This day, Feb. 29, is a day that only comes around once every four years. So why wouldn’t we want to waste it by talking about a video game that many considered the worst game of its decade, namely “Aliens: Colonial Marines”?
When I recently saw “Colonial Marines” colonizing a bargain bin, I thought it was finally priced right for me to check it out. The idea that it was terrible was pretty drilled into my head. But was that fair? After all, the game spent a seemingly never ending amount of time in production, and it claimed to be the inheritor of James Cameron’s 1986 sci fi thriller classic. With that to live up to, it’s only natural that it would initially disappoint. Now, years after its release, would the game’s true merits be easier to see?
No. Of course not. It was then, and is today, a terrible game.
“Colonial Marines” begins with a bunch of the titular space meatheads investigating the abandoned transport ship from “Aliens.” When it turns out to have an unexpectedly healthy xenomorph population, they switch to investigating the abandoned colony of Hadley’s Hope, which goes equally well. Dwindling in number but never in snappy quips, the marines have to battle xenomorphs of all sorts and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries as they try to escape the colony with their limbs intact.
There are not a lot of things to like about “Colonial Marines,” so we’ll get them out of the way first. The music is good and the environments are good and Lance Henriksen is great. Composer Kevin Riepl took a lot of direction from the original “Aliens” soundtrack, and some of the in-game areas were designed by the late Syd Mead, who designed some of the environments in the 1986 film.
That Lance Henriksen is great needs no elaboration. He’s Lance Henriksen.
Although this adds authenticity and quality to the game, it begs the question: If the best parts of “Colonial Marines” are ripped right out of “Aliens,” why shouldn’t one just watch the movie instead? The game doesn’t help itself out by splattering around liberal amounts of xenomorph fan service. Many of the collectibles are straight out of the movie. They’re also placed in a haphazard and inorganic way, and exist solely to tie themselves back to the movie. Look, there’s Newt’s doll! In some random location! Remember that?
In fact, most of the collectibles seem utterly inorganic. The dog tags are just there to be collected for no particular reason. The audio logs make a little more sense, since they are somewhat related to the environments where they’re found, but they never feel necessary. At least a couple – usually those featuring a gruff engineer named Joshua Morris – add some depth and levity a largely dry game.
The unoriginality doesn’t stop there. The dialogue and characters dig deep into the barrel of testosterone-soaked cliches without quality or irony. I actually laughed out loud at a commander whose advise to a chestburster infected marine was to “keep her chin up.” The story is pretty boilerplate for the franchise. Marines show up to kill xenomorphs. Weyland-Yutani thugs show up to kill marines. Someone’s kidnapped a xenomorph queen, because that always works out, and of course she’s the final boss.
Actually, there is a little bit of originality there because another game might make a fight with a xenomorph queen a tense game of cat and mouse or a desperate shootout. But not “Colonial Marines.” It prefers to make it an anticlimactic lever puzzle.
As for the rest of the gameplay, I hope you like shooting things, shooting things with the same samey guns, shooting blobby black things that jump out of the bad lighting. Your enemies are typically xenomorph drones, which are easy enough to deal with. The game practically forces ammunition into your hands, and the aliens don’t take much damage and often glitch out when they try to attack you. I guess that adds some tension because it’s usually a surprise when they do manage to kill you.
When you aren’t fighting aliens, you’re fighting Weyland-Yutani mercenaries, and they are notably more durable and skilled at fighting than the xenomorphs – because why shouldn’t punch clock goons be more effective than the most perfectly designed organic killing machine in the galaxy?
A few defenders of the game point a level where you are largely unarmed and running from an oversized alien called the Raven. It’s one spot where the clunky sci fi action briefly becomes more like survival horror, and it is one of the few times I actually felt nervous playing. But is it a truly tense and atmospheric moment? Or is it just a walking simulator with bad lighting? Or, worst of all, is it as buggy as the other parts of the game once you realize you can just goof your way through by utilizing the AI’s glitchy behavior? Unfortunately, it ended up being a little of all three.
When the game wasn’t ripping off the Alien franchise, it’s ripping off the original “Halo,” which itself was very Alien inspired. “Colonial Marines” has many of the same concepts: the same crashing ship for a first level, the same starting rifle, the same basic HUD, the same everything bathed in the same blue glow. “Halo” was a good game, of course, but it was also from more than 10 years earlier. “Colonial Marines” isn’t much of a graphical improvement, and “Halo” was a much wittier and more organic experience.
Anyway, all of this is why I can wholeheartedly recommend you play “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Assuming you can find it on sale.
Yes, I know, I just spent multiple paragraphs trashing it. But if you’re the kind of person who loves laughing at cheesy sci fi/horror, then this might be the game for you. Everything about “Colonial Marines” feels like a terrible game trying and failing comically to be a great game. It’s a given that the glitchy gameplay, the brainless heroes and slobbering villains all try and fail spectacularly. But the better things, the bombastic score and dark atmosphere, also back up the campy experience. When the background is surprisingly decent, it makes the crappy foreground look all the crappier. Even the efforts at fan service just point you toward a superior product and remind you that this was supposed to be one too.
In fact, the only thing that gives me any pause in recommending this as a cult classic of cringe is the ending, which is so flat and sudden as to spoil much of the ridiculous over-the-top everything of the rest of the game. “Aliens: Colonial Marines” was aiming for awesome. Most of the time, it was awesomely stupid. But at the very end, it’s just kind of stupid.