Aliens: Colonial Marines PS3 review – I got signals. I got readings, in front and behind

Aliens Colonial Marines PS3 screens

Official PlayStation Magazine UK’s Aliens: Colonial Marines PS3 review & gameplay video.

As you might hope, fighting aliens is the best bit of Aliens: Colonial Marines. They leap and scurry over walls; they scuttle across ceilings and rush in to attack, leaving you backpedaling amid sprays of panicked gunfire. There’s an almost retro feel to the action as you spiral and circle to hit them, the concept of cover a long-distant memory. As the Pulse Rifles spit and flare to a backing of Xeno screams and marine shouts it shows the game at its best – capturing a flavour of the movie and giving you the chance to take a starring role.

Aliens: Colonial Marines PS3 review

Where Gearbox dials into that atmosphere Colonial Marines succeeds best. Creeping through corridors with the motion tracker outstretched. Panicking when aliens come from every direction. Looking up at [spoiler] and getting a little bit excited to go there even if it make absolutely no sense how or why. In fact you’ll do well to approach this as if it was an Aliens theme park ride rather than a serious take on the story, as key elements can pop out like rubber masks on a spring. An option to buy the T-shirt wasn’t presented at the end but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was.

Almost anything you can think to name makes an appearance at some point here, and it doesn’t so much stray from the established plot as waltz off into an alternate dimension. “Its atmospheric processor exploded like a 40-megaton bomb,” says one marine of the surprisingly intact Hadley’s Hope. Then there’s the impossible character making a surprise return from the original film. When directly challenged by the game’s own cast as to why they cannot possibly be there they simply reply, “Ah, well that’s a longer story”. Is it? You’re meant to be dead and in another star system so I can make time.

Aliens Colonial Marines PS3 screensWhen one of the red laser ‘Pup’ probes from Prometheus flies past at one point it confirms a fan fiction level of homage – enthusiastic and loving, but clumsy. Had Ash appeared and started making out with Bishop, I’d barely have blinked. You can’t fault Gearbox for trying to please, and the attention to detail is impressive. That said, the Sheldon Coopers of the world will likely have an aneurysm at more than one point.

Inconsistencies aside, this a serviceable shooter: entertaining but never more than perfunctory. The best of it takes that cinematic source material and works it into gameplay to create satisfying ‘I’m in the movie!’ moments (say it in a Ralph Wiggum voice for best effect). A perfect example has you trapped in a claustrophobic, shadowy room with a bunch of hit-and-run aliens dashing about. It leaves you spinning around with the Motion Tracker, nervously chasing signals as tails dart out of view.

It’s a huge shame though that this is the only real time the motion tracker really lives up to its potential. Its ability to scare has been utterly nerfed by making it ping on-screen warnings whether you’re using it or not. It removes any sense of threat entirely because you’re consistently forewarned when something’s coming – and even warned mid-battle if there’s still stuff on the way. This reduces arguably one of the most effective cinematic devices for increasing tension to nothing but window dressing. Another less than successful addition is the door welding/cutting. It offers no strategic purpose (bar one level): it’s simply a longer way to open doors. Then there’s Bella. Not exactly game-breaking but certainly annoying, she’s meant to be a battle-hardened marine yet sports long hair tied into adorable little buns and hoop earrings. Vasquez she is not.

Getting to see famous locations, iconic monsters and make all the right noises without using your mouth does go a long way, but where Colonial Marines falls is in its inability to break away from a very standard shooter mould. Things such as Weyland-Yutani troops stomping into the mix – presumably because we had to have some man-on-man gunplay in there somewhere. The cover-based conflicts they generate are acceptable but unspectacular.

Another indication of the constraints Gearbox seemed compelled to squeeze the game into are the upgrade and challenge systems. The weapons have an embarrassingly limited off-the-shelf range of attachments to unlock – things like red dot sights, silencers and stocks – while there are rewards for things like ‘gibbing five opponents in one mission’ – the notifications for which can pop up in the middle of the action, instantly ruining the mood like a fart on a date.

Other additions – acid-spitting aliens, tank-like Bull variants or blind ones that home in on sound and then explode – add little because they feel like other games’ ideas. They at least don’t take anything away, as it’s never unpleasant to play, but you can’t escape the fact that when Colonial Marines strays from its source it uses rote mechanics slotted in with little imagination. If you’re fresh from Dishonored or Far Cry 3 (or even Black Ops 2) the lack of creativity will be a shock. Those comparisons may seem unfair, but it’s simply an indication of where the bar for quality has been set in 2013.

Visually, it’s acceptable at best. There’s some evocative lighting, but poor textures and oddly low-rent touches – aliens explode in chunkily modelled lumps, and bodies vanish almost instantly. Glitches and clipping issues are everywhere – the worst involving a boss fight with a Power Loader that kept getting punched through a wall and having to respawn. I also saw a companion NPC get scooped up by an alien and have their face bitten off. Clearly there was no prep for killing a permanent character so they died twice while the game tried to work out what to do and then popped to their feet and carried like nothing had happened.

Aliens Colonial Marines PS3 ScreensAt times, this feels like a basic FPS template was made and then aliens added afterwards. And not even a modern template. If I had to line it up against something of equal quality, I’d say COD 2 or 3 – a telling comparison, considering Aliens’ was originally announced almost six years ago. Structurally almost every mission is a linear trek with a button at the end, often with little more result than revealing a new button. Even boss fights mainly involve reaching a boss-killing switch. The cut-scenes are also very stripped-down, with characters who look and sound like they’re on loan from other games. At one point I genuinely lost track of who was talking, and after scanning the crowd to see whose lips were moving I had to conclude it was me.

Online adds a little life – the excellent ‘get to the choppa’ Escape mode, which sees you racing to a dropship, basically is the film. The melee-based aliens however never feel effective against soldiers or comfortable to play with. And as such are always a second choice. As a result this adds up to something playable and occasionally atmospheric, but never extraordinary. I finished it twice (it’s better on hardened difficulty) and enjoyed my chance to play at being a Colonial Marine – but ultimately it’s let down by its formulaic FPS frame and lack of polish. If Gearbox’s quality scale has Borderlands 2 at one end and Duke Nukem at the other, Colonial Marines sits somewhere in the middle.

Our Score

Score: 6