Critical Consensus: Aliens: Colonial Marines

Gearbox fumbles its attempt to follow James Cameron. Get those "another bug hunt" straplines ready

For Gearbox Software, the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines will be bittersweet. Bitter because the critical and commercial success of Borderlands 2 made the studio one of the winners of 2012. Sweet because the critical and commercial success of Borderlands 2 will be more than enough to steel its defences against the barrage of negative criticism aimed at Aliens: Colonial Marines.

I intended to open this article by positing that no studio in history has gone from adulation to desolation so quickly, but this morning I learned that the bulk of the game was probably built by TimeGate Studios. At least, that's the claim of a former Gearbox developer thought to be one of the founders of the Texas-based start-up, Armature Studios. In a post on the TexasAG forum, reported by Eurogamer, the anonymous developer stated that Gearbox had only worked on the multiplayer, directly contradicting Randy Pitchford's prior claim that his studio was responsible for 80 per cent of the entire game.

"A well-decorated shell, and nothing underneath suggests an understanding of why the films are so effective"

Edge Magazine

Now, this report hasn't been officially confirmed but, frankly, the warning signs that Colonial Marines would be somewhat less than the canonical sequel to James Cameron's Aliens that Gearbox promised have been clearly visible for years. To recap: Sega announced the game in 2006 with an eye on a late 2008 release. As you may have noticed, it is now 2013, and most critics agree that you wouldn't think so from playing the game.

Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead starts his 3 out of 10 review as he means to go on, defining Colonial Marines as, "a game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish, but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago. That's why artist Syd Mead was brought back to expand on his original designs. That's why the music borrows from James Horner's score, by turns eerie and full of martial urgency. That's why the plot - such as it is - is sure to revisit every location, every encounter, that fans will want to relive."

Pandering to fan expectations is one of Colonial Marines' few strengths, but the impact is fleeting - about 30 minutes, by Whitehead's watch. This is a game almost entirely bereft of new ideas, in both its familiar story and characters, and the by-the-numbers shooter lurking underneath the façade. The 11 campaign missions, "involve little more than jogging from point A to point B, grabbing ammo, picking up armour and pressing buttons to open doors along the way.

"There's momentary pleasure in the way the creatures twitch under the sputtering fire of your pulse rifle, but that fleeting throwback to the movie is exhausted before the end of the first level. You may be playing as a Colonial Marine rather than just a space marine, and the monsters might be capital letter Aliens instead of mere aliens, but the framework is not so much set in stone as downright fossilised."

The complaint that Colonial Marines is all surface and precious little substance is found in almost every available review. However, Edge is quite clear that we shouldn't look past the skill evident in making the surface so very, very shiny. In a 5 out of 10 review, the Edge hive-mind concedes that if Colonial Marines is indeed a facsimile of Aliens' look and feel, it is at least a good one.

"A game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish, but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago"

Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer

"The Aliens aesthetic - still striking after all these years - is reproduced faithfully, going far beyond the improvised battlefield industrialism of the marines, with their rigged shoulder lights and harnessed smart-guns. The deserted Sulaco, now infested with aliens and soon investigated by our new squad of bluff badasses, is just as Cameron left it, lit like a woozy disco of spinning orange hazard lights and echoing with deep, distant alarms. Piercing this anxious bass line is a set of occasional but distinctive noises - the reluctant hum of opening doors, the stutter of pulse rifles, and the whine of motion trackers.

"Sadly, this is just a well-decorated shell, and nothing underneath suggests an understanding of why the films are so effective."

According to Edge, Colonial Marines' "most damaging failure" is its mishandling of the Xenomorphs. Despite what your memories may tell you, James Cameron's Aliens is a film about running away. The marines are on the back-foot from the moment they land, never quite understanding how to get the drop on their enemies. Indeed, that's kind of the point, but Colonial Marines reduces the Xenomorphs to a pack of dimwitted dogs running headlong into ceaseless waves of bullets. In part, this is due to poor animations and AI. In part, it is down to a basic failure to understand the subject matter. "There is no respect for the creature," Edge laments.

