Revisiting Aliens: Colonial Marines, Seven Years Later!

Just over seven years ago, Aliens: Colonial Marines was released tolet’s saya mixed reception. In fact, that’s being way too kind; it was one of most disappointing games of the last decade, kicking off the trend that we have seen in recent times of games being overhyped and underdelivering come release day. However, despite poor fan and critical reception, the game did manage to sell around 1.31 million copies. In case you didn’t know, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a 2013 first-person shooter developed by Gearbox Software based on the 1986 ”Aliens” movie produced by James Cameron.

Aliens Colonial MarinesAn Extremely Troubled Development Cycle 

Although Gearbox is credited as the primary developer of Colonial Marines, multiple development studios contributed to the game’s production. Initial work on Colonial Marines began in 2007. However, between 2007 and 2010, Gearbox did not focus on the development of the game, instead preferring to work on other projects such as Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever, a game with an even worse development period than Aliens: Colonial Marines! 

With Gearbox distracted, primary development on Colonial Marines was handled by TimeGate Studios. Although TimeGate handled primary development, their work had to be constantly examined and approved by Gearbox and Sega. To further complicate the situation, there were disagreements on how the game should be designed. Sega (the publisher) wanted Colonial Marines to more closely resemble the Call of Duty series, with the Marines fighting Humans as well as Aliens, a decision both Gearbox and TimeGate disagreed with.

At E3 2011, Gearbox unveiled a very impressive gameplay demo that wowed fans and critics. This gameplay demo would come back to haunt Gearbox when the game was later released with downgraded graphics. The E3 2011 trailer was made to look as good as possible. (Not helped by Randy Pitchford’s insistence that the gameplay was real and live.) This was a precursor of things to come with other games like Watch Dogs, The Division and Anthem going through similar controversies.

Aliens Colonial MarinesOnce Gearbox had finished developing Borderlands 2, the company turned its attention back to Aliens: Colonial Marines. However, Gearbox was not satisfied with TimeGate’s work; many features were unfinished and the game wasn’t running on the PlayStation 3. With a release date set for February 2013, this meant Gearbox only had nine months to finish the game, leaving Aliens: Colonial Marines in a rushed state of development with two different studios’ work being mashed together. There simply wasn’t enough time to fix the game and get it to an acceptable state. Sega wasn’t prepared to delay the game any further, because the game had already been delayed several times, so the game had to ship no matter what. The game had been in development for over 5 years by this point, and all parties wanted the game to be done.

The Aftermath, Controversies, Typos, Lawsuits and More! 

Upon release, Colonial Marines caused a significant controversy. According to a report, Gearbox had been moving people and resources off Colonial Marines and onto Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever while still collecting full payments from Sega. When Sega discovered this wrongdoing, they temporarily cancelled Colonial Marines. The game drew additional controversy when the final game was released with the graphics and gameplay heavily downgraded from what was shown at E3 2011/2012. You can see the differences in the video below. This is now a common problem in the gaming industry, with companies showing off their games on high-powered workstations to make their games look as impressive as possible.

In addition, in April 2013, two players filed a lawsuit claiming that Gearbox and Sega had falsely advertised the game by showing demos and gameplay that did not resemble the final product. Sega eventually agreed to pay $1.25 million. However, Gearbox managed to wiggle its way out of the lawsuit. Several actors from the ”Aliens” movie were involved in the production of the game. Both Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen reprised their movie roles. However, Biehn commented negatively on his experience, quoted as saying.

Michael Biehn: ”Aliens: Colonial Marines seemed kind of passionless. I think in movies, television, and the gaming world, you get some people that are really, really passionate and some people that are just going through the paces. They think that because they have a brand name they’re going to get a hit game or hit movie out of it. That certainly was the situation on Colonial Marines.”

In 2017, a modder called ”jamesdickinson963” discovered a typo in the game’s code which, when corrected, improved the AI of the Xenomorphs. The word ”Tether” had been misspelled as ”Teather”, making this crucial line of code useless! I believe this error perfectly sums up the development of this game, with one typo crippling a game that already had enough problems to deal with! Even after this error was found, new players will still need to fix the typo themselves by going into the game’s files. You can see below the original post of James discovering the error.

Aliens Colonial Marines

So How About We Actually Play This Game?

Now that I have finally recapped the events leading to this nightmare, how about we actually give the game a go! My reintroduction to Aliens: Colonial Marines didn’t get off to the best of starts when the game hard crashed my PC on startup! Good to see the ‘Patched’ version of the game is holding up. Keep in mind that all footage shown below is captured by me on Max PC settings with the AI typo fixed on Ultimate Bad Ass Difficulty. Also spoiler alert for a seven-year-old game and 34-year-old movie.

