Gearbox is the Joe Johnston of video games.
When Joe Johnston puts out a new movie, what can we realistically expect from it? The answer is Jurassic Park III. Sometimes we instead get The Rocketeer or Captain America, and other times we get The Wolfman. But it would be reasonable to expect that Joe Johnston will deliver a decently fun moviegoing experience that probably won’t blow our minds by being terrible or incredibly awesome.
Likewise, Gearbox has made some OK Half-Life expansions, a series of cool but never quite outstanding World War II shooters, a pair of RPG shooters that most of us can have a good time with and they were at least partially responsible for Duke Nukem Forever. They are, without a doubt, a quite solid developer, but they haven’t pushed themselves over the top the way you might hope they would after experiencing some of their innovative ideas.
When viewing them through that lens, how should we expect Aliens: Colonial Marines to turn out? Would it be wrong to me to think it would be a decently fun video game experience that, like a theoretical Joe Johnston Alien sequel, doesn’t really live up to the work of master filmmakers Ridley Scott and James Cameron?
As it stands, expecting such a thing would not be wrong at all, because that’s exactly what we got.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an entertaining game that very much fits the mold of your average current-gen shooter in that fights are mostly fast and frantic and don’t give you much time to dread what kind of situation you’re finding yourself in, and in that it is far too preoccupied with getting you into the action to give proper introductions to the souls you’ll be fighting alongside during the game.
The writing is not very good, but the presentation is solid and the voice acting not shabby at all, but what Gearbox and the other teams working on the game forgot was that in order to tell a story as successfully as Alien and Aliens did, they need to contain actual characterizations. Colonial Marines, though, is intent on being a video game above all else, and video games don’t have time for that kind of thing. They want you to get to know O’Neal and Bella and Reid and Cruz as you go, but we never get real character moments. They are just bodies who say things.
This eventuality is not outside the realm of our very reasonable expectations, however, and so I wasn’t too upset about it. I regretted it a little bit, of course, because I always hope for more. But, as I said, this was not a surprise.
And so, as I made my way through the story having an overall pleasant experience killing Aliens and the Weyland-Yutani PMCs who were trying to thwart my attempts at surviving the hellholes that are the Sulaco and LV-426, I believed the game was solid but still very much a game, and I still think that.
The game has its highs, such as when you must wander through an area without weapons while trying to avoid the attention of the new exploding xenos you find on your path, and also its lows, like an attempt at fan service near the end that completely backfires. But the majority of the campaign is in that middle ground of entertaining but not outstanding. And so I have a hard time looking back on my experience playing it and thinking bad thoughts about it. In the end, I had fun.
All that said, I can’t blame anyone for having high hopes for a canonical video game sequel to Aliens. And if there is anywhere the game really falters, it is as an Aliens sequel. Gearbox tried hard to fit Colonial Marines into the Alien timeline right after Alien 3, but it just does not work. You may buy it for a while, but at a certain point in the story your suspension of disbelief will fall apart. They ended up trying to throw too many “Aliens things” into the pot, and it doesn’t really make sense if you keep Aliens and Alien 3 in mind while you’re playing. As a result, Colonial Marines just doesn’t feel like canon. It feels like a fan story.
But, again, it wasn’t entirely reasonable to expect Colonial Marines to live up to Aliens. Expectations needed managing beforehand. You can WANT Aliens, but sometimes you need to EXPECT Jurassic Park III. Doing so certainly won’t impeded your enjoyment of the game; indeed, managing your expectations will likely provide you with a better experience. I know it did for me.
Note: Aliens: Colonial Marines contains several competitive multiplayer modes, but I was unable to find any matches on the PC version of the game prior to the review embargo being lifted. I will update this review with my evaluations of those aspects later this week.