Destructoid's Jim Sterling makes a similar point in his typically emphatic style. In a 2.5 out of 10 review, Sterling rages that Gearbox's has the temerity to include its "bumbling fan fiction" in the same conversation as James Cameron's classic film. "It barely deserves a comparison with Battlefield Earth," Sterling says, though he concedes that the campaign makes a strong start, patiently building up to the "impressive" first encounter with a Xenomorph. That first fight is intimidating and satisfying, but in Sterling's view it is also the, "first and last time Colonial Marines ever successfully attempts such a thing."

"After this, the game settles into a formulaic and utterly brainless shooter that tosses out Xenomorphs haphazardly and encourages nothing more involving than the most basic of run-and-gun tactics. Battles are pitifully easy, and the motion tracker is never really needed, since the thin corridors and wide open spaces negate the need to ever locate attackers. The aliens themselves are content to run directly into your bullets, with the occasional random, silly-looking jump manoeuvre to give you the impression they're conscious of danger. In some levels, they'll even stand frozen in place, completely static character models just waiting to be shot."

And static character models aren't the only technical problem to plague Colonial Marines. Sterling, like most critics, highlights a range of bugs and glitches, from jerky, incomplete animations and spasmodic clipping to disappearing character models and the persistent failure of the marines and the Xenopmorphs to find each other in battle. Sterling calls it a "total failure of execution," and that's just the PC version, which is apparently far superior in this regard to its console counterpart.

But there is a light in the darkness, one shining so brightly that it will no doubt raise a few eyebrows among those who doubt the objectivity of game critics. While the vast majority of reviews range from average to unforgivably poor, EGM's Brandon Justice awarded Colonial Marines a 9 out of 10 - one point shy of the highest possible accolade. Indeed, for Justice, Colonial Marines is, "easily the best gaming representation of the franchise to date." Now, the competition isn't exactly fierce, but still.

"From gunplay to co-op-friendly design, the core mechanics are largely spot-on, but more importantly, the various objectives do an incredible job of mixing it up"

Brandon Justice, EGM

"From gunplay to co-op-friendly design, the core mechanics are largely spot-on, but more importantly, the various objectives do an incredible job of mixing it up. You'll run-and-gun, make daring stands against waves of Xenomorphs, rescue your fellow Marines, find yourself forced to run away like a little weenie, and much more. While the action falls a bit short of the blend of first-person shooter and survival-horror I was hoping for, it's all fairly well paced-thanks largely to some excellent level design and solid alien AI."

Reading EGM's review in the context of others, it's impossible to avoid the occasional double-take. Where most critics saw black, Justice saw white, and that sort of blatant contradiction among professional reviewers is difficult to dismiss on the grounds of subjective opinion alone. One thing is certain: Justice doesn't hold back on detailing Colonial Marines' flaws, even as he ladles out the praise.

"The visuals are sub-par in places, but the overall aesthetic makes creeping through the shadowy, blood-soaked wreckage with a group of Marines a real nail-biter. While the core Soldier Xenos should probably figure out that ramming bullets with their face isn't the best strategy, Gearbox's other baddies offer up a great deal of variety. This sets up some dreadful moments of anticipation, fearsome firefights, and even a few harrowing escapes, making Colonial Marines' campaign an intense experience that's sure to appeal to franchise buffs and shooter fans alike.

"Sure, you've got some definite dents in the hull here-such as the occasionally oblivious squad-mate AI, the training-wheel cover system, and the woefully heinous cinematics-but the hits far outweigh the misfires."

Woeful. Heinous. Subpar. Dents in the hull. Hits outweighing misfires. 9 out of 10. Obviously

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Latest comments (28)

Steven Wemyss Senior QA Engineer, Avalanche Studios7 years ago
Utterly disappointing...quite how they can release such a blatantly sub-par product and hype it as the next big thing! :(
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Paul Shirley Programmers 7 years ago
What's most puzzling is this bizarre idea that Aliens was something special. In reality it's a by-the-numbers AAA action film in Alien costumes and was widely panned on release. Cameron should never have been let loose on the franchise, to piss away all that made Alien so special.

