Recently, I had the chance to play Aliens: Colonial Marines and I'm going to try and write more than one thousand five hundred words about the experience without quoting Aliens once. Will I manage to describe two varieties of multiplayer from the perspective of both alien and marine without once using the words of Hudson or Hicks? Will I convey my thoughts about the small portion of campaign I experienced without inserting a Vasquez line or two? Probably not.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to space but I was invited to LV-426 by Sega recently and hopped onto the blighted Sulaco for a quick visit while I was in the area. It’s foggy out there and my unscientific mind doesn’t know whether to blame that on the atmosphere - 10% argon, 85% nitrogen and 5% neon apparently – or the devious ways of the xenomorphs. They don’t seem particularly cunning as the attack, acting more like fast-zombies with added verticality than
packs of predators hordes of hunters, but maybe their genius can be found in their work as architects and scientists. I didn’t manage to find one of the chitinous critters wearing a labcoat or standing over a drafting table, but it seems inconceivable that they haven’t had some work in the design or modification of the areas the poor colonial marines find themselves trapped in. So many nooks, crannies and vents, and so much fog and mist to conceal their approach.
Before letting the assembled scribblers loose on a small portion of the campaign and two flavours of multiplayer, Sega and Gearbox showed a single player section on a big screen. There was a tense opening, then the bastard things started coming out of the walls and, finally, the player had to hold off a constant supply of monsters as an NPC opened a door. Opening doors often takes ages and involves burning through a foot of metal. I think the aliens run around locking them all when no one is looking.
The campaign section that I played followed almost exactly the same beats. A trek across the wind-scorched surface of LV-426 allows some space for conversation as the marines and Synthetic Bishop, no longer leaking semi-skimmed, head toward shelter. The dialogue is effective, gung-ho in a suitably Aliens sort of a way, and the nerves and fear echo louder for the player, who knows exactly what’s waiting inside. Ruin and death.
Unfortunately, when the second beat hits it’s a little too rhythmic and hollow. The player, as the surprisingly not-mute Winter, is given the task of repairing the base’s defences and, motion tracker in hand, he sets out with a gruff companion. The area isn’t large but blocked doors and corridors mean reaching the several locations marked on the HUD isn’t entirely straightforward. The xenomorphs overcomplicate matters as well, I guess.
And that’s the heart of the problem. They’re an annoyance rather than a horrible threat. A shotgun blows them into pieces with a single shot at close range and they’re almost always at close range because their purpose in life is to squat in position, awkwardly waiting for people to arrive, and then to run toward them and claw at their faces. I spent quite a lot of time punching aliens in their phallic faces, which does make them seem like silly little chompers.
The zombie analogy isn’t entirely apt because the aliens can be extremely mobile when given the space, which isn’t the case in the cramped corridors that I blasted my way through, but their acid blood doesn’t seem to burn and they fall into pieces like insects in the hands of an overenthusiastic and inquisitive toddler.
Once all the mini-objectives have been dealt with, it’s back to the control room where the rest of the squad are waiting. They want me to go back into the corridors and fetch a sentry gun. Do they not realise the place is swarming with aliens? I guess they do but, like me, they’re confident that it’s possible to wade through.
The third beat kicks in when the sentry gun is in place. A horde arrives and the room must be defended but it is a very small room and there are only a couple of entry points, so it feels like a test of patience rather than skill. The weapons are enjoyable though and feel much more true to Cameron’s film than the trailers might lead you to believe. It’s just hard not to escape the feeling that the game’s close connections to the franchise (it’s canonical and everything!) actually deserve more than a bughunt.
There’s more. More bughunting, that is. The next task is to head into the more grungy section of the station, which is like an alien nest at this point. The walls are covered in slime and it’s dark and, blimey, they’re a bit more dangerous down there, the xenos, crawling around on the ceiling and whatnot. Once they were all dead, the NPC companion cut a door open and something big and nasty on the other side waved its arms about and went ‘RAARRGGHHH’, or ‘SKTKTKTKTKTKTKT’, and that was it for campaign mode.
Several types of xenomorph will pop in and out of vents and other apertures during the campaign though, that’s clear. And in case it wasn’t clear, Gearbox told us that it’s definitely the case. Even though I’d rather the drones were deadlier and smarter, rather than being relegated to cannon fodder, variety in enemies and locations is precisely what the campaign needs. Both the video runthrough and the playable section had similar patterns and the video in particular didn’t inspire any particular excitement in me. It ends with an NPC opening a door while the player protects him from lots of aliens running through a room in the Sulaco that could be any one of several FPS stalwarts, from a pumping station to a power core. Despite the license and collaboration with Syd Meade, nothing that was shown had a great deal of personality.