The story of Colonial Marines is fairly straightforward: 17 weeks after the events of Aliens, a distress call from Corporal Dwayne Hicks is sent out, so the Sephora spaceship sends a battalion of Colonial Marines to investigate. You play as Corporal Christopher Winter whose fellow marines are devastated by a massive Xenomorph infestation discovered inside the U.S.S. Sulaco now in orbit around LV-426. You and what’s left of the Marines must survive the Alien army, battle against the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and rescue a mysterious prisoner who is revealed to be Corporal Dwayne Hicks who somehow managed to survive the events of Alien 3. (I’ll explain how later) This story is Fox-approved and therefore considered canon in the Alien Universe, much to the dismay of fans.

They Mostly Come In A Straight Line… Mostly. 

As with most games, the best way to play is with friends, and Aliens: Colonial Marines supports a 4 player cooperative campaign along with an online multiplier pitting Marines vs Xenomorphs. However, I was unable to convince any friends to play the Campaign with me, so I’m riding solo. According to Steam Charts, there are around 50-100 people that still play this game, but I was unable to find any games on any of the modes. So as I started the opening mission, my initial impression of the game was not great. Even with the AI typo fixed, the AI of the Xenomorphs are not great…

One huge problem I have is that, 99% of the time, the Xenomorphs targets you and only you. They will ignore your fellow squad members. This wouldn’t be so bad if your teammates’ AI actually did any damage, but it feels like they’re shooting pellets. However, the biggest problem the Xeno AI has is that its number one command is to bum rush you as soon as it sees you regardless of cover or how many bullets you are pumping into it. They have no survival instinct. They don’t retreat, group up, flank, they just charge/jump forward into your bullets. But fixing the typo does help. The Alien A.I is improved overall; their movement is less clunky, their decision-making is improved and they use their environment a lot more often. However, it doesn’t make the A.I brilliant or improve the game drastically.

But it isn’t just the Xenomorph AI that disappoints. The human AI (both friendly and foe) is extremely basic. The Weyland-Yutani Mercenaries frequently abandon their cover and don’t run away from grenades, whilst Friendly A.I often run ahead of you in levels or get stuck in doorways, leaving you to fight all by yourself! Fighting the Xenomorphs is so much better because you don’t get additional health, ammo and armour, leaving you with fewer resources, forcing you to play safer and smarter. It doesn’t matter if you take damage or waste ammo against humans, because you can just refill when the fight is over. Fighting humans also breaks the tension/atmosphere the game was going for. Instead, the game comes off feeling more like a knock-off Call of Duty game.

Things I Like and Don’t Like…

Games like Destiny and The Divison have underwhelming stories but still manage to keep players engaged with good moment to moment gameplay. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a chore. I’m not invested in the story or characters. I’m not scared of the Aliens. I’m not challenged by the ‘Weyland Yutani’ mercenaries. The game is extremely linear and quickly loses appeal when all you’re doing is fighting dudes with guns!

I think my main problem with the game is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a slow gripping horror or a balls to the wall action game. The final result is somewhere in the middle, leaving you with a game too fast-paced for horror but too slow for frantic action. Battles lack tension because you don’t feel the weight of getting hit or any power coming from your weapons. Grenades, in particular, are pathetic. The only saving grace is the music, which saves the battles from being a snoozefest. Also, the game isn’t very challenging even on the hardest difficulty setting, especially once you get some weapon upgrades! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: weapons can be upgraded and customised. It’s pretty neat. You can add attachments, alternate modes of fire, sights and skins.

I didn’t find the motion tracker to be much use. Firstly, the Aliens always rush at you. They never sneak or try to flank you. Secondly, since you can’t hold the motion tracker and hip fire, it usually resulted in me taking unnecessary damage as I had to switch back to my weapon, so I gave up using the motion tracker most of the time. One major annoyance I had was when I kept accidentally opening the chat. (Playing singleplayer, btw.) In order to open the chat, you press T, which is right next to R which you use to reload. So when 5 Aliens are rushing me and I desperately need to reload, opening the chat is the last thing I want to do, and it got me killed several times. Even when I remapped the key in the menu, the original button was still active, defeating the entire purpose of remapping a key!

When the game first came out, I played the PS3 version. Thankfully, now I’m trying the PC version. Having said that, in terms of optimisation, I was extremely disappointed. I have a very strong gaming PC, so I expected a game from 2013 to run flawlessly. However, the game struggled to maintain 144fps. It is clear that the game was never fully optimised for PC. I can only imagine how bad the framerate was for people with weaker hardware back in 2013! The cutscenes, in particular, look very rough. Hard compression and terrible lipsync make them very unappealing to the eyes.

