Aliens: Colonial Marines “Game Over, Man!”
As a child of the late eighties and early nineties, there are a few horror franchises which stick in my mind. Though I was probably too young to be exposed to them, and hence the nightmares, I recall such villains as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, and the nameless xenomorph from Aliens. Somehow, knowing the nature of the creatures made them less dangerous. I could sleep at night because the horror of these abominations had been expounded upon and defined.
Except the alien. Its sheer otherness never ceased to send chills down my spine. I suspect it’s much the same with others, accounting for the massive fanbase which the Aliens franchise has maintained since 1979. At the arcade, it was always plain to see that the dark, brooding quality of the unknown xenomorph appealed to other gamers; the line was usually three nerds deep.
Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced in 2001. It’s been quite a wait. And now that I’ve had a chance to play it, I know the nightmares that tormented my sleep have eased their way on ichorous talons into the waking world. And not in a good way.
Story: You play as USCM member Corporal Christopher Winter, a jarhead who is thawed out of cryostasis along with your task force on the Sephora. Your story takes place following the events of Aliens 3 and is considered official Aliens universe canon. A distress signal sent by an unknown Marine on the planet LV426, late of the USCM vessel Sulaco, claims the initial Marine contingent sent to LV426 to investigate allegations of a xenomorph infestation is entirely KIA. Once you begin to board the Sulaco, you and your fellow Marines find yourselves neck deep in it when you are attacked by Weyland-Yutani PMC mercenaries for (404 error: plot point not found).
With your own task force facing heavy casualties, you, your constant smartgunner companion O’Neil, and a few other survivors (despite there being hundreds of other Marines aboard the Sephora, you never see them) do what Marines do best and work to stay alive while being heavily outgunned by PMCs and hunted by the ever-present danger of xenomorphs. The shooting eventually takes you down to the surface of LV426 where you tread where the heroes of the film Aliens once trod in a vain attempt to make some sense of the situation.
For reasons never fully understood, your task force was lured to the surface of LV426, where the Weyland-Yutani corporation has set up shop and been studying the xenomorphs for their own cruel yet unexplained purposes.
And then you fight your way back onto a ship headed offworld, where the credits roll before you ever have a sense of just what the hell happened.
Twelve years ago, this game was first conceived of. Six years ago, it went into production. You’d think someone would’ve sat down and thought about how best to portray events to galvanize players. No clear antagonist is ever established. No genuine purpose for your task force being attacked is given. It’s like you’ve just been through a thriller film and it ends before that all important moment where the hero explains the plot linking apparently unrelated events into a coherent narrative.
Repeatedly throughout the game the spirit and bravado of the Marines is called upon as the driving force for mortal men and women to face death and barrel headlong into it with a dirty grin. You spend the entire game being given orders by your CO and working to survive with O’Neil, but not once do these characters ever become more than two-dimensional archetypes. You don’t know their history. You never interact in a meaningful way. Feats of heroism and sacrifice abound, but without the depth of humanistic qualities to give it all a reason, it passes by the player without inducing a single thought or genuine emotion. Millions of dollars and countless man hours were spent on this production, and it all amounts to the death of storytelling in video games.
Gameplay: In a word: terrible. What could be a survival horror masterpiece, facing the unknown terrors of the xenomorphs and the merciless onslaught of PMCs, constantly on the back foot, running, gunning, using your head, constantly a step away from death, amounts to a one-player version of Quake.
The AI is beyond trash. Xenomorphs, those needle-toothed deathbringers that terrified us on the silver screen, are reduced to zerg rushing players. They don’t use walls or ceilings. They don’t use camoflauge. They simply charge you on sight and allow you to gun them down en-masse, making for an enemy slightly less dangerous than the old-school zombies from Doom. And that’s in cases where they don’t get hung up on the environment or blip across the screen. PMCs, your only other enemy in the game, have got about the same level of skill, either running forward to blast you at close quarters or falling over themselves trying to turtle behind cover. They would be easy to overcome if the AI of your own allies weren’t as equally abysmal.