Audiences were first introduced to the horrific, biomechanical Xenomorphs in the classic science-fiction horror film Alien (Scott, 1979), a tense and suspense-filled monster film that kick-started an entire franchise. In that film, and much of the subsequent Alien media, an unsuspecting cargo crew investigates a beacon on the barren world of LV-426 and, as a result, the 26th of April is widely celebrated as “Alien Day”, a day to celebrate one of the greatest sci-fi/horror franchises ever created.
Released: 12 February 2013
Developer: Gearbox Software
Also Available For: PC and PlayStation 3
Hooo boy, where to start with this one? So, if you’ve played games, follow games news, or watch online reviews or videos about games the chances are that, at some point, you’ve come across people talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines, a first-person shooter (FPS) that was heavily pushed as being the official, direct sequel to Aliens. Though originally conceived of by Gearbox Software, multiple development studios worked on the game between 2007 and its eventual release in 2013 since Gearbox was busy dividing their attentions between multiple other titles at the same time. This, perhaps inevitably, led to some disagreements regarding the design and direction of the game. Further compounding matters was the fact that Gearbox were dissatisfied with TimeGate Studio’s work on the PlayStation 3 version and, having already delayed the game significantly by this point, were forced to work against a strict deadline to finish the game for its intended release date.
Interestingly, Aliens: Colonial Marines actually sold really well upon its release (perhaps because of the strength of the Aliens franchise) but was the subject of widespread scathing criticism; critics were unimpressed with the graphics, bugs and glitches, poor textures and lighting effects, and its lack of continuity to the Alien franchise. While there were some who praised the game’s aesthetics and features, others criticised the intelligence of the game’s enemies, which had been corrupted and neutered thanks to a simple typing error in the game’s code. For my part, I’d heard all the horror stories surrounding this game and was still intrigued; being a big Aliens fan, and considering the game is dirt cheap and easy to come by, I figured it couldn’t really be as bad as I was being told, especially since I’d heard similar stories about Aliens vs. Predator (Rebellion Developments, 2010) and found that to be nowhere near as bad as I had been led to believe. Not perfect, for sure, but then again I’m not the biggest fan of FPS games so my expectations are quite low by default.
Seventeen weeks after the events of Aliens, the Sephora receives a distress call from the Sulaco, which has inexplicably returned to orbit around LV-426. Corporal Christopher Winter is amongst the Colonial Marines sent to investigate the ship, discovering that it (and the planet below) is infested with Xenomorphs that have wiped out an entire regiment of Marines and that the malicious Weyland-Yutani corporation have once again secretly been plotting to acquire the creatures for their bio-weapons division.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is, like many titles in the franchise, a first-person shooter that is, for the most part, very similar to the Marine portions seen in Aliens vs. Predator and other FPS games. In a refreshing change of pace, you play as a character who isn’t silent for a change; Winter, like many of his fellow Marines, may look and sound like your typical overly-macho jarhead but it’s nice to actually have an FPS protagonist who isn’t as silent as a graveyard and can actually, properly interact with the game’s other characters.
As you might expect, all the typical FPS clichés are present and accounted for: you can carry two weapons at a time, changing between them with the Y button, in addition to a limited number of explosives (frag grenades, firebombs, and claymores, specifically) and a pistol with unlimited ammo, both of which can be accessed by pressing right or left on the directional paid (D-pad). You can jump with A (though, thankfully, there isn’t really much in the way of platforming sections), crouch with B (doing so behind boxes or other parts of the environment to avoid incoming fire), sprint for a short burst by pressing in the left analogue stick, and execute a melee attack (generally bashing enemies with the butt of your weapon) by pressing in the right analogue stick. If Xenomorphs or Facehuggers pin you down, you’ll have to mash X to fight them off and may be reduced to your pistol for a few moments as you struggle to your feet; you can also shoot at explosive canisters to take out multiple enemies at once, which is always handy.
Holding down the Y button will bring up the game’s weapon wheel; from here, you can equip different weapons as you collect or unlock them, which is useful but this weapon wheel doesn’t pause the game so, if you need to switch out our Assault Rifle for the Pulse Rifle in the middle of a skirmish, the chances are that you’re going to get injured or killed so it’s best to switch your weapons in safe areas. Most weapons have a secondary fire function as well, ranging from an explosive short or flame burst to a paralysing effect to your shots, and you can toggle your torch (or “flashlight” for you Americans) by pressing down on the D-pad.
