the sense of tension or danger from combat.
The combat provides little reason to continue slogging on through the game, but the near-incoherent plot doesn't give you any reason, either. Much of the plot is a rambling mess, with the only clear cadence coming in the form of ham-fisted fan service and major events that are often left unexplained. Sure, you will stalk the halls of the Sulaco and find yourself in the Operations Room of Hadley's Hope, but you'll barely understand the events that occurred to drive you there. Significant portions of the plot seem to occur between level loads, with a dropship crash-landing in a hangar before a level load, and afterward, you see it surrounded by and taking weapons fire from enemy humans, which, at that point, you didn't even know were on the ship. You'll feel like you've recently had a head injury, if only to justify the rambling mess of events.
Frankly, the amount of failure that Aliens: Colonial Marines achieves in nearly every category is staggering. If you are an "Aliens" fan, the game's handling of the canon may send you into a rage. If you are just looking for a shooter, you'll find an uninspired mess that is mechanically beaten by games 10 years older. The game has no redeeming qualities, as it is a broken mess that must be the lowest possible point of the franchise.
Reviewed on: Intel i5 2500k, 8 GB RAM, nVidia GTX 660 Ti
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