Closely emulating source material this lacklustre was a guarantee of mediocrity.
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Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 7 years ago
I'm just relieved I'm renting it.
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Show all comments (28)
Tony Coles Account Manager, Peppermint P7 years ago
I agree with Paul Shirley re: Cameron, even though it's remarkably controversial to say so, such is Aliens' place in the standard geek culture canon! I thought it destroyed so much of the mystery (and primordial terror) of the original by making the xenomorphs little more than fancy space ants.

For me, a tour around the locales of Alien and Aliens was done perfectly in the original PC Aliens vs Predator, some 13 years ago. It's a tragedy, really.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tony Coles on 12th February 2013 2:31pm

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Paul Smith Dev 7 years ago
I wish Sega gave Monolith the license, AvP2 was awesome game and im sure they could of a made a great standalone alien game.
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Ryan Locke Lecturer in Media Design, University of Abertay Dundee7 years ago
Hate to be in that office this week.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
What's most puzzling is this bizarre idea that Aliens was something special. In reality it's a by-the-numbers AAA action film in Alien costumes and was widely panned on release. Cameron should never have been let loose on the franchise, to piss away all that made Alien so special.
Paul, were you even around when Aliens was released in theaters? I was and saw it opening day to a PACKED theater with people waiting in lines around the block. Reviews were primarily positive (pretty much all positive in the US) and Sigourney Weaver was actually (and humorously, I thought) nominated for an Oscar.

I'll only agree with you about Cameron not being the "ideal" director, but that's where Fox wanted to go, so it got done as a more action-packed film than the first. On that front, it works quite well. The original is still the best, but that's all Ridley, Giger, Goldsmith and that great cast doing their thing with a script that's actually pretty basic if its dissected too much.

Prometheus tried to do some of this as well, but the overall concept and look were brilliant and a great deal smarter than most of the characters in the film that do some of the dumbest things (many of which were the fault of the writing team).

Personally, I like all of the films up to Resurrection (which was pretty hilarious if you take it the right way) - after that, it's a downhill slide into the junk pile with the AvP films.

Ah well - I'll pick this up cheap in a few weeks. Too bad it didn't turn out as expected. That means Monolith and Rebellion still win, I guess... Game Over, Man... Game Over!
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John McCaul Web Developer, DevPhase.Net7 years ago
The Guardian gave it 4 stars out of 5
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Paul Smith Dev 7 years ago
The Guardian gave Final Fantasy 13 5 out of 5
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Aliens is by far the best movie of the series. At least in my books. Game over man, GAME OVER!
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Adam Clark Design Director, Green Box Games ltd7 years ago
Massively disappointed. Was looking forward to this.
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Steve Nicholls Programmer 7 years ago
Nice job Gearbox... or not as it seems. Complete failure and whoever was in charge should be looking at clearing their desk.
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Andrew Animator 7 years ago
now i feel like it's probably the weakest Alien film of the lot
Whoa......including resurection??? Which I have to agree with Greg is a fantastic comedy, but a pretty poor sci-fi and horror.

I appreciate I am right out there on my own here, but I think Alien 3 was the best.
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Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com7 years ago
I was around when Aliens was released. Yes, it was hugely popular and critically acclaimed - some said it was an improvement over the first - but I agree with Paul. For me, Aliens was an unfortunate departure. The first game was small and tense, but Aliens was a big war movie. It's my least favorite of the first four films (never saw any of the others after Resurrection, unless we're counting Prometheus as an Aliens movie in which case *that's* my all-time least favorite movie in the series.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
@Andreas: Agreed - Alien 3's Assembly Cut makes it much better (still flawed, but improved) and Resurrection is better if you see the bonus stuff. The finale was kind of "jarring" for sure. I never liked that alien design as it looked like a sad white chocolate sculpture come to life with big creepy puppy eyes... ewww.

Hmmm... now, I'm hungry and nauseated simultaneously.