You’ll want this flashlight activated at all times since Aliens: Colonial Marines is a very dark game and you’ll need all the light you can get in some areas. I knew about this ahead of time and also cranked up the in-game brightness but, honestly, I actually didn’t mind the game’s darker areas and moments as they are all highly reminiscent of the source material and really added to the game’s fidelity to the movies and the sense of mounting dread and tension since you can never really tell what’s lurking around the next corner. Thankfully, you can whip out the franchise’s iconic motion tracker by pressing LB and a mini tracker will beep and appear onscreen when enemies are near. Neither are massively accurate and you can’t shoot and use the main tracker at the same time but it’s a welcome addition and better than nothing since the tracker also points you in the direction of your objective and notable characters/objects.
The game features a relatively simple heads-up display (HUD) which tracks your armour, health, ammo, and experience points (EXP). Each time you kill an enemy or find a collectable, you’ll gain EXP and can spend these points on a variety of upgrades for each of your weapons. Your health is measured in three sections and will automatically refill in each section; however, should you lose a section of health, the only way to refill it is to grab one of the Med-Packs scattered across the game’s locations. Ammo, new weapons, and armour are relatively plentiful, often found stashed in the game’s quieter rooms or dropped by human enemies. The game also features some pretty generous checkpoints and, upon reloading a save, you’ll be gifted with full armour and health, which is always appreciated. The bulk of Colonial Marines’ gameplay is centred around exploring familiar environments from the first two movies, blasting a variety of Xenomorphs and human enemies as they rush at you, and some very basic missions. You’ll be cutting open sealed doors with your blowtorch, interacting with switches and consoles, finding flight recorders, taking out Weyland-Yutani scientists before they can activate alarms and set off poisonous gas, rescuing other Marines and personnel, and generally trying to survive and get to the bottom of Weyland-Yutani’s questionable schemes. Despite the game’s dark areas and the repetitiveness of many of the corridors and locations you find yourself in, the game is quite linear so you won’t find yourself getting lost that often but you can always refresh yourself on your current objectives by pressing the ‘Back’ button and just follow nearby non-playable characters (NPCs) if you get a bit stuck.
Occasionally, you’ll be charged with defending an NPC or holding out against wave upon wave of Xenomorphs as your fellow Marines attempt to cut through doors, signal for help, or start up the iconic Aliens dropship. These sections can be rather tense and frustrating since, while NPCs are helpful and will shoot at enemies (and make for great bait), they aren’t the most reliable computer-controlled allies I’ve ever had and it can be tricky to get a good shot at the agile and stealthy Xenomorphs. Often, you’ll also be tasked with grabbing and setting up an auto-turret in these situations, which can be extremely helpful, but you’ll also have to watch out for these turrets as Weyland-Yutani mercenaries have set them up to fire on you, requiring a bit of subterfuge as you take the long way around to disable the sentry guns. Aliens: Colonial Marines’ main campaign is divided into missions; as you complete each mission, you’ll be awarded with more EXP and given the option to continue or back out, allowing you to play in brief bursts if you desire. The game’s action is further broken up by a handful of instances where you must climb into the iconic Powerloader to open up a blast door and battle a particularly frustrating boss and, of course, numerous interruptions to the flow of the gameplay. These generally take the form of platforms collapsing beneath you, parts of the environment randomly exploding, or the risk of explosive decompression; in each instance, you’ll be forced to wait for the game to return control to you and then continue on though, thankfully, there are no disorientating moments where your senses are thrown off by concussive explosions.
Overall, the game isn’t especially difficult; there are four difficulty options available and I finished a playthrough on “Soldier” (or “Normal” for us normal people) in about eight hours. As you might expect, the game lags a little thanks to its long loads times; many of these are unsubtly masked by long, drawn out periods of dialogue between characters or doors that need cutting open but you’ll also notice it whenever you die and reload a checkpoint. Considering all the horror stories I heard about the game’s buggy A.I., I found the enemies to be quite relentless and formidable; I never had any instance where enemies harmlessly ran against walls, got stuck against the environment, or passed right by me that weren’t intentional and I actually found myself dying quite a bit when the Xenomorphs attacked as a group (oddly, I found I accrued more deaths on the game’s easy mode…), though there were instances where the game’s dodgy coding could be exploited to my benefit.