Multiplayer is good though. It might actually be very good, although I’d have to play for longer to qualify that and it’ll only stand out if some niggles become less nigglesome and there are more interesting areas to play in. There were two modes on offer: Escape and Extermination. Let’s go with Extermination first since it’s incredibly simple to explain, particularly if you’ve played Aliens versus Predator.
The marine team is tasked with blowing up alien hatcheries by attaching bombs to them and the aliens, naturally, think that’s a bad idea so they go out of their way to eviscerate the marines. Players on both sides respawn almost immediately when killed but need to work together, at least a little, if they want to succeed. Aliens can ‘see’ marines as a heat blob in their vision and that, combined with their ability to climb on any surface, should make them incredibly lethal. But they’re just as vulnerable as in singleplayer so those controlling them must do what they AI cannot – use their strengths.
Attack in packs, lurk in the shadows, pick off stragglers. It’s fun stuff, although the xenos are annoyingly fragile and the slightest wrong move can see them picked off by a stray spray of bullets. There are games where a character can soak up a hundred bullets as long as he sits behind a potted plant every now and then to excrete them, and yet the same chap will die if he falls off a wall higher than his knee. The aliens are the opposite to that guy. They can leap across rooms and fall from ceilings in yawning caverns without mussing their toupees, but the moment they see someone with a gun there’s a chance they’ll explode in fear.
When respawning, alien players can choose a subspecies (I won’t call them classes; they don’t have wizards). In the Escape mode, I found it hard not to notice the similarities to Left 4 Dead’s special infected and that’s partly because the mode is at least partly inspired by Valve’s creation. Four marines must travel through a series of checkpoints, most of which involve passing a ‘gauntlet’ type stand-off as a lift powers up or somebody cuts open a door. The aliens must try to stop them.
There’s a leaping alien that isn’t called a hunter and there’s one that hangs in the background and spits acid. There’s even one that explodes, like a big acid bomb. Hunting the marines is hugely entertaining, but again they’re a bit too tough. In this mode, a dead marine stays dead until the next checkpoint, although when incapacitated they can be revived. They can even be pinned and savaged to finish them off once they’re down and will fire their pistols feebly the whole time.
Because the punishment for death is severe, they’re even harder to kill than in Extermination, barely seeming to notice when a soldier alien is gouging them from behind. That makes the aliens feel expendable but a few playthroughs of the one map shown suggested this isn’t the way to play at all. My team’s greatest victory came after three minutes, whereas the marines are lucky to reach the exit after fifteen, and I think only one alien fell.
We watched them, followed them, knowing that they were expecting constant attacks. At first they were scanning every corner but eventually they were so confused by our refusal to engage that they became panicky and started to rush. We headed them off on a bridge – two fell over the edge and were finished off quickly and the other two ran for it. They didn’t have the firepower to get through the next checkpoint without their friends and we toyed with them for a while before closing in for the kill.
The niggles are mostly about navigation. Too often aliens become stuck on geometry, particularly at the crucial moment of a pouncing attack. The slightest outcropping of rock can bring them to a halt, sliding down thin-air in front of a marine’s pulse rifle like Wile E Coyote hitting the side of a chasm. The health issues do seem unbalanced as well, with marines too strong and aliens too weak, but playing for longer will probably prove me wrong on that point.
Multiplayer should be fine, with more modes yet to be shown and a happy mix of AvP and Left 4 Dead working well already. The campaign is more problematic. The voicework and characterisation is actually impressive but the aliens themselves, which should be far more important than the marines, could be replaced by grizzly bears with suction pads on their paws. I haven’t seen enough yet to know if the locations have been captured all that well, although I felt as if I was being told I was on the set of Aliens rather than being convinced of it. I was never fully convinced by the xenomorphs though and surely they’re a bigger draw than the Sulaco?
Perhaps not. Colonial Marines may be fighting on too many fronts. Shooting down a stream of aliens I was struck by the fact that I’d done it a hundred times before and most of the time the games I was exercising my trigger finger in hadn’t had any license, let alone sanction to make a canonical entry in the franchise. The distinctive biological horror that the xenomorphs engendered is sapped when they become just another enemy and, as they flail between the reticules, their meaning and power swiftly dissipates. At the moment, I feel like this is a game about the marines. They have neat guns and sound anxious but hard as nails at the same time. I quite like them. Maybe it should be called 'Colonial Marines (also aliens)'.