This is not the Aliens game we were promised. Back at PAX 2011, Gearbox showed off a game in which Xenomorphs were smart, vicious, and able to move intelligently through the environment. You’d have to use your motion tracker to find them, a process that would require you to keep an eye on your environment, notice something amiss, then bring up your tracker to find whatever lurked in the darkness or the vents around you.
The game looked beautiful, with Gearbox reps talking up the game’s "next-gen" lighting, their painstaking devotion to recreating the colony Hadley’s Hope on LV-426, and what seemed to be a genuine passion for the films and the game they were making: "a canon sequel to Aliens".
None of what I was shown made it into the final game.
Instead, the Xenomorphs simply run towards your marine, Christopher Winter, waiting for you to mow them down. If they get too close, they’ll wave their arms like they’re swatting flies in an attempt to scratch you. Some will occasionally jump through you, teleport back in front of you and hit you. They only take a few bullets to kill, and it takes them much longer to kill you than it takes you to kill them. It’s no big deal if they get close, since you can simply melee them away, or occasionally to a contextual kill where you stick a gun in their mouth, shoot them in the head, and get acid all over you. Just like Hudson did in the movie! It’s sure cool that I can re-enact that mistake!
Don’t worry though, acid blood doesn’t do much aside from hiss as it touches you. Your health is very rarely significantly impacted by it. Also, don’t worry too much about using your tracker, it’ll beep at you even if you don’t have it at the ready when enemies are ready to attack you. You can bring it up to figure out where they are, but to be honest, it’s almost more helpful just to look around.
Those are the default Xenomorphs though. You’ll also find blind Xenomorphs that will walk like a poor-man’s Kaiju, starring an actor significantly smaller than the rubber suit he’s wearing. They’ll explode on you if you make too much noise, but stand still and they’ll walk away. These Xenos show up in a sequence in which you don’t have any weapons, so conceptually they’re kind of interesting (especially since they molt and leave husks that look a lot like they do when they stand still). However, you can get by them simply by standing still until they ignore you, finding a switch, and pressing X to turn on a noisy machine and draw them to it, making them explode themselves in an attempt to destroy it.
Some Xenomorphs are a bit faster, and they’ll try to jump on you, starting a QTE where you just mash X for a while until Winter punches the Xeno off of him. At least these ones killed me once when I didn’t notice the QTE prompt onscreen on account of being confused by the fact that it pounced me into a wall and the screen looked like a clippy mess. There are also occasionally bigger "boss" aliens, but you’ll have to do a scripted sequence in a proper order to get around them. At one point, I had to cut open and weld shut doors, something that I was hoping would be an important tactic for battle, by holding X near a door to open it, going to the other side, and welding the door shut by holding X. Failure to weld a door shut, even when I apparently had the time to do so was met with an instant, death, accompanied by what I only assumed was a death animation, but came across as the camera flipping out near (and clipping through) the Xeno’s head.
However, these are just the Xenomorphs. You’ll also fight Weyland-Yutani PMCs. The explanation of how they got onto the Marines’ ship is rather nebulous, and they basically make the game into an underwhelming cover shooter. Similarly to the Xenomorphs, occasionally they’ll just kind of explode into bits when you shoot them with your standard assault rifle. If you’re lucky, you’ll fight the mercenaries and Xenos at the same time, and it’s kind of fun to see the Xenomorphs kill the mercenaries with a couple of fatalities that you’ll never see performed on a marine. If you’re really lucky, sometimes an alien can kill you like this, which seems to be the reason for the weird, lengthy, grayscale game over screen that typically just has everyone freeze in place while the ragdoll physics move Winter’s body a little bit and shows some bars on screen.
Outside of combat, most of the game just has you moving to a specific point and holding X while Winter types on a keyboard or keypad, welds open a door, or sets up a gadget. There’s a lot of holding X while waiting for a bar to fill up. It seems like the game was more ambitious at one point, with things that look like gameplay (particularly one scene where a character climbs out of a treacherous situation using very game-like handholds) that feel like they’ve just been relegated to holding X or watching a cutscene.
I was also hoping that we’d have a bit of time to start to care about a large group of marines, getting to know them as we were pitted against increasingly dangerous onslaughts of Xenomorphs, seeing how the fear of these brutal creatures impacted them, and saddened when I lost one that I liked in combat. Instead, most of them are eliminated in the first hour (in part due to some stupid decision making by a single marine in the process of being chestbursted), leaving you with just a handful. Whereas the decimation of the marines in Aliens undermined the marines’ posturing by pitting them against a much more dangerous foe, nobody seems particularly impacted by the death of the majority of their squad, continuing to say things like "Oorah to ashes," and "We don’t leave marines behind" in the face of what should be immeasurable horror.
In fact, "we don’t leave marines behind" encapsulates the storytelling of a decent chunk of the campaign. People are taken by Xenos and the rest of their crew goes after them… multiple times. One particularly underwhelming scene scene had one marine freaking out over the loss of another, only for me to find that marine alive, but shaken, 90 feet away.
It would be one thing if this was just a bad Aliens game, but an okay shooter. Instead, it just feels unfinished. Chestbursted character models look ridiculous. There’s a surprising amount of screen tear for an Unreal 3 Engine game on Xbox 360, especially one that’s been in development since 2008. One "jump scare" cutscene had its sound unsynchronized, so I was just looking at a Xenomorph for a short while before I heard it make the noise that was supposed to make the scene scary. Another jump scare had a Xeno in a ceiling drop a headless body from the ceiling. That headless body apparently contained no blood and just looked like an action figure with its head removed at the base of the neck. Multiple lines of dialogue play over each other, and not deliberately. The lighting that they showed off in the early previews is nowhere to be found.
There came a point where I became numb to the technical issues. I just started saying "well, okay" when a character knelt down to check someone’s pulse six feet away from their neck. When Xenos got stuck in the ground, I shrugged it off. When I opened a door and a mercenary teleported in with his back towards me, it was business as usual for Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I don’t know what happened to the game I saw back at PAX 2011. I just wish Aliens: Colonial Marines was closer to that than what we got.
Food for Thought:
1. When it works, I like the sound direction. The weapons and Xenos all sound like they do in the movie, and James Horner’s score still sounds great. I even like some of the voice acting by Travis Willingham and Ashly Burch, even if Willingham’s voice doesn’t quite fit his character’s appearance.
2. There’s one sequence in which you’re separated from your weapons, and before I realized how scripted it was, I was actually nervous during a scene in which one Xeno attempted to track me down. I liked that it made me feel underpowered and it made me think about how interesting a game based off of the original Alien could be.
3. The screenshots that were released by Sega and used in this playtest are not representative of the way the game looks.