“Everyone who loves the Alien films will love this game because it’s an Alien film. It’s going to scare you, have all the action, you’ll be part of the Marines you always wanted to be part of, you’re going to have the franchise elements people want to be in there, it’ll be the complete package. People will be like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got a game that actually feels like the film!’ That’s the reception we expect.”
~ Brian Cozzens, PlayMag, 2011.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for the single player campaign.
Before its release Aliens: Colonial Marines garnered a significant amount of attention on two points: the first is its exasperatingly long development period – the game was announced in 2006 before a line of code had been written (“we put the press release out a little prematurely”) and hopscotched its way around numerous release dates throughout 2011 and ’12. Secondly, and more importantly, is its claims to canonicity – developer Gearbox have constantly reminded the fanbase that this isn’t merely another Alien game to be played, shelved, and perhaps forgotten; it’s a legitimate follow-up to James Cameron’s Aliens, sanctioned by 20th Century Fox itself and toting a roundabout blessing from Ridley Scott and designs from Syd Mead. “We’ve never had the true, honest, sincere, authentic experience [in Alien games],” claimed Gearbox CEO, Randy Pitchford. “To make the sequel to Aliens as a video game was our prerequisite,” he told Kotaku in 2012. “The commitment [20th Century Fox] made was, ‘Yes, borrow the franchise for the purpose of doing the next story in the succession of those storylines.'”
‘Authenticity’ has been a persistent buzz word for the game. In 2012 A:CM’s art director Brian Cozzens explained that “We put a lot of effort into being extremely authentic to the film. We’re trying to be very much within canon, and we know that a lot of the hard-core fans take this very seriously.” Attention to detail was apparently meticulous, and news articles and interviews referenced it repeatedly over the years:
“Since Aliens is our closest influence, we have strived for authenticity to the film that players have never seen before. The look of the game is directly inspired by the film, down to the film grain and lighting.”
~ Mike Gallo, producer, CVG, 2008.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into the authenticity and doing, in some cases, the mind’s eye of how the fans remember the film to be.”
~ Brian Cozzens, PlayMag, 2011.
“I did get to submit some canonical stuff about the life cycle of the Alien. I added to that in what I thought was a really clever way, and it’s cool. I totally submitted shit that is now canonical Alien life-cycle stuff. I can talk at Comic-Con and be, ‘Ha ha, I’m an expert! Me and like, two people!’ No, it’s fucking awesome.”
~ Mikey Neumann, lead writer, destructoid.com, 2012
“Brian Martel, the Creative Director on the project and one of the owners of Gearbox, he’s just the biggest Aliens nerd you could ever find on the planet. It was really important to him to not just make the game, but make something that was real. That’s how we got the opportunity to make something that’s actually in the canon.”
~ John Mulkey, Sydney Morning Herald, 2012.
“The idea of being able to make it canon just made it that much more exciting. And that was always, from the beginning, the idea, that we would be adding to the canon. It would be something that was official.”
~ John Mulkey, complex.com, 2013.
“We’re huge Aliens fans ourselves, we’re as big if not bigger fanboys than most of them, and we’ve been able to see the archives and get the super-detailed information that we need to make the game. We want it to be authentic and accurate. If I could put in an extra hour to fix one more detail, it would totally be worth my hour.”
~ Brian Thomas, oxm.co.uk, 2013.
Respecting and yet expanding the canon was a prime goal for GBX. “The biggest mistake anyone touching the canon can do is over-explain everything,” lead writer (or ‘Chief Creative Champion’) Mikey Neumann told destructoid. “Like, cutting to Xeno-Vision would be a fuck-up,” he continued (with a dig at Alien 3′s tunnel chase sequence?) Gearbox also wanted to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs, with Neumann telling destructoid.com, “You know what? I am going to shit on that movie. It felt like really bad fan fiction. Like, ‘OKAH AH MAHK A ALIENTH VERTHAH PRED’TAH!’ Seriously, it was fan fiction, and they can quote me. They can call me up, whatever. I didn’t enjoy it.”
Environmental Artist Chris Neely also chipped in, telling spong.com: “Don’t get me wrong, we’re all the biggest fanboys here, but at the same time we’re all disappointed with ‘modern fanboy’ takes on franchises that were very valuable to us growing up. Like Aliens vs Predator or something like that, which takes all the artistry out of it and just capitalises on the name. Honestly, that movie is like Godzilla vs Mothra. There’s no subtlety. All those deep undertones and messages are just forgotten by the fanboys because they don’t have the discipline. They don’t have the knowledge of those old masters who made that stuff happen.”
