You are Corporal Christopher Winter, a duty bound and levelheaded soldier tasked with trekking through the dirty pig iron and crushed ventilation duct filled decks of the USS Sulaco in search of a certain Ellen Ripley and Dwayne Hicks, among others. That may be a familiar start, but there is a tasteful lack of focus placed on the major characters from James Cameron’s film here, despite Colonial Marines being billed as a direct sequel to Aliens.
But what are those iconic characters replaced with? Winter himself is predominantly a blank canvas protagonist, and the plot and character arcs are typical military, and do nothing to develop on the strong thematic foundation of the films. Xenomorphs aren’t a metaphor for much at all in Colonial Marines other than humanity’s innate lust to stamp out the archaic trend of shiny black electronics in favour of matte white and brushed-silver Macbooks. However, the dialogue is robust and the voice acting is great throughout.
Here’s the trouble: Aliens is so fundamental in popular culture that even those who managed to dodge the films tend to be overly familiar with its antagonistic Xenomorphs. When the player witnesses an x-ray of a nightmarish creature that appears to have forced its segmented tail into the patient’s oesophagus, it isn’t intriguing. When a blood-slick newborn spews forth from the destroyed chest of an NPC later on it isn’t shocking or sickening, but instead expected.
Moments of mystery or terror – the moments that etch themselves into your memory in films like Alien and The Thing, or games like Dead Space and System Shock 2 – are missing entirely from Colonial Marines. Whether it would even have been possible for Gearbox to create such moments from a license as well worn as Aliens is up for debate.
Players must process combat differently to most shooters as the aliens themselves represent a unique foe. Xenomorphs will hug the ceiling to flank the player, sometimes achieving the same goal by skittering into tunnels and emerging to tear chunks from your exposed backside or vaulting over cover that human enemies must sidle around. Though they go down relatively easily, aliens hit hard and can dispatch the player with a single blow from their second jaws.
The fights against both the Xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries are satisfying. Gratification in the single player campaign reaches its peak when you face both at once, in large open areas. Colonial Marines has fairly tactical combat: the mercs hit hard, and it’s important to counter-flank, use cover, and take advantage of the emblematic motion tracker.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many more enemy types to complement those two. Spitter aliens are common, setting up shop on ceilings or out-crops like living acid-mortars. Beyond that are the boss aliens, which require dozens of magazines to take down and are mostly just frustrating. That said, the combat remains enjoyable for the game’s duration, and is the right kind of chaotic to encourage cooperative play, with up to four players accommodated.
After leaving the rickety corridors of the doomed Sulaco and landing on the planet below, the player is immediately frog-marched into a military colony that looks to have shared architects with the ship. And despite plenty of nocturnal roaming, Colonial Marines’ colour palette makes Gears of War look like The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It's graphically unimpressive; decidedly low-fi. It seems the Aliens license put a restrictive cap on the game’s visual style in the same way that it seems to stifle enemy and weapon variety.
Beefing up the game’s content quota is a suite of incredibly robust competitive multiplayer offerings. Colonial Marines explodes a massive niche in the crowded competitive shooter space, detonated by its enforced and embraced asymmetry.
Playing as Xenomorphs is completely delicious, and utterly unlike playing as a marine. A player can cover distance in mere moments, clamber on walls and ceilings simply by holding the left trigger, and pounce towards a marine player to eviscerate them with claws, tail, or extra jaws. They play almost like a ferociously fast Ezio from Assassin’s Creed with corrosive acid in his noble Italian vasculature. In fact, a skilled alien player can use exactly the same strategies employed by the AI, right down to skittering into vents that marines cannot take advantage of.
Simple team deathmatch might be the most fun to be had in Colonial Marines multiplayer, but that game also has an egg-cluster destroying mode which feels like king of the hill, an escape mode that feels similar to Left 4 Dead, and a survival mode in which marines must set up motion trackers and open and close tactical doorways.
The co-op multiplayer portion also has a handful of different modes along with a detailed arcade style progression system.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is not an insult to the ongoing franchise – far from it, in fact. It has combat in both its campaign and competitive modes that feels extremely appropriate, and there’s a generous amount of very “Aliens” content here. Just expect the plotting and atmosphere to feel slightly stale throughout.