I’ve been looking for a good excuse to write about Aliens: Colonial Marines for a while and with the release of a new gameplay trailer and a solid release date (Feb 12 next year) that dream can now be realised.
Don’t worry, this won’t be a blow-by-blow account of the new in-game footage. You can watch that on your own and work yourself into a frenzy, as I have, or be as unimpressed as you’ve every right to be given how disappointed you no doubt were after the Great AvP Media Hype of 2010 (in which I was a willing participant).
No, what I shall be doing as this column of text progresses is attempt to get across what makes new Aliens different from the previous shooter in the franchise, and from that try to ascertain if Colonial Marines is worth getting worked-up over.
The obvious and most telling distinction between Rebellion’s 2010 re-baking of their 1999 PC hit (itself based on their flagship Atari Jaguar game from 1994) and Gearbox’s direct sequel to James Cameron’s action movie is… well, exactly that! Aliens vs Predator ’94, ’99 and 2010 were essentially three-way deathmatches with a story draped over the top; that of the galaxy’s three most marauding species finding themselves in close proximity to one another and fighting to see who would come out on top. The first outing was innovative insofar as it was in stark contrast to Doom, while the second was genuinely frightening. But there’s only so far a contrived comic book premise based on evil scientist tropes can be taken. Together with the AvP franchise bleeding acid down itself thanks to two abominable movies, and an increasing number of games doing the Alien thing a damn site better (Dead Space, Halo, Gears of War), there was a sense that Rebellion’s game was trying too hard to fall in line with other shooters rather than play to the strengths of the source material.
In stark contract Colonial Marines is lining up to be the Aliens 3 many of us were hoping to experience at the cinema all those years ago; setting itself back on board the Sulaco and orbiting the terror planet LV-426 that so many of us once had nightmares about. That premise alone sends shivers down my spine, but as always it’s the little things that make the difference. With Colonial Marines that difference is an emphasis on co-operative play through putting trust in your surroundings, since there won’t be a HUD to tell you where the aliens are or how much ammo is left in your weapon. If you want to use a motion tracker, for instance, you certainly won’t be able to ready a pulse rifle. If that switch alone doesn’t provide the basis for regular scares I can’t think what will.
The problem of course with Aliens, as it is for Star Wars and other sci-fi franchises, is that we are all so familiar with every aspect of it, whether it be the setting, the technology, or just via the script many of us know by rote. It’s perhaps worse for Aliens because it’s all so perfect set up for first-person shooting and has been endlessly borrowed from as a result. The sentry turret, skittering xenos, wise-cracking marine bro-dudes and the venting of steam at quiet moments – these have all been done countless times before and whenever an Aliens game tries to reclaim them, it can’t help but fall short under the weight of expectation. It seems we’re not happy unless all the furniture is in the room, then we complain when the room is the same as before.
But this time, I think – I hope – will be different. I’ve not played Colonial Marines and I’ve seen only as much as everyone else, but the fact that AvP was so disappointing can only be to the benefit of Gearbox’s game. The weight of expectation is there, but so too is a hint of caution. Rebellion had a lot to live up to with AvP, while Gearbox with an extra six months of development time, now has a little more space to erect a defence.
Colonial Marines doesn’t have to be the greatest game ever made, it merely has to be great. The promising aspect for this Aliens development is that great is a standard Gearbox are quite comfortable at reaching.