GBX also intended that not only would their game continue the series, but it would fill in gaps left by the movies that came before it. “One of the things we’re really proud about is that there were some things that fans like us always believed were inconsistencies between Alien 3 and Aliens,” Randy Pitchford told Kotaku. “But as we dig into it, as we work with filmmakers and kind of understand it all and think about it from a logic problem point of view, there is actually a truth there that makes more sense. When we are able to use it to stitch it together, Alien 3 is actually a better movie.”
First of all, we have to clear the air and come to terms with the game’s setup, which sees a squad of Colonial Marines return to the Sulaco and Hadley’s Hope. A pertinent question is: how could the characters of A:CM return when the colony was in the reach of the Atmosphere Processor when it went nuclear at Aliens’ climax?
Brian Martel, CCO of Gearbox Software, told AVPGalaxy that, “There are a lot of different ways this question could be answered. Technology is very advanced and presumably, parts of Hadleys Hope were built to keep certain parts safe. Also, when a nuke goes off from the ground, it will explode differently then when it’s triggered just before the drop. The explosion will go upwards in a cone shape instead of blow downward, thus delivering less damage. If people would’ve been there, they would’ve died, but a vapour cloud wouldn’t also destroy everything in the radius the size of Nebraska.”
Design director John Mulkey gave the same explanation: “Hadley’s suffered serious damage in the explosion of the atmospheric processor, but is still there. The reactor in atmospheric processors is located underground in the lowest sublevels of the processor so when the explosion went off, a great deal of the destructive force was focused upward rather than laterally. Hadley’s is a mess… but it is still there.”
It’s not a convincing explanation, but many things happen in A:CM merely because GBX want them to happen (no matter how far-fetched), rather than because they need to happen… more on that later.
Return to the Sulaco: Many of the initial Alien III scripts featured salvage crew-type characters stumbling upon the ghost ship Sulaco. In William Gibson’s script they even come across Bishop’s trunkless legs in the dropship hanger. “She’s found Bishop’s legs,” it reads, “broken, grotesquely twisted, still in fatigues, the white android blood clotted into powder.” Eric Red’s script features an excursion into the mysteriously abandoned Sulaco via a dream sequence. Both Gibson and Red’s scripts feature the maligned ‘magic egg’, or worse – an inexplicably mature Alien stowaway that attacks the salvage team.
As for why there are still Aliens running amok throughout the colony and surrounding areas, Neumann offered: “Well, there is more than one hive. LV-426 is a porous, cave-like planet with mad amounts of space.”
LV-426 has never been described as such by anyone involved in the films, so it’s a retcon and explanation entirely of his own making. Saying that, there’s nothing stopping the planet from having plenty of hiding spots amid its twisted surface, but his answer skirts around the actual question: where did the Aliens come from? The game would lead us to believe that not all of them are products of Weyland-Yutani’s attempts to engineer an Alien fighting force, (the only explanation I can muster is that W-Y have terrible containment procedures, and allow Aliens to escape and populate LV-426 and the Sulaco, all the while still calmly trying to exploit the derelict ship and allowing Aliens to run amok.)
Authenticity and the canon question
“I’ve poured over schematics and blueprints because I’ve always wanted to go through Hadley’s Hope as a space marine; I don’t wanna go through some cheap ass imitation, I want the real deal! You get to see there’s the Aliens they killed in the big battle, there’s the grenade that went off with Vasquez and if you go into the room where Ripley slept, you see the two Facehuggers in the exact spot where they were shot – everything is there down to the last detail!”
~ Chris Neely, Environmental Artist, sci-filondon.com, 2013.
“We have had incredible access to the Fox archives which has allowed us to work from props, reference and resources from the original film productions. We have worked with some of the same talent responsible for the original vision for the Alien universe… all to make sure we deliver an absolutely authentic Aliens sequel.”
~ John Mulkey, godisageek.com, 2013.
The game developer’s made constant references to their alleged authenticity over the years (even claiming that, in comparison to Alien fans, “we’re as big if not bigger fanboys than most of them”), and claimed that they looked over the film’s blueprints and documents to recreate the film’s locations. However, some of the details from film to game are wrong – some are small and positively minute, while some are quite egregious.