On an on-topic note, a friend just picked up his copy of A:CM despite reading a few bad reviews. I'll go see him after this Toy Fair stuff I'm doing is done, as I know he's going to be raging at the machine when he fires up that new game...
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Paul Shirley Programmers 7 years ago
@Greg Wilcox
I remember seeing it at the time all too well, along with the sense of disappointment realising I'd paid money to watch a pretty pedestrian action film. Like every other carefully designed blockbuster action film it did indeed drag in the crowds. That doesn't make it a good film. Not bad but it's the one I'll just let play in the background rather than watch.

The film actually reminds me of the typical game->movie adaptations we've suffered with. Except they're taking the mediocre result and pushing it back even more diluted from movie->game!
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Mark Sheppard Game Designer, membraine studios7 years ago
"was widely panned on release"

Incorrect. I remember ALIENS' release in 1986 with great clarity -- it was the definition of a blockbuster, largely helped by the overwhelmingly positive critical reviews.
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Laura Hutton 3d Artist, Ubisoft7 years ago
I feel sorry for the developers who worked hard on this for years. Lots of abuse about last-gen art, but both of the screenshots in this article look fantastic - nice alien models, great environments and lighting. I'll probably still buy this.

It would have caught my interest more if it featured a female protagonist. Surely 'Alien' is an ideal franchise to break away from the stereotypical faceless-macho-marine lead? Ah, maybe next time...
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Stephan Schwabe Multichannelmanagement, Telefonica7 years ago
Gearbox and Sega lost a lot this day...
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
Movie was a smash hit. The game based on the movie follows the movie well. One star.

Confused. Is this a stand-up fight or just another bug hunt...
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I'm a little sad because I was looking forward to this, but then I'm a sucker for Alien Franchise games so I'll probably end up buying it anyway. Besides which I quite often disagree with critics anyway.

Complaints about it being just run & gun? That's pretty much what Aliens was, so that's exactly what I would expect when buying the game.
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Kevin Clark-Patterson Lecturer in Games Development, Lancaster and Morecambe College7 years ago
As if people need reminding that games from the screen aren't very good - think back to all those 90's 'hits' that Acclaim made! Jeez!

This for me sums the game up completely:
"A game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish, but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago" Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
This is a shame :-( I generally like the Aliens games I enjoyed both the Rebellion AVP games even if the second wasn't widely well received. Missed opportunity for gearbox methinks. I have my hopes for Creative Assembly's Alien Game, I rate the guys at the studio and really hope thats a winner.
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A very big shame - but a bit of history repeating.
- big license rushed to market before next gen launch as industry wobbles! This is not from today, but taken fro the chaos back in 1984 when a number big licenses were botched to get them out before the sector imploded!
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At least I got some entertainment reading those reviews.. .more than i ever would from the game.

Do feel sorry for the devs. Sure they have been slaving away on this for years.
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Liam Farrell7 years ago
It didn't help all the marines spoke like Duke Nukem. Total lack of understanding of the source material
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Seems there is a more important point to be made (if the games media can get the guts to talk about it):

The comparison from the game play demo and the actual game is such that legal action could be considered against developer and publisher - this open a very big can-of-worms over E3 demos and also the issues over the other must-have games hyped at last years show.

This may explain why the console manufacturers are keeping very quiet over the new hardware?
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Ben Campbell Graphic Designer / Freelance Games Journalist 7 years ago
Why exactly do you feel sorry for the developers who outright sold us with a lie with the videos at conferences, we were shown etc. If you don't know what I mean, watch Jim Sterling's Jimquistion video "A-LIE-NS" over at Escapist Magazine.

THAT was touted as in-game footage and demonstrated live in front of an audience?

And before you say "you shouldn't listen to hype about the game" or "you should look at the lack of review copies given to site's prior to release." MOST, not all, but MOST of that information is kept hidden from us until AFTER the game's release, when people are allowed to release it.

And look at the footage in that video, that I will stress this again, was SOLD to us as IN-GAME FOOTAGE. I will say that this utter travesty is on par with the Killzone 2 marketing debacle, since unlike the Killzone 2 advertisements, this genuinely looks like it came from the game and not some pre-rendered nonsense that people bought into. Jim Sterling makes the point far better than I do, so go ahead and watch the video.

EDIT: I also see the poster above linked directly to the "gameplay" footage we were shown

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Campbell on 19th February 2013 4:03pm

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