The first thing you see is a gun. Not just a gun, but the gun. The M41A pulse rifle 10 millimetre with over-and-under 30 millimetre pump action grenade launcher, as so lovingly described by Corporal Dwayne Hicks during an unlikely moment of firearms-assisted flirtation with Ripley in James Cameron's 1986 classic, Aliens. Before the game even starts, you're forced to watch as your virtual hands hold the rifle up and inspect it from every angle. "Look," Aliens: Colonial Marines is saying. "Just like the film!"
That, it transpires, is the best trick in the arsenal of a game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago. That's why artist Syd Mead was brought back to expand on his original designs. That's why the music borrows from James Horner's score, by turns eerie and full of martial urgency. That's why the plot - such as it is - is sure to revisit every location, every encounter, that fans will want to relive. In terms of pandering to fan expectations, Colonial Marines can't be accused to dereliction of duty.
Those are mere surface details, however, and you only have to play the game for half an hour or so before you start to wish that Gearbox had invested as much time and effort in a stronger game engine and a few fresh ideas. For all the lunges it makes in the direction of movie authenticity, the game is held back by a stultifying lack of ambition and a game engine that barely works.
In this direct sequel to the movie, a second platoon of Colonial Marines is sent to check on the fate of the first squad of marines, the ones whose cinema adventure we all know. What happens to this second group? Much the same thing. They creep through the same ruined passages and abandoned buildings - looking remarkably robust despite being the site of a vast nuclear explosion only a few months earlier - and they encounter the same species of parasitic xenomorphs.
This certainly isn't a game that aims to shake things up. It's as basic as first-person shooting gets, with 11 campaign missions that involve little more than jogging from point A to point B, grabbing ammo, picking up armour and pressing buttons to open doors along the way. There's momentary pleasure in the way the creatures twitch under the sputtering fire of your pulse rifle, but that fleeting throwback to the movie is exhausted before the end of the first level. You may be playing as a Colonial Marine rather than just a space marine, and the monsters might be capital letter Aliens instead of mere aliens, but the framework is not so much set in stone as downright fossilised.
There's an upgrade system that pays lip service to deeper gameplay mechanics. You earn XP through both solo and online play, and this in turn unlocks new attachments and decorative features for your weapons and character. None of it feels essential, though - the pulse rifle and shotgun you start with are the most efficient weapons in the game and more than up to the rudimentary duck-shoot encounters you'll face, so there's never any incentive to experiment with different loadouts. The motion tracker is sporadically useful but the AI is so dim that it's barely necessary; critters will be charging at your face by the time you've checked the blips. The really cool toys - the smart gun, the turrets, the flamethrower - are only available at specific points in the story, or are dished out stingily in multiplayer.
What this second trek through familiar locations lacks is any sense of story or character. There's no Ripley to offer a human dimension on the carnage, there's no ineffectual leader or backstabbing corporate man. There's not even a cast of salty and memorable grunts, just faint echoes of archetypes who speak in clichés. One of your fellow marines doesn't like being called "nugget" and had a "sex thing" with a sassy female comrade. That's about as deep as characterisation goes.
Colonial Marines aims low and it still misses the target, and that's almost entirely because of the wretched game engine.
Colonial Marines is even bizarrely coy about actually letting you fight Aliens. Huge swathes of the game find you shooting at Weyland Yutani's private army, a seemingly endless parade of identical grunts with AI that barely registers. Yet these forgettable enemies dominate the game, sometimes for entire levels, with their fidgety pop-and-shoot cover tactics and strangely bulletproof heads. A few poorly staged boss fights and a clunky stealth section against mutated "boiler" Aliens aside, the terrifying extra-terrestrial threat of the films provides the weakest and easiest foes in the game.
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.
Colonial Marines aims low and it still misses the target, and that's almost entirely because of the wretched game engine. Textures are muddy and blurred, with constant pop-in and v-sync tearing. Assets are reused so often that the bland levels merge into a soup of identical corridors and murky exteriors, and the character models are hilariously bad. NPCs have a constant, restless idle animation, where they jiggle and shuffle and move their arms for no reason, as if dying for a wee. If you close a door behind you, they'll stay there, elbows poking through the walls, unable able to open it themselves. Later, they'll magically pop into existence in front of you and carry on as if nothing happened.
And that's before the action starts. With guns blazing, the visuals take a sharp downward turn. Defeated Aliens disappear and are replaced with crude geometric body parts that either float in the air or fly away at supersonic speed. They skitter and slide, jerk and twitch as they try to navigate walls and ceilings. Up close, encounters collapse into a swirl of incoherent polygons as the models and camera battle to the death. Both Aliens and humans run past each other, or stand next to each other, frozen. You can shoot Aliens through the apparently intangible bodies of your AI teammates and the Aliens can jump through them to get to you.
Nothing feels real. There's no weight to the world, no physical feedback, with characters gliding around on top of it rather than feeling rooted in the space. The incredibly flaky collision detection simply seals the deal. The game feels like it's constantly on the verge of collapsing completely, and one of the only positive things that can be said about it is that it never quite does.
It's shocking stuff, certainly one of the most glitchy mainstream releases of this hardware generation, and the sort of thing that would barely pass muster as a low budget game from 2002. That it comes from Gearbox, a developer with considerable talent and experience, is bewildering. The studio behind Borderlands, one of the freshest and most elegantly structured shooters of the last decade, spent five years making a basic meat-and-potatoes corridor shooter and this is all it could come up with? It's hard not to think of Duke Nukem Forever, that other long-delayed FPS that fell into Gearbox's hands, and the comparison isn't favourable.
You have to ask: if this didn't have the Aliens branding, would it even have see the light of day?
Things are even worse in co-op play, where the frame rate plummets and the graphical spasms become almost unbearable. Thick-skinned fans of the movie may be able to suffer through this parade of technical blunders to get to the small kernel of movie nostalgia inside, but you have to ask: if this didn't have the Aliens branding, would it even have see the light of day?
What little hope Colonial Marines offers comes from multiplayer. Not from the clumsy and inappropriate Team Deathmatch and Extermination modes, which simply transplant obvious online shooter rulesets onto a conflict that doesn't need them, but from Escape and Survivor. These both draw heavily from Left 4 Dead, but that's enough to elevate the experience slightly. In the first, a team of four players has to reach a set destination while player-controlled Aliens do their best to stop them. In the second, the humans must barricade themselves in and hold off the attackers for as long as possible.
Neither mode is spectacular, but they are where the game comes closest to earning the Aliens logo on the box. Even then, you could experience much the same thrills in the multiplayer of 2010's Aliens vs Predator - a game that was equally bland but at least had a working engine.
It all comes back to that engine, and it's the pneumatic jaw in the soft squishy skull of a game that feels more like a weary contractual obligation than a chance to immerse yourself in one of the most beloved franchises around. Even if it were polished to an acceptable, 2013-standard AAA shine, Colonial Marines would still only be a generic effort coasting on borrowed iconography. Weighed down by so many grindingly obvious mechanical issues, it never even gets off the ground. For a game all about exterminating bugs, it's a fatal irony.