In the spirit of fun, differences from the film that I can spot include:
- Aliens tells us that 17 days will pass before a rescue squad is sent. For some inexplicable reason, this is extended to 17 weeks, or four months, in Colonial Marines. The Colonial Administration waited roughly two weeks (the length of time it takes a message to be sent and received from the colony according to film dialogue) before sending in the Marines in Aliens; why they would wait months to send a rescue squad after another rescue squad is baffling – apparently the shake n’ bake colonists were of more value and importance to Colonial brass than their own soldiery.
- The female Marines’ dress code does not match the movie. Cameron had his actresses crop their hair. Colete Hiller remembered that “I just bawled” when getting her head shaved. The female Marines (Reid, but especially Bella) in A:CM have been sexualised: long hair, hourglass shaped bodies and a crop top t-shirt, (this was also an inconsistency apparent in Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator).
- Hicks’ in-game bio is wrong, erroneously stating that he was injured near the end of the movie because he “fired a point-blank shotgun blast at an assaulting Xenomorph.” He used his Pulse Rifle, having lost his shotgun after the first encounter with the Aliens. The only point-blank shotgun blast is within the APC (“eat this!”) and the acid spray injures Hudson.
- Hicks claims in the game that he sent the SOS seen at the beginning of A: CM after he and the characters of Aliens left LV-426. However, Hicks never regains consciousness after Ripley leaves to find Newt, never mind when the AP Station explodes, or when then dropship rejoins with the Sulaco, or even after Ripley expels the Alien Queen from the airlock. A more ideal time to send the message would be after Ripley leaves to enter the nest, but before Bishop administers the shot for his pain.
- The sentry guns in the film sport batteries that sit at the back of their tripods; but not in the game.
- Not a difference from the film per se, but Hudson’s corpse is remarkably well preserved for having been dead for 17+ weeks.
- Hudson’s corpse is also wearing gloves, which he does not wear in the movie at any point.
- The Aliens in the films range from 7-8 feet tall. The Aliens in the game seem level with the player, roughly around 6 feet.
- The creatures don’t feature the same legs as the creatures from Aliens, but Alien Resurrection instead.
- They have a second thumb – though this is in line with the creature from Alien and Alien 3, the Aliens creatures do not sport this extra digit.
- They are missing the scythe-blades on their elbows.
- They are also missing the curved spike headrest that sits below the back of their neck, (on close inspection, there seems to be a little nub under their heads.)
- Other sexual-biomechanical details are missing, such as the sculpted vaginas on their crotch.
- The eggs are based on designs from Alien Resurrection, not Alien, Aliens, or Alien 3.
- The Queen has more in common with her Alien vs. Predator movie counterpart, most notably in regards to her size and her legs. Differences between the two is detailed here.
- The plot point concerning the Alien embryo killing its host when surgically removed is not a concern in Alien Resurrection, nor is it pointed out during Alien 3 when Ripley scans herself in the EEV. It seems to have been concocted from Bishop’s “They killed him taking it off,” line, which in turn is a nod to the Nostromo crew figuring that the facehugger will tear off Kane’s face if removed.
- The floor panel that Ripley uses to close the airlock is absent.
- The hanger is noticeably smaller. There is no room for a second dropship as in the film. The hanger was extended with a matte painting in the film, so GBX likely missed it, as they allegedly looked at blueprints for the set, (a look at the film however would show the hanger’s immense size.)
- Bishop’s legs are for some reason at the nose of the dropship, which means they somehow circumnavigated the contours of the ship as the Queen ripped him in two. The game also tells us that his legs did not move at all when the airlock was opened, even though we see crates etc being sucked out into space during the movie.
- Doesn’t say ‘READY RM’ on the ready room as per the film, (credit to SM)
- Says ‘3D’ above the ready room in the game. ‘4D’ in the film, (credit to SM)
- Cryotubes are missing. There are only twelve in Colonial Marines. In Aliens there are enough to hold the twelve Marines (Apone, Gorman, Hicks, Hudson, Frost, Drake, Vasquez, Crowe, Wierzbowski, Dietrich, Spunkmeyer, Ferro,) as well as Ripley, Burke, and Bishop, making for fifteen overall. Like the hanger, the cryo-chamber was made to appear bigger by the use of an illusion: mirrors were used to extend the room because the production could not afford to build all of the tubes, which GBX have not accounted for.
