Not so long ago, many Halo fans were horrified to discover some hack director named Cameron had brazenly borrowed from Bungie’s iconic videogame series. Avatar’s cussing, interplanetary jarheads were clearly, obviously, loathsomely copied from Halo.
No doubt about it, the marines in Avatar are very similar to those found in Halo. Rest assured, these fans were on the internet within minutes registering their disgust.
The only problem, of course, is that the marines in Halo are very similar to those found in the 1986 movie Aliens – one directed by none other than James Cameron. Rightly, Cameron pointed this out, and Bungie squeaked in agreement.
If there’s lesson at all in this farcical series of events, it’s that the videogame industry isn’t always particularly inventive. Many of its iconic titles are pastiches of existing media. Unsurprisingly, that’s not something the industry likes to draw attention to, and the unfortunate result is that some of its greatest advocates can end up making fools of themselves.
So then, Gearbox is in a rather enviable position. Aliens: Colonial Marines can wear its influences on its sleeve, in its title. Better yet, Colonial Marines isn’t merely a licensed product, another sci-fi game hoping to ship an extra few thousand units based on what little cachet the Aliens name now carries in gaming circles. The events Gearbox will describe in Colonial Marines are to be considered a canonical chapter between Aliens and Aliens III.
Players assume the role of a corporal in the Colonial Marine Corps, one grunt amongst a battalion stationed aboard the USS Sephora. The troop transport has been dispatched to discover the mysterious fate of the USS Sulaco in orbit above Acheron LV-426 and the colony of Hadley’s Hope.
The scale and contrast in the game’s presentation are immediately striking. It’s a dark game and it uses what few sources of light there are to great effect. Similarly, the game quickly transitions from claustrophobic ducts and passageways to huge spaces sure to arouse the latent agoraphobe in any of us.
Docking with the Sulaco, the corporal passes through a bloodstained passage and enters the first such space, the hangar. Here, unbeknownst to him, Ripley recently fought the alien queen of the Hadley’s Hope hive. Fans of the Aliens movie will admire the extreme attention to detail: panels have been torn up, half of the synthetic, Bishop, lies unmoving, his white entrails painting the floor. Deeper, the corporal finds the lockers of Gorman’s squad, each individually named.
Syd Mead has also been heavily involved in the creation of Colonial Marines, Randy Pitchford tells Gameplanet. The concept artist on Aliens, Mead completed the full blueprints for the Sulaco and Hadley’s Hope for use in Gearbox’s addition to the intellectual property.
Creeping down blackened corridors illuminated by sparking wires, hearing our corporal’s footfalls magnify into alarming booms, and listening to the blips of the SONAR scanner become more frequent all are suitably angst-inducing, but Colonial Marines focuses on combat more than suspense. These sections are also spectacularly presented – muzzle flashes create a strobe effect and inhumanely agile xenomorphs quickly scuttle along on floors, walls and ceilings to close the distance with the player.
Colonial Marines relies on set pieces. Our corporal may come across platoons of soldiers but it’s clear they’ve been placed in any section to act as fodder for consumption by the xenomorph war bio-machine. Referencing those doomed crewmen of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, Colonial Marines has “a lot of red-shirts,” says Pitchford.
Gearbox appears to have stayed very close to the source material, so much so, that the game sometimes feels like multimillion-dollar fan fiction. And in spite of his demonstrable admiration and knowledge of the Alien saga, Pitchford is very aware that the bar is set, in his words, “impossibly high.” The Alien movies have never surmounted the lofty heights of Aliens, and almost all games based on the intellectual property to date have been spectacularly disappointing.
What really matters, says Pitchford, is “net positive.” Gearbox concedes Colonial Marines could never be all things to all fans, but the CEO believes the studio has taken great care to create an authentic product that will appeal in many ways to most audiences. It’s an honest assessment that fans should take some comfort from.
Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC in February 2013.