Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines is like a trip to a natural history museum. It's empty and nostalgic, meticulous and dated. More importantly, it's hands-off. Like a museum, Colonial Marines is at its best when you're admiring the view. The moment you attempt to reach out to interact you're met with a barrier, reminding you that you're there to look, not to touch.
Set up as a direct sequel to the 1986 film Aliens, Colonial Marines drops players into the armored boots of the titular soldiers, tasked with following-up on a distress call sent out after the conclusion of the movie. Fans of the franchise will enjoy being enveloped in the Aliens universe from the onset, with many of the locations from the film being recast as xenomorph-filled corridors. Attention to detail is paramount--if you're a fan of the film you'll know exactly why there's an android torn in half aboard the U.S.S. Sulaco, and you'll recognize many of the locations on LV-426's surface. You'll find collectible weapons named after Aliens' characters, audio recordings recanting events of the films, and dog tags of fallen soldiers as you work through the campaign. You won't be able to walk five feet without tripping over a wink and stumbling into a nod.
But once you've exhausted the glee of exploring the derelict space ship and poking the Space Jockey, you'll find that there's really nothing fun about Colonial Marines. During the five-hour long campaign you'll be dragged through a wholly uninteresting story that you're expected to care about through nostalgic pressure alone. You'll be given objectives like "plant thing on thing" or "push button in place" as you gun your way from one uninteresting encounter to the next.
There are a smattering of set piece encounters and a witty line of dialogue or two, but they're buried deep in a sea of apathy. Characters appear and vanish without explanation, and major plot holes are kicked into an airlock and ignored. Aliens is known for its strong, memorable characters, but Colonial Marines makes no time for its own--instead, it mistakes a nostalgic set visit to the locations from the film for motivation.
Sometimes this isn't an issue. There's some fanboyish fun blasting apart xenomorphs with a plasma rifle and watching their acidic blood splatter on the walls--that is, after all, what you're signing up for with an Aliens game. But by the end of the first chapter you'll have iced so many xenomorphs that they may as well be ants pouring out of an anthill. The game's shoddy AI doesn't help much, either. Xenomorphs stumble out of shadows and trot forward, lacking any survival instinct or sense of spacial awareness. In the films, the sleek aliens were portrayed as the perfect killing machines. In Colonial Marines, they barely pass as sentient. The Weyland-Yutani mercenaries you'll fight are significantly more capable in battle and make for more enjoyable encounters, but even then the game is still just scraping the bottom of what you expect from a shooter in 2013.
Sometimes, cooperative play can make a lackluster campaign more enjoyable--but it's a detriment in Colonial Marines. The scaling feels off, and you'll end up cruising through the already short campaign at breakneck speeds as xenomorphs dissolve under the combined might of up to four players. Narrow hallways go from mildly creepy to somewhat hilarious when they're jam-packed with soldiers bumping into each other as they jog from one place to the next. Though some of Colonial Marines' 10 chapters feel as though they were made with co-op in mind, others simply aren't optimized for multiple marines; it takes an already precarious situation and outright topples it.
The only time it's preferable to play with others is in the versus modes, which pit player-controlled marines against player-controlled xenomorphs in a number of different game modes. Playing as xenomorphs feels unique, with third-person gameplay and the ability to climb walls to stalk your foes. Even jumping in as marines is more enjoyable, as you're challenged to fight against better organized and more intelligent foes than you face in the campaign. It's a shame, though, that these modes are so buggy--you'll leap at an enemy as a xenomorph and get stuck in an animation, or spawn with the first-person camera sticking out of the wrong side of your character's head. If the multiplayer was more polished it might add some much-needed replayability to Colonial Marines. Instead, it's another missed opportunity in a sea of mistakes.
Gaming owes a lot to James Cameron's Aliens films, but despite having its DNA present in just about every science fiction game ever made, Aliens has struggled to get a proper one of its own in the past decade. Aliens: Colonial Marines continues this disappointing trend, making for an experience that's more Aliens: Resurrection than it is Aliens.
This game was reviewed on PC and Xbox 360.