Graphics and Sound:
Aliens: Colonial Marines’ attention to detail is impressive, to be honest; every area looks and feels exactly as it did in Aliens or has been modelled to closely mimic James Cameron’s lived-in aesthetic. As you explore the Sulaco, you’ll find acid burns, claw marks, blood stains, and smashed lighting and other objects all over the place, which really adds to the immersion and the tension. You can even spot the lower half of Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in the Sulaco’s landing bay, alongside numerous Xenomorph husks, bloodied corpses, and dead Facehuggers. However, I will admit that I noticed some poorly-rendered textures, odd graphical hiccups, and that some of the voices would get cut off or be muted during dialogue.
In many ways, this attention to detail actually backfires somewhat as you progress through the game; as ridiculous as it is to conveniently be exploring the Sulaco, I can just about forgive it thanks to the very basic explanation the game provides. What I can’t quite forgive, though, is the fact that, after crash-landing on LV-426, you end up exploring Hadley’s Hope, the colony that was not only the primary setting for Aliens but was also completely obliterated by a nuclear explosion at the end of that film. Here, though, the colony is in exactly the same shape as it was at the start of Aliens; it looks exactly the same as it did when the Marines explored it in the movie, all the consoles work (to an extent) and all the movie’s locations are intact and recreated. You even come across Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) corpse, the medical bay, the area where the Marines set up their turrets, and explore the sewers, all of which show no signs of being vaporised as they surely would have been. This is great in terms of recreating the familiar locations of the movie but not so great when you stop and consider that the colony should have been reduced to a smouldering, highly radioactive crater.
You also get to explore the derelict Engineer ship from Alien; similar to Alien Trilogy (Probe Entertainment, 1996), the ship has been quarantined by Weyland-Yutani and they have been investigating it, putting up floodlights and scaffolding and what-not in an attempt to harvest the Xenomorph eggs. This means, of course, that you also get to visit the massive egg chamber and the decaying remains of the Space Jockey from that film, which is always a delight, and I could have sworn that I spied the floating mapping device the protagonists used in Prometheus (Scott, 2012). Although all of the Marines resemble little more than action figures, the Xenomorphs come off looking much better; I always find it odd how games of this generation can render alien monstrosities so well but struggle with human likenesses.
While the game’s environments are dark, moody, and atmospheric, this all adds to the immersion and the tension since Xenomorphs can pop out from grates or smash through windows and doors at a moment’s notice, which really helps to keep you on your toes. Even the sewer section is made more exhilarating by the dank aesthetic, the presence of numerous, dried out Xenomorph husks, and the fact that you are stripped of all your weapons and must stealthy make your way through to avoid detection. Like many FPS titles, the majority of the game’s cutscenes are rendered using in-game graphics and without deviating from the first-person perspective, meaning full-motion cinematic cutscenes are few and far between. In terms of sound design, though, Aliens: Colonial Marines knocks it out of the park since everything is ripped straight out of Aliens; that means the familiar beep of the motion tracker, the recognisable bursts of the Pulse Rifle, the high-pitched squeals and growls of the Xenomorphs, and even the sounds of the computers and environment are all present and accounted for. Additionally, not only does Lance Henriksen return as Bishop but the developers somehow convinced Michael Biehn to return as Corporal Dwayne Hicks which, while welcome, makes absolutely no sense even in the game and seems to be based purely on the fact that the third movie is so unfairly hated.
Enemies and Bosses:
You’ll never believe this but the most common enemy you’ll encounter in Aliens: Colonial Marines are the Xenomorphs! The regular drones are modelled after those seen in Cameron’s film, sporting ridged skulls and clambering all over walls and ceilings. These guys will pop out from vents, grates, and even from behind doors, slashing and clawing at you, leaping at you, and trying to pin you down to take a bite out of you. Thankfully, though, like in Aliens, these bugs are easily dispatched (and will often blow into chunks) with a few shots and are most dangerous when attacking in groups or from the shadows; while they do bleed acid blood and melt away upon defeat, this doesn’t seem to damage you (or, if it does, I didn’t really notice).
There are also a couple of Xenomorph variants to contend with as well, such as the Lurker Xenomorph, which is more akin to the one seen in Alien; this smooth-skulled bastard creeps around and attacks from the darkness before darting out of sight, making it a particularly bothersome enemy. You’ll also come across a number of eggs scattered throughout the game’s environments; you should shoot these on sight with your pistol and be aware of Facehuggers in the immediate area, which are small and particularly difficult to get a good shot at. In the sewers, you’ll encounter the Boiler variants; these are heavily-degraded husks whose senses have been dulled by radiation poisoning and remain completely still until they hear movement. You must sneak past them, stand completely still if they hobble near you, and then activate a series of switches to lure them towards noises, whereupon they explode in a shower of acid. You’ll also have to contend with the Spitter Xenomorphs, which spit acid at you from a distance to whittle down your armour and health, and combinations of each Xenomorph type at various points.