- There is relatively little fire damage, despite the inferno we see in Alien 3‘s opening (flames roll over the ceiling, blow up an alarm, etcetera.)
- In A:CM, the cryotubes that Ripley and co. inhabited were to the far right of the chamber. At the end of Aliens they inhabit the far left pods – you can see the furthermost wall behind Newt in the film (they actually sleep in this order: two empty tubes by the far wall, then Bishop, Hicks, Ripley, Newt.)
- The APC is outside the colony wall perimeter. In the movie, Ripley drives out of the Atmosphere Processor and stops. The great distance between the APC and Hadley’s Hope can be seen in the movie as the characters await the dropship to pick them up. Additionally, according to the dialogue in the movie, the APC was smashed by the dropship wreckage. It’s undamaged in the game.
- The side of the colony facing the A.P. station has a storm wall surrounding it. In the film the wall only covers the opposite side, as the wind on the planet only ever blows in one direction, according to James Cameron, (which is why the yardang-like rocks have been generally eroded in one direction, and point towards the A.P. station.) Concept art by Ron Cobb here shows a close-to-the-film layout of the colony in relation to the A.P. station, and the storm wall’s position around the south lock and helipad.
- In addition to the above point, the planet’s rock formations are all pointing in the wrong direction from the film, (away from the A.P. station, where the greater deal of them point towards it in the film.)
- Somehow the Jorden family tractor is undamaged by the blast -not even a cracked window- though the colony has suffered significant damage. The tractor is also in perfect working order.
- The Atmosphere Processor is said to be three miles out from the colony in the game; it’s a “half kilometre” away in the film’s various scripts.
- The MedLab has a neon sign above its entranceway that is not in the film.
- In Operations, the uplifted tiles where Hudson was dragged down are different from the film.
- The doorway and window leading to the room where the facehuggers are kept has changed completely. Comparison picture here.
- In Aliens, there is black stencilled writing on the walls where the jarred facehuggers are kept. These are absent in the game. There are also metal pipes in the room with differing designs between film and game. The dead facehuggers are also in different positions. Comparison picture here.
- All of the aforementioned room’s tubes hold facehuggers, though two are released by Burke in Aliens and another is dissected by Bishop.
- The dead facehuggers that attacked Newt and Ripley are in the wrong positions. Hudson’s is trapped behind the small table – in the film it falls and Hudson proceeds to keep shooting it. The other ‘hugger was thrown against a far wall by Hicks; it lies dead near the middle of the room in the game.
- As far as I can tell, the hole leading to the egg chamber is absent from the Jockey’s dais.
- The Space Jockey’s pilot room seems to lie beyond, rather than above, the egg chamber.
There are undoubtedly more differences between the film and game, despite Gearbox’s assertions that they have remained utterly faithful to the movie, and have assembled the most accurate depiction of its environments yet seen. Whilst some differences are admittedly so minute that they hardly matter, others are eyesores when you keep in mind Gearbox’s relentless claims to complete authenticity. In fact, the game sometimes finds it difficult to stay consistent with itself. At the beginning of the game the Sulaco and the Sephora are facing in opposite directions. Between rooms you can see that the Sephora has turned to face the same direction as the Sulaco.
As for whether or not I consider this game to be canon with the movies, as GBX and Fox do, I say: I do not. Aside from being poorly plotted, it doesn’t even seem to function as a story-based game, à la Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy. Instead the game runs as a series of linear checkpoints loosely tethered together by badly voiced, terribly animated, but thankfully brief voice-overs and clips. Though I think the series would be more suited to a third-person survival horror interpretation, I don’t think the genre GBX went with (FPS) necessarily limits the story-telling opportunities. Instead, the work put into the game and its story was simply subpar.
Judged purely as an official addendum to the movie canon, Colonial Marines is poor quality fan fiction: a repetitive catalogue of pre-existing scenarios and ideas, remixed and regurgitated until all that remains is pulp and husk. That it then proceeds to take a long hot piss all over the established series chronology, just to set up a predictable and pointless cameo, is a twist of the knife too far.
~ Eurogamer review, 2013.
“Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs!”
It’s best to start with what I liked. The opening image of the Sephora in orbit with the Sulaco is attention grabbing. The latter ship floats in darkness, only briefly illuminated by the headlights of smaller shuttles. Jazzed up musical cues from the films thump on. A squad of Colonial Marines march through the umbilicus and open the Sulaco’s airlock. LV-426’s storms flash silently beyond them.
