Spoilers for Colonial Marines, though I’m probably the last person to play it.
Sometimes you meet a girl you should avoid. Your friends warn you to stay away—she’s no good, she’ll only disappoint you, she only has a 43% Metacritic rating. You don’t listen. She reminds you of an old flame (that starred Sigourney Weaver), and while you know she’ll never match those high standards, you figure that, if you squint just right, she could be a passable imitation.
I found Aliens: Colonial Marines on the shelf, unloved and unwanted (and only £5). Every gamer knew about her past: the multiple homes, how she looked nothing like she did a few years earlier. But I saw potential, and I took her home. I knew it was a bad decision, I did it anyway. We began a relationship and, at first, it went well.
Playing through the game’s opening level, I was surprised how much fun I was having. I overlooked her flaws (like introducing the aliens too quickly) and focused on the good stuff—I was wielding a pulse rifle and motion tracker like those Hicks and Ripley used, and I was killing aliens. And these aliens weren’t just any aliens, no, these aliens were the aliens from Aliens (or xenomorphs, as the films call them). I was enjoying the hot early stages of a relationship—the tension, the thrilling, intimate encounters in darkened hallways. Why had Colonial Marines been overwhelmingly panned? Was everyone but me wrong about it? Was there a chance I might enjoy it? Or was the game going to get much, much worse?
Looking back from the opposite end, with the game now complete, Colonial Marines had good points:
Sound: I’m an easy lay when it comes to anything Aliens-related. Give me bad graphics, a stupid team-mate, a boring mission, but do so with authentic sounds effects from the film that first scared the hell out of me when I was 13, and I’m all in. A beep from a motion tracker can still make the hairs on my neck rise.
Distress, the game’s first mission, was a lot of fun. Admittedly, much of that was probably due to first experiencing the audio-delights mentioned above. Still, the dark spaces and rampaging aliens made me tense. I was on edge, Hudsonian, blind-firing at anything that moved, in the emotional state I wanted an Aliens-based game to evoke.
Geek-out moments: In Colonial Marines you can collect iconic Aliens weaponry like Hicks’ shotgun and Frost’s flame-thrower. I discovered the head of Newt’s doll, I watched a queen alien dispatch some scientists, I saw a space jockey.
Marine hunt: Given game’s problematic relationship with storytelling, I’m just pleased when I can remember what my mission is without having to pause and check. When tracking down the captured marine, I always knew what my goal was. I was intrigued: Who is this going to be? Some character created for the game? A secondary Aliens character presumed dead? Surely not one of the film’s major players?
The blind aliens level has been deservedly mocked for its hilariously bad animations. I still enjoyed playing it. I laughed when an alien high-stepped past me like a pantomime villain, I shook my head when it exploded, but I still found gameplay tense. To creep through the sewers, then hear an enemy behind me and stop, wondering if turning to look constituted the kind of movement it could detect, that’s how an alien game should feel.
Bella: She died. I liked that. I respect the game for assuming even a fraction of the film series’ overwhelming bleakness.
Sadly, the cracks in my relationship with Colonial Marines quickly began to show. I’d been trying to ignore her flaws, but she had too many.
I killed an alien as it burst through a doorway. Through a long window I saw another coming to attack me. It was sidestepping. The ultimate killing machine…was prancing. I thought of a scene from Spaceballs, and the aliens were rarely as scary again:
Then soldiers arrived and the aliens disappeared. I fought nothing but these troops for at least 468 hours.
The Big Bad
I’ve chosen to mention just a selection of Colonial Marines’s bad points, in order to avoid filling up the entire internet:
If your story in a game called “Aliens: Colonial Marines” excludes aliens for large portions of the campaign, there’s something wrong with your story.
Those bloody soldiers (technically, they’re Weyland-Yutani’s PMCs). Their battle strategies were…interesting. These guys would take cover, then run into the open, before turning heel and racing back again. Of my PMC kills, I’d estimate 20 percent came from shooting them in the spine as they fled.