You’ll also have to contend with some human opposition as Weyland-Yutani send in a bunch of heavily-armed mercenaries to take you out and secure their investment. These assholes dart around, use cover, and fire at you with the same weapons available to you, packing Pulse Rifles, shotguns, tossing grenades, and even wielding Smart Guns and heavier armour. Thankfully, they go down just as easily as the Xenomorphs and any nearby aliens will also attack these humans, which is helpful, but the mercenaries are a constant source of frustration as they tend to blast you with a shotgun from behind when you least expect it.
Aliens: Colonial Marines only features four boss encounters (each of these uses the term loosely since you aren’t given the luxury of a health bar to check your progress) but each one is a little different and frustrating in its own way. The first boss you’ll have to contend with is the Raven, a large, Praetorian-like alien that appears to have burst out of Hudson’s chest. This thing is all-but-invincible and must be evaded and ran from when you first encounter it as you don’t have any of your weapons. Eventually, after darting through the sewers, dodging its wild swipes from floor grates, and racing across the barren wasteland of LV-426 while numerous drones try to cut you to ribbons, you make a final stand against it in the iconic Powerloader for, perhaps, one of the worst and most annoying boss fights ever. The Powerloader is slow and clunky and it’s never made entirely clear what you have to do or if your hits are even landing, not to mention the fact that your turning circle is abysmal and Xenomorphs swarm at you to whittle your health down. In the end, the best thing to do is concentrate on the Raven, whacking it with your left claw repeatedly and try to get it to glitch against the environment in a corner; land a few hits and then try using your right claw to choke it until, eventually (seemingly randomly), a cutscene will play out where Winter breaks the fucking thing in two.
The next boss sees you taking on an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) that is manned, and protected, by Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. Like the Raven, this thing is completely bulletproof and will cut you in half, or blow you to pieces, in seconds with not only its heavy weaponry but also the firepower of the minions which protect it. I found this section particularly trying since you’re exposed in the open a lot, despite the abundance of cover (bullets and explosions can be seen to penetrate much of the cover anyway) and it’s really easy to get caught in a crossfire. It’s best to find a good vantage point, drive the APC back by shooting the nearby fuel tanks, and pick off the mercenaries (particularly the flamethrower and RPG-wielding assholes) to clear the way to the crane controls and crush the APC once and for all.
The third boss is the Crusher Xenomorph, a gigantic bull-like variant with a huge, armour-plated head that charges at everything head-first and will crush you under its elephantine feet. As if that wasn’t bad enough, swarms of Xenomorphs fill the area to distract you, making it hard to get a good shot at the Crusher but, luckily, you can again glitch the boss to make things a bit easier. When you enter the area where the boss spawns, head to the barricade on the left and hop on the crates and then on top of the barricade. The Crusher will stand completely still by the APC and no Xenomorphs will spawn in, allowing you to fire at it with your explosive shots and either significantly wound it or kill it outright to make the fight ten times easier.
Finally, as you might expect, you must face off with a Xenomorph Queen. This gigantic bitch is completely bulletproof and you won’t be able to deal any damage to her at all; instead, you must use the conveniently-placed environment to hide and avoid her claws, tail, and sight, working your way around the hanger and towards a series of switches. You must then activate each switch to prime a cargo launcher, rushing back to cover and grabbing the respawning armour if she hits you and trying to not get sucked out into the atmosphere at the same time. Once the cargo launcher is fully primed, simply stand behind it and wait for her to get in front of it and activate it and that’s it. Of all the parts of the game, and the many battles I’ve had against Xenomorph Queens, this was by far the easiest and is simply a question of patience.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Naturally, as both a FPS title and an Aliens game, you can acquire numerous weapons and items to increase your odds against the Xenomorph hordes. When you spot a weapon, ammo, or item, though, it’s not enough to just walk over to it; you actually have to press X to pick them up so make sure you do this or you could enter the next fire fight shorthanded!