I liked the reveal of the derelict. The idea that Weyland-Yutani would set up shop there makes for nice imagery, though the idea itself originated in Rebellion’s Alien vs. Predator game for the PC, released in 1999.
The ‘Raven’ Alien had an interesting head design, reminiscent of the original Alien’s skull-behind-the-dome. Though Gearbox said that the new variant creatures would fit into a hierarchical hive structure, I can’t work out the Raven’s place in this society. It seems as though GBX wanted to have a ‘Praetorian’ type Alien from the expanded universe, but didn’t want to make something like the commonly used design. By omitting any explanation for the Raven they only manage to barely conceal their lack of imaginative cohesion for the designs and how they fit into the hive. The ‘Spitter’ doesn’t make sense either, since the Alien in Alien 3 had this ability, and was not some wild dayglo-filled variety of monster…
But I’m complaining again.
The Plot and Other Questions…
Holes and queries quickly appear in the plot after scrutiny.
- If a downed transponder at Hadley’s Hope saw the Colonial Administration send in Marines during Aliens, then why isn’t the 17 or so weeks of radio silence from both the colony and the Sulaco a non-issue for the Administration, the ICC, and world governments?
- Why did the Company take the Sulaco back to LV-426 when they had their own ship (seen at the end of Alien 3) the Patna?
- Why would Weyland-Yutani hire mercenaries and conduct extremely illegal human and biological experiments, and then have every crate, desk drawer, baseball cap, and cargo container at the black site emblazoned with their company logo?
- Why would the Company sacrifice literally hundreds of personnel to breed Aliens, when dogs and even cattle are suitable hosts (and probably easier to garner and ‘murder’.)
- Why would the Company openly wage war on the Colonial Administration and the USMC – isn’t it afraid of having its Earthly assets frozen or its facilities raided? As Burke says in Aliens, Weyland Yutani has joint ventures with the Colonial Administration, including colony installation, funding, and building Atmosphere Processors.
- Why leave a very incriminating trail of evidence, when you can blame the destruction of the colony and the Aliens Marine unit on an A.P. station malfunction (and probably get away with it, since Cameron specified that Burke was a lone agent in directing the colonists to the derelict)? Presumably, after that, they could set to work within the derelict pretty much unimpeded.
The game’s entire treatment of Weyland-Yutani is problematic. The involvement of the Company in Alien and Aliens was far more subtle; they were always somewhat removed from the proceedings, with the events of those movies having more to do with corporate neglect rather than direct malfeasance. Aliens: Colonial Marines tell us that the entirety of Weyland Yutani would sacrifice itself in attempt to save one limb – the Weapons Division; a shadowy element of the Company even in Alien 3. Here we’re given a one-note, cliched take on the Company that would be expected from a third-rate comic book, not from what is meant to be a canonical sequel to the film series. It’s Bad Guys, Inc.
HicksColonial Marines also retconned the events of Alien 3′s opening to resurrect Corporal Hicks. The character’s a firm fan favourite and many are still dissatisfied with how he was treated in the third movie. With this in mind, it would seem that Hicks’ re-entry into the series would be the one element of the game’s plot that is utterly welcome.
The opposite is true. Personally, I am all for Hicks returning, but only on the condition that A) it is done right, and B) he has a reason to continue existing within this universe. The game fulfills neither of these criteria. First, the scriptwriter refuses to tell us how Hicks could survive Alien 3′s opening, and why there was a corpse dressed in his underwear and draped in his bandages. Hicks literally says, “that’s a longer story”, and we’re expected to swallow this, (you can probably expect to be asked to pay for DLC to explain the whole debacle.)
Furthermore, we’re told that the Company kidnapped Hicks and tortured him for weeks to glean information about… something… We’re not told what it is that Hicks can know that Weyland-Yutani couldn’t figure out by visiting LV-426 themselves. Looking at their facility in and around the derelict, they likely do know more than him by the time they set down. So his capture and torture is beyond justification. Once he’s freed by the player character, Hicks proceeds to stand in the background during cutscenes and hangs around in gameplay with dead, silver eyes, (take a close look at his face if you dare.) So his presence in the game can’t be justified either.
If there’s anything positive to be gleaned from the whole experience, it’s that it sent me back to Aliens: Book One and Two to get a taste of what an Aliens continuation featuring Hicks should have been like.
