Intro: “Is This a Standup Fight, Sir, or Another Bug Hunt?”
After playing Aliens: Colonial Marines (ACM) I learned that the two sweetest words in the English language are “Checkpoint reached.” You’ll learn that too once you’ve crawled your way through each level, danger coming at you from every angle. You also learn to be acutely aware of every shadow, every ping on your motion tracker. But if you ignore even the—AUGH!
If you’re a fan of the Alien franchise, this game is a big deal. Not only because it’s the latest videogame based on the movie series, but also because it’s an official 20th Century Fox sequel to Aliens and Alien 3. But gamers should play it because ACM is a good (albeit not great) game. There’s enough dark, paranoid atmosphere here that my Aliens fangirl heart went pitter-pat with excitement.
In the first few minutes, we’re thrust into the aftermath of the 1986 movie (and the beginning of Alien 3. See this article for more background). As Corporal Winter, our mission to rescue the rescuers of Hadley’s Hope colony on planet LV-426 rapidly devolves, and it’s up to us to determine what happened.
We also get an intro by Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) and some interaction with the “whole” new Bishop (Lance Henriksen). For fans of the films and comic books, that alone is worth the price of admission to this shooting party.
The Plot: “A Few Deaths Were Involved”
Corporal Winters is a get-it-done space marine on board the Sephora, the sister ship of Sulaco, the ship from Aliens that is now inexplicably back in orbit around LV-426. Sephora is chocked to the brim with Semper-fi-Do-or-die types. No matter. We’re quickly winnowed from many to few.
Just as we’re trying to understand the depth of the mess we’re in, we rescue a marine, Bella, who says she woke up with some sort of alien wrapped around her face. But other than a sore throat, she feels just dandy. Uh-oh.
Soon after, we also encounter elements of “the company,” Weyland-Yutani, who want to bring the xenomorph back to Earth for study, because what could possibly go wrong?
Without giving away specifics, lest I incur the wrath of Gearbox and Sega, the broader story arc could have used some tweaking. There are more explanations than answers, and one pivotal moment didn’t quite make sense to me. The ending wasn’t completely satisfying. However, it could be setting up for a sequel, presumably in future DLC, of which four are planned. (Sega told me that at least one will be campaign content, but they’re keeping the dossier classified for now.)
Rather neatly, the opening cinematic plays out in the background of the main menu, showing the arrival of the Sephora and the boarding of the Sulaco. The game proper starts with a scene that we know occurred in Aliens but happened off-camera: Hicks’ distress call back to Earth.
Look and Feel: “It Looks Like Some Sort of Secreted Resin”
LV-426 is not a pretty place—and that was before the atmosphere processor blew. But Hadley’s Hope was built to withstand severe weather, so it’s more or less intact. All the environments are rendered with great attention to detail (especially for fans of Aliens). But be prepared for a lot of grim visuals painted in shades of black, charcoal, gray, and entrails.
We also get plenty of Gigeresque décor, and all the wonderful flesh-crawling unpleasantness that this entails.
A lot of the game is also very dark, deliberately so. At times, disorientingly so. Of course, this is true of the movie too (see the “coming outta the walls” slaughterfest under the atmosphere processor), so the game evokes its source material. But if you prefer to keep your bearings, you may find it frustrating. The game wants to push you out of your comfort zone.
The visuals are detailed at a distance, but some textures could use an upgrade close-up; they’re surprisingly coarse in places, particularly rocky surfaces in the outdoor levels. Also, the characters’ faces seem a bit stiff and rubbery—like the developers were using dated mo-cap technology. If Gearbox updates the textures, that’d be five-by-five.
The music, which uses the more familiar notes from the movie, is fantastic, shifting ably between the slower oh-god-we’re-going-to-die sections and the more frantic oh-god-we’re-actually-dying sequences. At times you really feel you’re in an Aliens film, and there’s no higher praise than that for a game whose purpose is serve you a plate of kick-ass.
And because I know some of you are bursting to know, yes, there is a Field of View (FOV) slider in the graphics options.
Gameplay: “Short, controlled bursts”
ACM is a military science fiction FPS, which means that much love has been poured into the upgradable guns. But because the marines in Aliens have no mini-map, no health bar that extends as the game progresses, and no way to upgrade armor, neither do you.