Winter begins the game with a handy stock of frag grenades, the iconic Pulse Rifle, a service pistol, and a shotgun for close-quarters combat. You can also acquire a number of other weapons as well though, including the Assault Rifle and Submachine Gun, the sniper rifle-like Battle Rifle, and the tactical shotgun. Each one comes with different ammo capacities, firepower, and accessories to purchase and equip with your EXP. These include increasing your ammo capacity, adding laser sights, or underbarrel grenade launchers and flamethrowers. It’s a good idea to swap out for a different weapon when you find a quiet moment in order to preserve your more powerful weapons, though this can result in your shots being a bit less effective and a bit more haphazard depending on which weapon you select.
You can also find three super weapons scattered throughout the campaign, generally right before a story-based objective; these include the Smart Gun (which automatically targets and tracks nearby enemies), the Incinerator Unit (a flamethrower perfect for setting alight groups of enemies), and the RPG Launcher to take out anti-aircraft guns. When you grab each of these weapons, you’ll still keep your existing weapons but won’t be able to use them unless you drop your current weapon; none of them can be reloaded either so choose your shots wisely. Finally, you can also pick up six Legendary Weapons throughout the campaign; once you find them, they are all added to your inventory for regular use (with two exceptions) and, while you can’t modify or upgrade them and they take their own unique ammo type, they generally tend to be a bit more powerful than the standard weapons. You’ll find such memorable weapons as Hicks’ shotgun, Scott Gorman’s (William Hope) pistol, Hudson’s Pulse Rifle, and Jenette Vasquez’s (Jenette Goldstein) Smart Gun; finding all six will net you a cheeky Achievement but, luckily, they’re all pretty much sitting out in the open so it’s not hard to miss them.
Speaking of which, Aliens: Colonial Marines includes sixty Achievements, fifty of which in the main game and ten more made available through downloadable content (DLC). The majority of these are tied to story progression and the game’s multi-player but you’ll also net them for finding various goodies in the campaign (including a number of dog tags and audio files, the six Legendary Weapons, the head of Rebecca “Newt” Jordan’s (Carrie Henn) doll Casey, and even a stash of Xenomorph eggs painted up like literal Easter Eggs), completing missions under various time limits and restrictions, and for beating the game’s higher difficulty settings.
As alluded to above, Aliens: Colonial Marines features a multiplayer component; one allows for two players to play through the main campaign in co-op, which is achieved through a split screen, and the other is a typical deathmatch mode that, for some reason, cannot be played locally. Here, you can customise your Marine and Xenomorph’s appearance (unlocking additional attire, weapons, and attacks through successful play) and take part in various team-based missions across a variety of the game’s maps. Additionally, there’s a pretty decent amount of DLC available as well, including additional map packs for the multiplayer mode and an entirely new single player campaign, “Stasis Interrupted”, which explores the fourteen week gap between the end of Aliens and the start of Colonial Marines. This campaign sees you controlling a new Marine character, features a bunch of additional Achievements, and even has the player journeying to Fiorina “Fury” 161 in a desperate attempt to rescue Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Finally, if you own the “Limited Edition” of the game as I (and, I’m sure, many) do, you’ll gain access to a number of classic characters and weapons from the Alien franchise, and some additional customisation options, to use in the multiplayer mode.
Once again, it turns out that all of the horror stories and negativity I’d heard about a game is nowhere near the truth; sure, Aliens: Colonial Marines is by no means a perfect game but it’s far from the unplayable wreck I was led to believe it was. Instead, it’s a pretty by the numbers FPS title, offering little new or innovative from the genre, but elevated above much of its competition by a fantastic use of the Alien license.
The game’s attention to detail is staggering and this very well may be the best one-to-one adaptation of Aliens ever; everything from the sounds, the weapons, and the environments is all ripped straight from Aliens and the game goes out of its way to recreate the look and feel of the film through the use of atmospheric lighting and almost slavish fidelity. It’s just a shame, then, that the developers didn’t think a little harder about the game’s narrative aspects in relation to its source material; as a midquel between the second and third movies, the game makes little sense, favouring fidelity and fan service over a coherent and consistent plot, which honestly drags the game down more than the minor graphical and A.I. bugs (of which I saw very little in the game’s basic enemies).
Could Be Better
What did you think about Aliens: Colonial Marines? Did you find it to be a broken mess of the game like so many others or did you, like me, find it to be a perfectly serviceable FPS title? What did you think to the game’s story and the way it brought Hicks back? Did you encounter any odd glitches or game-breaking moments? If so, what were they and how often did they crop up? Which of the Alien movies or videogames is your favourite and why and how are you celebrating Alien Day this year? Whatever your thoughts, stay frosty and drop a comment below!