Characters & Dialogue
Have you ever heard the phrase, “tries too hard”? That’s Aliens: Colonial Marines’ approach to dialogue. The game constantly reinforces the words, “Sulaco,” and “Hadley’s Hope” to batter you over the head with the fact that you’re exploring these environments from the film. It’s as though the scriptwriter was afraid of common nouns. Ditto for “Marines” and the game’s shortcut for resolving confrontations and what should be difficult moral choices: “We don’t leave Mah-reenz behind.” Repeat this multiple times over every level. As for character interaction, consider this line from O’Neil, concerning his relationship Bella:
“We had a thing… a sex thing.”
This is as deep as the interpersonal relationships get. Not only is this line somewhat comedic (probably the intention), it’s completely useless narratively. Shortly afterwards, once on the surface of LV-426, Bella is told she only has hours to live. The NPCs stare unblinkingly at one another, and nothing much else is said. If O’Neil’s “sex thing” line was anything more than an example of the game’s failed attempt at emulating the film’s gung-ho back-slapping dialogue, then this would be an opportunity to show that it has purpose, to tease out some real emotion. But it doesn’t happen. Bella’s description of the facehugger attack is probably worse.
In all, I can’t bring myself to say much about the dialogue; it feels pointless to do so. As for characters: they’re excruciating. Winter is a non-entity, O’Neil frustratingly annoying, Bella’s death is most welcome, Bishop and Hicks are nothing but fan-service, and Cruz is the summation of every Marine cliche the script can find. Destructoid’s review sums it up:
“Dialog is embarrassingly puerile, and couldn’t be more full of gung-ho machismo tripe if it tried. While the original Aliens dissected its posturing “manly man” stereotypes, and showcased how utterly frail a cowboy mentality can be when everything falls apart, Colonial Marines revels in its own testosterone, submerged gleefully in a pool of dank ultramasculinity. This is a game that unequivocally misses the point of Aliens, which wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t already had the gall to insist it was a true followup.”
Aliens is one of the most respected movies not only in the Alien canon, but to general science-fiction and action fans too. For a developer, most of the work has been done for them: the world, backstory, weapons, gear, lore, creature design, sound effects, establishing the fanbase, all of it. But this game is so enslaved to Aliens that it does nothing new, and it bungles the few attempts it makes to add to the mythology of the series. We’re meant to take this seriously as a genuine Alien experience, but it has none of the inventiveness of Alien 3, never mind Alien or Aliens. It shares none of their horror, their terror, or their suspense. It’s the equivalent of a shoddy high school tribute act covering one of your favourite bands, (and there are a ridiculous amount of doughnut easter eggs – it’s meant to be a wink to the half-eaten doughnut in Aliens, but it features so much that it’s practically a seizure.)
To be blunt, Colonial Marines isn’t a story that needs to be told, and it isn’t only a rehash of Aliens’ scenario – it’s far less than that. It’s an interactive tour of the film’s environments, peppered with dead-eyed, Team America-esque lantern jawed marionettes/characters, and riddled with poor gameplay, terrible enemies, awful AI, and an embarrassing misrepresentation of what Aliens was actually about, (note: it was not about machismo dialogue or high-grade weaponry.) Where Aliens deconstructed the Vietnam-era ‘might-is-right’ military mentality, Colonial Marines dusts it off and props it up.
James Cameron himself disagreed that the weaponry and Marines were the focus of Aliens, telling Time magazine in 1986: “It’s more interesting to see a normal person in abnormal circumstances than a highly trained person like Superman or James Bond … the movie is about finding personal resources: will, courage, whatever.” When Cameron fetishises the Marines and their weaponry prior to their encounters with the Aliens, he is doing so to set them up to fall – first time viewers may even think that they have a fighting chance. Thematically, the film is about a highly confident and well-armed contingent falling to a non-technological but far more determined prey. But the film’s real focus, according to Cameron, was the question: “would you be willing to go into hell for someone, and if so, who would it be, and what would your relationship to them be?” There’s a sense that, had Ripley been completely unarmed at the film’s finale, then she still would have delved into the Atmosphere Processor’s bowels to save Newt.
