We've all heard the news that Aliens: Colonials Marines is bad, but how bad is it?
Meh. It's not that bad.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a mix-mash of great design work and poor implementation. It's a Frankenstein of design decisions that are diametrically wonderfully planned out and carefully crafted while making no lick of sense to even the most oblivious layman. It certainly never rises to the height of Gearbox head-Randy Pitchford's demo video from 2011. So what is it?
First, in the campaign Aliens: Colonial Marines is a game that plays better with friends. Nothing makes you feel more like Vazquez or Hudson ("Game over, man! Game over!") than running around blowing the crap out of Xenomorphs with three buddies similarly decked out in combat gear. This is casual fun, not a game you play where the challenge demands a team but for the fun of going on a bug hunt through James Cameron's vision of the action world at breakneck speed while everyone flashes pulse-rifle fire willy-nilly.
This extends to the multiplayer, where you can level up your marine or Xenomorph unit with combat upgrades and where play is generally fun on either team. Playing as a marine highlights the need for cooperation, since a single xeno serves up a hot piping plate of tongue-mouthed death to a single marine in short order.
The game does a fine job making you feel like inhabiting the Aliens world, with some design work directly from Alien—and a couple nods to Prometheus that look added at the last minute. But they have done their utmost to transport you to James Cameron's Aliens, fitting your team with another Bishop Unit (voiced by the movie's own Lance Henriksen) and having you dash through the (surprisingly intact) locations of the film and its predecessor. You use the auto-turrets (more on this later), the hip-swivel Smart Guns, and the pulse rifle, and you fight swarms of the generic grunts, lurkers, spitters, facehuggers, and a queen. It has been designed from the ground up to be Aliens, as much as a video game can be at least.
Unfortunately, Aliens: Colonial Marines is as ugly as the ballsack-like eggs that house a facehugger. There's no way around that. This is a huge shame because it's clear that the attention to detail in the design beneath the graphics is super-obsessive. One section sends you into the Derelict cruiser from the original Alien overrun by the evil "Company" Weyland-Utani, and the mix of Syd Mead design style of Aliens and the creepy H.R. Giger-esque designs of Alien show an extreme level of dedication to the lore of the franchise.
But in implementation, in the lighting, texturing, character modeling, and animations, Aliens: Colonial Marines is either an unfinished product or just lazy; it looks like an HD-converted PS2 game with new textures but the exact same architecture. Everything looks chunky, jerky, flat; and on the Xbox 360 there was shearing right from the start. Its processor that by no means should have been taxed clearly was. Characters look ugly, poorly modeled and animated, and for the most part their dialogue in cinematics is delivered with affectless lip-moving with no facial animation.
On top of that, the design problems are generally idiosyncratic and inconsistent. In one area you have to retrieve and place an auto-turret. Up until this point, actions appropriately require pressing the "action button," but here for some reason, arming the auto-turret is done with the "fire" button. It makes no sense, and I had to look for the solution on Gearbox's forums, since the game would not let me progress until I had done so (and it did not offer player training on how to do it). The shooting sections where you face off against Weyland-Utani's PMCs are inconsistent, and the boss fights are just garbage; the endgame where you face off against a queen is particularly unsatisfying. Dialogue in some sections, especially from a conflict between two certain female characters is awful (this may be due to these female characters being a speculated late addition).
And yet you can see that a good game was clearly built in the planning stages of the project. Elements like the audio files that fill in the background are rich and clearly steeped in the lore. The inclusion of a special "marine hostage" from the series franchise in the plot (including the original actor providing the voice) adds a level of authenticity. The clear obsession with the movie's design underlying the poorly implemented graphics and the whirlwind tour through Aliens and Alien (and Prometheus) locations are a bit of a dream for fans of the series. The planning of individual set pieces, from the early spaceship assault to the crash on Planet LV-426, to a survival horror section with no weapons in the sewers, to the Derelict, is strong enough that a little of the game actually shines through.
My immediate thought when I finished it was: "Damn, this game makes me want to play its sequel, where they'll have fixed all the problems!" Colonial Marines doesn't exactly have a cliffhanger, but it is clearly open for a continuation. While the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC versions are all available, the Wii U port has been delayed until March, with no firm release date. Perhaps Gearbox is scrambling to fix the problems inherent in the game, much as the one-time Wii U exclusive Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge was the version of the game that players actually wanted. Still, time will tell.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is not the bad game that most reviewers have made it out to be. With the reviews it's been getting, you would think it was unplayable! However, the hoax that Pitchford sold with his video demo two years ago has clearly poisoned the well. Everyone seems to want to know: Where is that game? With Colonial Marines supposedly outsourced, all the talent went to Borderlands 2, I guess.