Toward the end of Aliens, the film on which Aliens: Colonial Marines is based, Sigourney Weaver’s character opts against a chance to escape because she feels she must go back and rescue a feral little girl who was the lone survivor of a colony decimated by “Xenomorphs,” the polite name for the giant acid-spewing cockroaches in humanity’s space ointment. She does this out of moral obligation. Likewise, the soldiers of Aliens: Colonial Marines are forever rhapsodizing about how no marine gets left behind. I tried to keep the space marines’ admirable perseverance and sense of duty in mind as I struggled through this interminable game.
Chronologically, Colonial Marines takes place shortly after the events of Aliens. Not only is the story a throwback to the 1986 sci-fi masterpiece, but the game’s design looks like it belongs back there too. Having just reviewed another space-horror entry featuring extra-terrestrial ’morphs run amok, I was struck by how the two games, despite their shared themes, look and feel like they belong on different generations of consoles, as far apart aesthetically as the Alien series’ LV-426 planet is to Earth.
You control a jarhead sent to investigate the starship Sulaco—a familiar Aliens set piece. Suffice to say, things aren’t going so well over there. But have no fear. You have a large arsenal of generic, weapons with which to fire wildly, ’80s action-movie style—mostly because their aim is so poor—at Aliens creeping along the ceilings and mercenaries who work for a shadowy corporate monolith. These species-traitors give new meaning to the term “corporate raider,” and they are trying to stop you, I guess, from killing the Xenomorphs that Paul Reiser and Co. plan to exploit for fun and profit. Owing to a precise impreciseness in the controls, the defense contractors can be tough to kill. Fortunately, you can pick up “legendary” weapons, and the blast radius of Corporal Hicks’s shotgun helps mitigate some of the aiming problems. Pieces of GoldenEye-style body armor are also scattered about to keep you alive and prolong the misery.
The multiplayer mode comes in four flavors—Deathmatch (self-explanatory), Extermination (something about breaking a few Xenomorph eggs), Escape (self-explanatory), and Survivor, where a small band of marines must hold a position against swarms of other players moonlighting as aliens. The game is better suited to the relatively simple goals and mercifully backstory-free nature of multiplayer, but even climbing the walls and eviscerating hapless Bill Paxton clones proves disappointingly limited.
The only good things to come out of this misbegotten space odyssey are the GIFs and videos inspired by the game’s glitchy mechanics. The scope of the mess comes home on a particular level that begins after you’ve been captured by an Alien—disarmed, stuck to the wall, and saved for later like leftover lo mein. After getting free, you’re forced to escape through tunnels while avoiding hungry space monsters. At this point, you can’t defend yourself, and as you wander around in the flickering substratum of the colony, Xenomorphs pop through the ceiling, waving their claws about and making with the scary. It’s not clear whether they can hurt you. The atmosphere is akin to a particularly sad haunted house in South Jersey.
The story has some inconsistencies. For instance, wasn’t this Alien colony destroyed in a thermonuclear blast at the conclusion of Aliens? And I’m pretty sure the android, Bishop, was rent asunder by the colony’s queen around the same time, but he appears to be hale, hearty, and whole in Colonial Marines. These canonical quibbles wouldn’t much matter if the design team hadn’t been asleep at the wheel, but as it stands, they only serve to reinforce the cynical, neglectful awfulness that is Aliens: Colonial Marines.
But is the developer totally to blame? What if the source material just isn’t that great anymore—or, at least, has been taken as far as it can go? When Alien was released back in 1979, it was cutting-edge stuff. These creatures, every inch of them a murderous nightmare, felt just as deadly when you couldn’t see them. As Ripley (Weaver’s character) flew away from the nuked colony at the end of the sequel, everything that needed to be said regarding corporate greed, atmospheric space horror, and indigestion was pretty well taken care of. But the series proved resilient, and soon enough sequels featuring Charles S. Dutton (TV’s Rock) and Wynona Ryder appeared on the big screen. Two more followed, seeking to capitalize on the crossover appeal of pitting Aliens against another unfriendly E.T.
What if the Alien—decades removed from the mind of surrealist designer H.R. Giger—has just lost its ability to terrify? Even Alien director Ridley Scott appeared hesitant to recommit to the series—his 2012 film Prometheus was only a sort-of prequel to the original films. It’s possible that Scott had an inkling of his creation being rendered impotent by its ubiquity. Surely fans of the series—not to mention all thinking human beings—deserve a better game than this, but at this point, recapturing the original magic could prove impossible.