Now, to invoke another movie, there are those who regard Tony Montana as the ultimate self-made man: driven, irrepressible, insolent, but ultimately successful against his enemies. Then there are those who recognise that Scarface is about one man’s swift rise and his swifter fall; they remember that Montana loses, that his greed destroys everything and everyone he touches. Ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale of one gangster’s folly. Likewise, there are those who came away from Aliens and remembered nothing but the gadgetry, the gear, the quips, the quotes, the high-fives and bravado. They forget about the movie’s patience, its suspense, and the weight of the characters’ insurmountable situation. But when Pitchford talks about the highlights of Aliens and how it spurred them to make Colonial Marines he focuses on the tech and temporary bravado of the Marines rather than the lingering dread and the uselessness of high-tech gear against an indomitable enemy.
Facehuggers and the accompanying themes of rape and impregnation are shrugged off via shallow writing and flat delivery. Where the game’s characters should feel a surmounting horror and revulsion and a loosening grasp on their circumstances, they instead find their ‘oorah’ attitudes buoyed and their confidences inflated as the odds mount. As such, there’s no tension, no sense that the risks are grander, the glory dimmer. It’s hard to feel threatened when hordes of Aliens jog in front of your gun barrel and pop like balloons with a noise akin to someone biting into an apple.
Worst of all, the game actively bends backwards to even exist, retconning the destruction of Hadley’s Hope merely so we can stand within its walls again. The colony really has no purpose in the game other than that. This is a real shame and a missed opportunity, and it’s all the more frustrating to see concept art depicting environments that we haven’t yet experienced in the movies, including:
Instead we were offered a rehash. The entire affair is disheartening. At best, recreating and revisiting the environments from the film are merely attempts to exploit your feelings of nostalgia. At its worst, it’s just plain masturbatory. Perhaps they should have heeded James Cameron, when he said:
“The most obvious problem is, how do you beat a classic? You have to really dig deep into the bag of tricks and come up with some good tricks. And you must do a proper homage to the original without being a mindless fan, something which is a piece of entertainment and a story in it’s own right.”
~ James Cameron, Fangoria, 1986.
Of course, it’s no secret that the main impetus for GBX to make the game was wish fulfillment. “Every time we saw the Colonial Marines,” stated Randy Pitchford, “and thought about how awesome they are, how badass they are, how cool their equipment is, and how gnarly that situation was — and even the specific environments like the Sulaco, and Hadley’s Hope, and the derelict ship from Alien — those were fantasies we wanted to fulfill.” Brian Mulkey added: “We were excited about that idea, you know, taking those kinds of elements, all the weaponry and the gear and the whole attitude, you know, and all that—becoming a Colonial Marine—that was what we were really excited about. So we wanted to return to that presentation and that period and continue onward from that. We felt that that would be the most exciting thing, and the thing that the fans would want most.” Mikey Neumann summed it up more succinctly when he told The Guardian: “The main motivation, though, is being a Colonial Marine. Everyone wants to shoot a smartgun.”
Essentially, it’s tiring being hyped up by promotional materials for years, then putting money towards a ticket (Prometheus) or a pre-order (Aliens vs Predator, Aliens: Colonial Marines), and then being chastised for having ‘high hopes’ when the product doesn’t live up to the advertised quality.
I reckon that a healthy step for these movie-to-game adaptations and licenses would be to step away from the first-person-shooter genre and make something braver. An open world adventure game, perhaps with RPG elements; or maybe even a third-person survival horror game, probably the genre that the series is best suited for. In the Alien licensed games so far there is far too much emphasis on killing, when the focus in the movies was on surviving. Gamers will happily sit back and chew their fingernails over a game, and brands like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were born from that desire, (before invariably falling to diminishing returns and a focus on gun n’ run gameplay.) An interesting idea would be to start the game armed to the teeth, and then slowly lose your weapons and armour throughout the game, which would then be based around conservation in the midst of an Alien assault. It certainly would mimic Aliens itself, where, in the end, Ripley is forced to resort to a tool (the powerloader) to defeat her enemy.
As for this particular game, we’re wading through the ruins of a place already wrecked in Aliens. We already spent a couple of hours holed up there. Even if it had been made competently, I think I would still have some difficulty enjoying the retread. I wouldn’t actually mind something new, but to be honest, after playing Colonial Marines I was burned out by the Alien series altogether.
The sense of impending death from just a single Alien is lost when you’re holding back laughter at Gearbox’s parody. For all the stamping of approved canon on Aliens: Colonial Marines, nobody can seriously say that this sits anywhere on the Aliens timeline.