The gameplay has an unsophisticated feel to it, which honestly makes sense. There’s no peeking around corners or cover system, but as many of your enemies attack from above and at face level, “cover” doesn’t really cover it. And since the marines in the film don’t barrel roll across doorways, you too are sans barrel roll.
Speaking of marines, you have at least one NPC companion with you, so it’s not as lonely as playing a marine was in Aliens vs Predator (the 1999 game. We don’t talk about the 2010 one). And awesomely, you can play any campaign level with up to three buddies in drop-in co-op too. Thanks, Gearbox!
The AI controlling the NPC marines and adversaries is decently smart, which livens up combat. I learned that I could fall back and let my main buddy O’Neal take the heat. Plus he responded to my movements, flanking to cover me rather than just following a script. As a nice touch, your fellow marines also have multiple lines for the same situations, like “Eyes up” and “They’re in the ceiling.”
Respawning, I also noticed O’Neal went ahead of me, sometimes going left and sometimes going right: the AI doesn’t always make the same decisions each time. That makes replaying combat more interesting; you can’t memorize a sequence of actions. And while enemies mostly spawn predictably (mostly), you similarly can’t say exactly how they’re going to jump out and—AUGH! Even pick-ups are semi-random in nature. Just because you found a medkit once doesn’t mean you’ll find it after respawning.
And there’s one other thing Gearbox has totally got right: The best way to shoot really is to use short, controlled bursts.
The Motion Tracker: “Man, this is a big f*cking signal”
There is no mini-map in ACM, which sucked hard until I got used to my motion tracker, a nifty little multitool. Objectives appear on the tracker’s display, with an arrow if they’re out of the tracker’s display range. If you orient yourself to look in the direction the tracker indicates, then (and only then) do you see an actual marker. It serves to preserve the movie ambience.
The motion tracker also picks up collectible (and stationary) dogtags if they’re in range, so keep an eye out, marine.
You can’t use the tracker while firing a weapon, so that means if you’re running and gunning (and you’ll be doing plenty) you’ll often find yourself trying to find a quiet moment to whip out the tracker before you’re overrun by enem—AUGH!
Health: “Physically she’s okay”
A:CM takes a middle road between automatic regeneration and player reliance on found medkits. Your overall health is segmented into three bars.
If you don’t take too much damage, you’ll automatically recover to the top of the top bar.
If you lose enough health to cost you the whole top bar, you’ll only be able to regenerate to the top of the middle one, and will be maxed out at 2/3rd’s health until you find a medkit.
Lose the middle bar too, and you’ll be down to a max of 1/3 health.
Did I mention that, unlike ammo and armor, medkits are as rare as alien eyes? So while you regenerate health at a pretty fast clip, you’ll still be trying to take as little damage as possible in order not to be knocked down to one bar’s worth of health.
Healthy or not, death happens sometimes without warning if you lose track of aliens or forget to use your motion tracker. It kind of sucks to have survived a particularly nasty shootout, only to have some alien get the drop on you. And when I say, “Get the drop on you,” I mean they leap on top of you, and when you’re down, they thrust their glistening second jaw into your prone body. It’s a startling, disturbing, and creepily sexual way to die.
Experience, Ranks, and Challenges: “Now All We Need Is a Deck of Cards”
You know the drill: Gain experience to gain rank and earn a “commendation” point, which allows you to upgrade weapons with better sights, faster firing or reload speeds, larger magazines, or different alternate fire modes. If you’re playing xeno (only possible in multiplayer) you instead earn “mutation” points instead to upgrade your Soldier, Spitter, or Lurker xeno abilities. Experience and upgrades are shared between the campaign and multiplayer Versus modes, so leveling up in PvP also helps you in the story.
Bonus experience can be earned by finding dogtags from the Sulaco marines and audio recordings from the surface in the campaign levels, as well as by completing challenges: marine, campaign and multiplayer objectives, such as “Kill two enemies with one alternate-fire shot from a rifle” or “Get 10 headshots with the service pistol.” These challenges are serial, so you only unlock the latter when completing the former.
There are also unique “legendary” weapons, leftovers from the Sulaco marines and special versions of the game’s standard pistol, shotgun, pulse rifle, etc. They’re better than the basic versions of the same gun, but once you upgrade your weapons they quickly become better than their legendary counterparts.
Multiplayer: “They’re All Around Us, Man!”