Alternate theory: those PMCs were impregnated with aliens. They knew death by chestburster awaited them, and so preferred to die by my pulse rifle. This wasn’t bad AI, those guys were suicidal.
The game’s friendly AI fared no better. For those who repeat the mantra “Leave no marine behind”, my fellow soldiers were perfectly happy to ignore aliens and stand around while I fought off an onslaught.
My frequent team-mate, O’Neal, and I arrived at a sentry gun. I snuck away to flank and deactivate it. O’Neal engaged it in a face-up battle, his groans as he absorbed bullet after bullet soundtracking the next five minutes of play. As soon as I switched off the gun, O’Neal ran off, unharmed. Perhaps the most stupid moment in a frequently stupid game.
Another bug hunt
Given Colonial Marines’ well-publicised, troubled birth, frequent glitches are no surprise. That doesn’t make experiencing them any more pleasant. Here are some of the problems I encountered:
An alien attacks O’Neal. Both levitate and hover above me. I shoot them, O’Neal falls. The two of us walk off. We never discuss what happened.
I have the audacity to try to jump, turn and shoot simultaneously. This blows the game’s mind. It crashes and I have to restart.
I melee a soldier in the chest. His arm falls off.
I cover O’Neal’s back while he opens a door. I die a few times while trying to hold off an attack. Eventually, I succeed, and happily wait for O’Neal to open the door. He doesn’t move. I realised I’ve nudged him off his animation. I have to restart. I’m killed by aliens again. Naughty words are spoken.
There are two aspects I see as particularly problematic when setting a game in the Aliens universe:
Enemies: These are xenomorphs—the perfect biological killing machine. They have to seem deadly, every one able to quickly bring about the player’s respawn. At the same time, most players want to defeat a number of enemies without dying—only the hardcore will endure a low kill:death ratio. As a player I want the aliens to seem, but not be, particularly deadly. This is a problem common to many games, but particularly relevant in the Aliens universe.
Levels: One reason the Aliens film succeeds is its feeling of claustrophobia. At two-and-a-half hours long, and guided by James Cameron’s expert hand, it can get away with maintaining that closed-in feeling throughout. In Colonial Marines, however, that ‘phobia soon wore on me. I was glad when my ship crashed, so I could escape those narrow corridors and wander the planet’s surface. Then I realised, however, that a more open arena would probably allow me to see the aliens coming, which would make battle less intense.
Sure enough, tension dissolved as the battlefield expanded. The game’s animations didn’t help. Xenos are frightening because they can appear from anywhere—vents, floors, roofs, coming out of the god-damn walls. They flash in, spidery penismonsters attacking from any direction before disappearing again. An open setting exposed their movement patterns—they either ran like humans, or pounced from all fours like dogs. When the first thought isn’t “Ahhh!”, but “Should I shoot it just now with my pulse rifle, or wait until it gets closer and use my shotgun?”, I’m not playing a scary game anymore.
There were questionable design decisions in Colonial Marines:
Bad checkpoint placement: Restart me at the action, not in a corridor before the action.
Non-vital dialogue immediately after checkpoints: Did no designers die repeatedly at the same point and get sick of hearing the same line over and over?
Having to precisely aim on pick-ups: In the midst of combat I don’t want to be concerned with having to accurately point at ammo or health in order to collect them. I want to grab them and go. Aiming should be for foe’s domes, not first-aid kits.
Why allow me to close doors as I pass through them if xenos never sneak up on me? Aliens should be an all-encompassing foe, the potential angle of attack 360 degrees. Letting me close doors suggested there would be aliens everywhere. I don’t recall a single instance of a enemy on my six
Welding, that should’ve been cool—racing the clock to seal a door before a dirty alien could burst through and have its way with me. The only time I recall using the blowtorch on a door was when some rhino-alien-thing was supposedly bearing down on me. There was no suspense to the moment, I never thought I would fail. At one point I stopped, goading the rhinomorph, certain I could weld the door closed before it reached me.
