Nearly everything about Aliens: Colonial Marines feels unfinished. Even the finished stuff just feels done, without being good or bad; like a steak at Applebee's.
The best thing I can say about it is that it wasn't a very long game, but from there it's all downhill. What's even worse is that at every turn, the game that almost was shows its ugly, toothy, alien face, and you know you're missing out on something great.
Aliens: Colonial Marines picks up where one of the best movies, pretty much ever, left off. The 1986 film Aliens closed with Ellen Ripley and the few remaining survivors of the ordeal on LV-426 escaping aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco. Some months later, you and a band of U.S. Colonial Marines respond to a distress call from Corporal Hicks to investigate just what happened on the planet. As expected, things don't go so well when the Marines come up against the Xenomorphs.
We've Got Problems
Visuals have reached such a point in gaming that, with few exceptions, only a game's art direction is worth mentioning. The graphics are rarely much better or worse than the competition.
Aliens: Colonial Marines breaks that mold by looking like it should've been released about five years ago. With the game's launch last week, a trailer made the rounds from a demo session this fall, showing a very tight vertical slice of that game that left fans and critics alike drooling. None of that is present here. Of course, the sets authentic to the movie are present, but the polish is gone completely. Careful lighting is replaced with red alarm lights everywhere with the sort of generic effect that calls to mind Doom 3 and other games of that period, and textures pop in all over the place.
The Xenomorphs themselves don't actually look bad when they're sitting still. Time was taken to get the models just right, and it really shows when the monsters are up in your face or on the multiplayer configuration screen. When they move, however, things get a little sketchy, and that goes for much of the animation in the game.
In the original Aliens film, we really didn't get to see the aliens move very much. They're used judiciously along with strong camera work that lets you see just enough of them to keep them scary and fresh. The classic scenes of the alien leaping off the wall or the mass of them crawling along the ceiling are strong images. A clear look at the aliens scrambling toward you on the ground, however, sucks a lot of the terror out of the encounters. They skate along without any real weight or connection to the floor beneath them, bumping into things as they zoom along.
Even the human characters and static environments are rife with simple animation problems. Characters will pop from one part of an animation to another or pick up a floor tile without touching it. It all works towards breaking any potential level of immersion or atmosphere.
Aliens: Colonial Marines breaks that mold by looking like it should've been released about five years ago.
Game Over, Man!
The lack of weight and connection the Xenomorphs frequently exhibit is something endemic to other elements of the game. The pulse rifle, smart gun and lipstick-sized grenades shown off are all iconic to the Aliens universe and of the variety of weapons in the game; however, only the rarely-used smart gun leaves any sort of lasting impact as a satisfying weapon.
Few moments in Aliens: Colonial Marines call the film to mind in a positive way. Many of the game's "movie moments" feel like cheap fan service. Power loader sequences are uninspired and just aren't fun. So many little things in the game seem to be so slavishly in service of the source material that the designers seem to have forgotten that Aliens worked because it felt (and still feels) fresh. Even the achievements are almost all named after quotes from the film.
One moment that works, oddly enough, is a stealth sequence. One of the most maligned mechanics in games is one of the few that works in a game that barely holds together. The sequence is designed in such a way that it's easy to escape notice while keeping you in very close proximity to the Xenomorphs. This is one of the few times the game managed to make me feel uncomfortable around the monsters, despite being in very little danger. The sequence was inspired and while I am glad it was the only one like it, I wish that creativity had bled over into the game a little bit.
Just Another Bug Hunt
The worst example of how unfinished Aliens: Colonial Marines feels is the story. There's so much there to like, but seriously important parts are missing.
As an official part of the Aliens cannon, Aliens: Colonial Marines uses the background information of the series quite well in some cases. The cold, corporate intentions of the Weyland-Yutani group nodded at in Aliens are fully realized in Aliens: Colonial Marines, hinting at an interesting story that was there at one point. But the story jumps around.
When the game ended, I wasn't sure how I got there or what had happened. It didn't even feel like the end. I would've been just as happy with "CONGRATULATION, YOU ARE WINNER" as I was with the ending Aliens: Colonial Marines sets down. It's possible that the ending could be appended with DLC, but nothing about the game warrants paying for or going back to play such a thing.
Aliens: Colonial Marines also misses out on one of the series biggest draws: Ripley. I'm not saying Ripley should've been in the game, because that would be a cheap move and no one would've liked it. But Aliens has always, even up through 2012's Prometheus, been about women and often about motherhood. These ideas are absolutely central to Aliens and severely lacking in gaming overall. There are women in the game, but their roles are mostly in relation to the men they accompany.
It Was a Bad Call, Ripley.
It's a favorite franchise for many gamers, and at times it has shown incredible promise. The promise is still there in the finished product without ever being capitalized upon.
The demo last fall showed us what could've been and never actually was. It had a beloved game studio, Gearbox, behind it. That should've served the game well with its 4-player co-op, but it's tough to bring your skill to bear when much of the game is outsourced.
It's a great idea with many elements that nearly work, but nothing that ever really does. I was excited and remained optimistic about Aliens: Colonial Marines until I just couldn't anymore.