Aliens: Colonial Marines is an idiotic idea for a video game.
Nothing about the game’s concept should work. It’s not just a game based on a movie (which should immediately doom it to the bargain bin), but a game that purports to be a virtual sequel, 27 years after the fact, to one of the most influential and beloved science fiction films in history—a science fiction film that has already had actual film sequels and dozens of video game adaptations. Even if Gearbox Software could craft an enjoyable sequel to Aliens in video game form, what could it hope to show players that they haven’t seen before? Yet, the developer stuck to its guns, believing all the while that it could create a quality first-person shooter based on a license that Gearbox obviously loves.
And the really weird bit is that Gearbox was absolutely right.
Like I said, Aliens: Colonial Marines functions as a sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. You’ll recall that flick as the one in which Sigourney Weaver gets all maternal thanks to a disheveled little orphan girl, and dumps the Alien queen into the inky void of space with aid from a conveniently located power loader. As a sequel to Aliens, Colonial Marines revisits many familiar locations, covers a lot of the same themes, and even features a few familiar faces. Remember that bright red “BAR” sign in Hadley’s Hope? You’ll walk by that. While touring the sewers, you might find the decapitated head of a certain little girl’s doll, or stumble upon the neatly cocooned corpse of Private Hudson (aka Bill Paxton in his finest theatrical role). Some of actors from the original movie provide voiceover work. You’ll watch video reports from Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) that detail the situation on Hadley’s Hope, and some of the missions in the single player campaign will see your squad accompanied by Bishop, the cyborg played by Lance Henriksen who is most memorable for being torn in half by the queen during the film’s climax. These references might just work as nostalgia, but they’re welcome sights for Aliens fans.
Of course this is a game, and voice acting from Orson Welles himself couldn’t save things if the play wasn’t up to snuff. In this regard, Aliens should be happy that Gearbox is on the job. Yes, this is the development studio that infamously released the objectively awful Duke Nukem Forever after nearly 15 years in development at the now-defunct 3D Realms, but it is also solely responsible for the objectively rad as hell Borderlands 2. Anyone who’s spent hours trawling the wastes of Pandora for shiny new guns knows that Gearbox has a way with first-person shooters, particularly those that call for more intelligent and creative world building than your average Call of Duty sequel.
That particular aspect is what sets Aliens: Colonial Marines apart from almost every other shooter in recent memory. Since Gearbox didn’t have to put in time to develop an entirely new world for Colonial Marines, it instead used its resources to ensure that the game was bursting at the seams with atmosphere. Specifically, Gearbox wanted its game to not just feel like Aliens, but actually offer a more detailed, complex version of the fiction seen in the film. The Weyland Yutani Corporation has become synonymous with the Aliens franchise, despite the name being mentioned very rarely within the movie. By contrast, the game tasks you with fighting paramilitary goons from Weyland Yutani and blatantly paints the corporation as a greedy, power hungry monster whose only goal is to somehow weaponize the xenomorphs. Likewise, while the game’s weapons are largely lifted from the films, the guns Gearbox created feel less like arbitrary choices and more like natural extensions of other guns found in Aliens or weapons used by military forces around the world. While I won’t claim that Colonial Marines is a better work of fiction than its theatrical predecessor, I will say that it goes a long way toward fleshing out the Aliens universe—particularly for those fans who never ventured beyond the films. If you’ve never read any of the comic books or novel based on the franchise, then Colonial Marines is undoubtedly the best introduction to the extended Aliens universe.
By now you’d think that we’d have learned to stop questioning Gearbox’s big ideas. The studio may never live down the shame of what appears to be Duke Nukem’s final adventure, but beyond that misstep Gearbox is one of the top developers working today. There’s no logical way that the firm should have been able to create a game that stands as a genuinely worthwhile complement to Aliens, and yet those are the lofty heights Aliens: Colonial Marines reaches when it’s firing on all cylinders.
There are a few flaws that serve to mar Colonial Marines’s otherwise awesome exterior. As a modern first-person shooter, the inclusion of online multiplayer in comes as a surprise to no-one, other than maybe very young children and perhaps the particularly stupid. What is shocking, though, is how little Gearbox packed into these online modes. It appears as if the game was never intended to have included multiplayer until sometime late in production. As a result, we have an anemic handful of terribly uncreative game modes, spread across a selection of maps that would seem lightweight even in a shooter created for the PlayStation 2 circa 2003. I fully expect Colonial Marines to see a solid number of downloadable content additions, and if Sega and Gearbox hope to avoid the angry wrath of their fans they’ll either release a ton of new online gaming content for a very small price, or just avoid the issue and instead further focus on one of the most engaging single-player shooter campaigns in recent memory.
I genuinely wanted to like the game’s multiplayer offerings. They feature the same kind of persistent experience systems you also find in Call of Duty sequels, but unlike most games with such a system, Aliens: Colonial Marines allows you to accumulate experience (and thus unlock new gear and weaponry) in both multiplayer and single-player modes. Likewise, the game’s weapons are lifted straight from the films, with concessions made to make them fun during play, and each offers a surprisingly huge swath of customization options. Want to hunt facehuggers with a Pulse Rifle that sports an American flag paint scheme and an underslung flame thrower? Hell yes you do! In Colonial Marines this is just one of the potential methods with which to dispatch anyone dumb enough to swing a barbed tail in your direction. It’s just too bad that beyond the single-player campaign there’s precious little reason to sign on for another bug hunt.
Earnest Cavalli has been writing about games long enough to realize it’s been too long. He’s worked for Wired, The Escapist, Digital Trends and Destructoid, among a dozen others he’s too lazy to type here. He’s deleted his Facebook page like a pretentious jerk, but you can follow him on Twitter (@ecavalli) as long as you promise that you aren’t a stalker.