Multiplayer is a big feature, so much that I may devote another article to it. I already mentioned campaign co-op. Due to technical difficulties during the press beta I was unable to explore in detail the four “Versus” modes available at game launch (a fifth, “Bug Hunt”, is due next month as DLC). But in brief:
– Team Deathmatch is 5 by 5 marine-on-alien action. Both sides have a power-up to aim for: For the marines, it’s the always-awesome sentry gun. For the aliens, a Crusher, more than double the usual size and hard as hell to bring down.
– Escape is ACM’s version of Left4Dead. Four marines have to reach an exit while four xenos try to stop them. The xenos get to respawn. The marines don’t. If just one marine makes it to the end, that’s a marine victory. Otherwise, it’s xeno high-fives.
– Extermination sets the marines to stomp out eggs, which means take and hold capture points until a timer expires. Each capture spawns a new point elsewhere; there are two active at any time. The xenos’ task is simple—stop the marines (and stop them getting the smart gun). But to help, xenos can unleash a Burster alien.
– Survivor is another asymmetric variant where xenos respawn but marines don’t. The the xenos don’t stop until the last marine is down or the timer expires. Marines can fortify their position and deploy a sentry gun to even the odds, but sentry guns can’t point up.
A match consists of two rounds, one where you play a xeno and the other, a marine.
One nice check-mark: ACM supports local LAN play, so you don’t need to be on the official game servers so long as you or one of your playmates hosts the game.
What I Liked: “Absolutely Badasses”
ACM locks in the look and feel of LV-426, and has many fabulous references to Aliens. Even the oogie parts—soldiers stuck up on walls—look the part. Gearbox are clearly Aliens fans, and it shows. The plot isn’t stellar, but it hits the right tone, has good, if not great characterization, and honors continuity. For an in-canon storyline, that’s a sigh of relief for fans of the movies.
ACM might not always be much to look at–but she’s got it under the hood. In other words, despite some unlovely textures, the AI is refreshingly smart for a game that has no pretensions of being an ultimate shooter.
The semi-randomization of levels is a nice trick and keeps you guessing.
Campaign co-op is excellent, and the fact you can invite someone mid-game is even more so.
From my brief time with it, I can see the PvP modes are fun, and playing as an alien is undeniably a guilty pleasure.
What I Disliked: “You Always Were an *sshole, Gorman”
I would love the ability to walk around with Vasquez’s smartgun, but it’s a love that Gearbox does not share; you only get to a smart gun twice in the campaign. Similarly, sentry guns are underused.
There were entire levels where I could have found a pastel color more easily than a freakin’ medkit. And these were levels mostly made out of shadow.
Varied though weapon selections are, I hardly used my sidearm because I never really learned to easily switch to it.
Regrettably, there’s no way to change difficulty in the single-player campaign once you’ve started it.
And most importantly: H.R. Giger was nowhere to be found in the credits. He created the original design of the xenomorph for Alien. Why must he constantly be snubbed?
Helpful Hints: “I Only Need to Know One Thing…Where They Are”
If you get lost or disoriented, use the tracker and follow your buddy. NPC marines usually head for the right exit as soon as the current area is secured.
Grenades work better against humans. The aliens are too quick, so by the time the grenade lands, the xeno will have scurried away.
Your buddies are immune to friendly fire and can’t actually die (though they can be knocked out). Shoot away.
You’ll want to slap a laser sight on your pulse rifle first chance you get, although it may be incompatible with later upgrades.
You can upgrade and change your arsenal configuration at any time, even mid-combat. Nice.
Overall: “Not Bad for a Human”
If you’re fan, you’re going to play this game. It clearly belongs to the Aliens universe, even if there are times that the Alien-ness doesn’t shine through. It’s not a pinnacle of gameplay and doesn’t attempt to be sophisticated, but that perfectly fits the xenomorphic ambience. I would have preferred more story and less running and gunning, but it is an FPS, after all.
Whether or not you like ACM is a question of what kind of player you are. If you like wandering around in darkness and stalked by the universe’s most deadly predators, you’re golden. If you want to follow the story after the 1986 movie, there are good times to be had. On the other hand, if you like a polished Halo-like experience and don’t really care about xenos, you may be disappointed.
After completing the campaign and dabbling in PvP, I’m giving Aliens: Colonial Marines an 8 out of 10.
Besides, it was way better than Prometheus.
You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and here at Forbes.