As a series consisting of two excellent films followed by a growing counterweight of bad – or at least divisive – ones, the wider world of Alien could really use a break. As such, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines has been pitched as a corrective, using the smart, muscular intensity of Aliens (which had the original tag line of “This time it’s war”) to build a new narrative branching away from James Cameron’s film, one that’s not mired down by the inexplicable non-drama of Alien 3′s off-world prison or the faraway weightlessness of Resurrection. The violence and swagger of the Colonial Marines are the feature attractions here, and to solve the problem of the ones we knew having been eviscerated by the time that Aliens was done, the developer invents a second unit of grunts to investigate what happened to the first.
The problem is that right from the start this makes the game feel more like a copy than a continuation. The new marine ship, the Sephora, is the double of the original Sulaco, and the shorthand images used to introduce the group – emerging from cryosleep, being briefed on a cold metal deck, a female pilot wearing aviators at the controls of a dropship – are all doubles too. This isn’t in the mould of Cameron’s film, it’s in thrall to it, right down to the roughneck dialogue and even the ship’s android, Rook, the twin of Lance Henriksen’s Bishop. As attractive as the availability of the star for the part must have been, a look to Prometheus would have shown the possibilities of introducing a new android character to the series.
So we are dealing with a facsimile, but on the surface at least, a good one. 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 smartguns. 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. It seems unfair, for instance, that the motion tracker, which has been borrowed by any number of firstperson shooters, should serve other games better than this one. But the implementation here is mysteriously clumsy: switching between the tracker and your weapons is so fast that there’s no real cost to having the device up all the time, and even when it’s stashed out of view it still warns of nearby aliens by emitting a single ping. In short, rather than enhancing the tension, it kills it. The tracker is so widely copied because it should be both functional and dramatic, but here it’s neither.