Fighting an alien while wearing a power-loader should have been awesome. It was one of the dullest and most frustrating gaming experiences in recent memory.
A walkway collapsed. I fell into a pit, where two aliens awaited. This was an all-too-rare moment where I felt I was fighting on the aliens’ terms and not my own. Being a human in an Aliens game should be about survival and escape. Too often in Colonial Marines, play was just about aggression and attack.
“I can smell you”
Another man signalled the end of my relationship with Colonial Marines. I wasn’t at the end of the game, not yet, but when Hicks arrived, my interest left. Finding him had been enjoyable, which made me think Colonial Marines and I still had some spark left. I was wrong.
As far as story, I didn’t even care that Hicks’ existence didn’t fit canon. It wasn’t the events of the narrative that bothered me, just how badly delivered they were.
Here’s my thought process when I finally found the elusive marine:
Show me who he is. Take the bag off his head, he’s been wearing it for ages.
Wait, who is this guy?
That’s Hicks? Are they sure?
What happened to his face?
What’s wrong with his voice?
This is nonsense.
The Hicks character design was terrible—he looked emotionless. But at least his expression matched his voice. Michael Biehn’s voice work was abysmal. He sounded so bored and wooden, at one point I entertained the possibility he might be an android, despite that making no sense. Worse, Hicks’ appearance at this point is treated as some sort of big reveal. Then he talks, and the guy we loved in Aliens is shown as a man with the charisma of John Major.
If Michael Biehn wasn’t going to care about this game, I wasn’t either.
Hicks’ utters a line of such storytelling treachery that its creator should be launched into space. When queried about whose body was in his cryotube that crashes in Alien 3, Hicks responds “That’s a longer story”, and changes topic. Wait, what? That explanation comes in later DLC. I don’t know if that makes his line worse or not, but it certainly doesn’t make it better.
In non Hicks-related failure: the game’s final battle stinks; the final scene stinks more. The good Alien films are about the strength of the human survival instinct is. Colonial Marines ends with one android being plugged into another. A dull, anticlimactic, massively unfulfilling set-up for a sequel that will never exist. End credits.
I should’ve ended the relationship much earlier, but I persevered, memories of the fun early days blinding me to how badly things were turning out. I’d started out thinking that in Colonial Marines I’d found a rough diamond. Now I just resented wasting time and money on her. I’d become Michael Biehn—bored out of my mind, just wanting it all to be over.
Now I struggle to cleanly recall the good memories of Colonial Marines, retro-tainted as they are by the bad ones. Did I enjoy this game more than I remember? I finished it after all, and I have no completionist instinct. I chose to play it while Max Payne 3 and Batman: Arkham City waited for attention.
Or was I actually hate-gaming? Did I secretly want Colonial Marines to be bad so I could complain about it (perhaps in a long post on Medium)? In an age where people watch films because they’re bad, was I doing a similar thing with games? I’m not sure.
Maybe I wanted to love Colonial Marines so I could be contrary, so I could say “This game is terrible. Except it isn’t”, and people would totally reply “Wow, this guy’s a renegade maverick genius”.
I need to find a way to justify playing Colonial Marines…
Alternate theory: Hicks really is dead. The story of Colonial Marines is a projection he’s created in the afterlife. Refusing to accept his demise, Hicks has imagined a reality in which he escaped death, and now a fellow marine is coming to save him. But a part of Hicks knows this world isn’t real. All the nonsensical stuff in this game? That’s his soul reminding him he’s trying to live in a fantasy world, one where a man can survive standing in front of a sentry gun, or where someone’s arm can fall off when you hit them. There are no glitches in Colonial Marines, only proof of unreality.
Well, that changes things. Aliens: Colonial Marines—a great game. 10/10.