The game desperately needed more cutscenes to develop the characters, as we know nothing about them, so we don’t care when they die. Take Bella, for instance. She wakes up with a face-hugger on top of her. We as Aliens fans know that she is dead, but the game doesn’t take any advantage of the situation. They hardly bring up the topic, and when they do, her inevitable death is quickly brushed aside. Overall, the Characters are bland, underdeveloped and boring.

Thankfully, the game isn’t that long. There are 11 missions in total clocking in at around 7-8 hours, and that’s on the harder difficulty settings. Now, multiplayer was generally the most well-received section of the game, although it didn’t have much longevity. I do remember the multiplayer being decent, although the player base didn’t last long, and since there were no bots to take up empty slots, queue times quickly increased. On release, the game had a PC peak of 13,266, but that number quickly dropped to 1,162 by March of 2013. The game is currently priced at 24.99 on Steam. This is ridiculously overpriced for a 7-year-old game with an extremely negative reputation. Thankfully, I managed to get the game for 5 bucks through Humble Bundle.

”The Raven”, the High (and Low) Point of the game! 

The first four missions of Aliens: Colonial Marines are extremely underwhelming. Thankfully, the fifth mission, titled ”The Raven”, is a big improvement! You get separated from your fellow Marines and you have no weapons to defend yourself. This is far more interesting than just shooting the same soldiers over and over again. This is where the lighting/shadow system gets to shine along with the excellent music and sound design. The level manages to create a super creepy atmosphere that leaves you on the edge of your seat. You discover a new type of Xeno called a Boiler that is blind but has an incredible sense of hearing. This is by far the highlight of the game, as you have to sneak past the Boilers while making as little noise as possible! (You can see an example in the video below,) It’s a shame that the rest of the game couldn’t be this awesome. If only the action segments were as good as the horror segments, we could have had a great game on our hands despite the downgraded graphics.

However, this excellent segment is then shattered with one of the worst boss battles I have ever encountered in my life! You must fight a giant Xeno called The Raven with a power loader. This sounds awesome on paper. However, atrocious controls leave you begging for the battle to end. Problem one: you lose half your health just getting into the power loader because the animation takes so long! Problem two: smaller Xenos are constantly attacking you, causing you to automatically turn around, making it impossible to focus on fighting The Raven!

Problem three: the boss has an unblockable grapple attack that you can’t counter or dodge because you move so sluggishly. Problem four: you can’t heal yourself during the fight because the health pack is on the other side of the battle, so going for health is suicide as you quickly get surrounded, as your AI teammates do a terrible job of keeping the Xenos off you! I’ve never been so frustrated during a boss fight. It’s honestly crazy that fighting a gigantic monster in a power loader would be the low-point of the game. I finally managed to defeat The Raven by chain stunning him into a corner in which he then got stuck and was unable to attack. It’s an appalling boss fight that ruined my mood after such an amazing start to the level.

The Rest of the Game… Please End… 

After the high (and low) point, the rest of the game is very forgettable, except for the moment when they reveal that Corporal Dwayne Hicks is alive! However, they then don’t give any explanation unless you buy the paid DLC, of course. A few new Aliens types are discovered as the game goes on such as the Spitters that spit acid from a distance. I didn’t find much use for the alternative weapons, as your starting Pulse Rifle and Shotgun are very strong, especially with upgrades. The shotguns are by far the best weapons to use in the game. That being said, some of the alternative weapons can be useful in the right situations, particularly the DLC or special weapons you find. I found that the battle rifle was good against humans in long-range encounters, while the pulse rifle and shotguns are most effective against the Aliens.

Throughout the levels, you can collect dog tags, audio logs and hidden collectables for XP and achievements. Additionally, you can find special weapons from the movie. There is some decent fan service during the game. You can find Bishop’s legs, Hudson’s body and Newt’s doll. The final boss battle against the Queen Alien is god awful! You literally just pull four switches, then press a button and boom, cutscene, game done. Zero challenge, no tension, NOTHING! The final boss battle lasted LESS THAN 2 MINUTES! The game then ends on an incredibly unsatisfactory cliffhanger! I guess they thought this game was going to get a sequel? Thankfully, it never did. (You can see how pathetic the final boss battle is in the video below!)

I came into this revisiting with hope and optimism. Surely the game isn’t as bad as I remember, surely the PC version will look and run better, surely the bugs have been ironed out now, surely changing the AI typo will solve everything! Well, I was wrong, wrong, wrong! It’s so much worse than I remember, especially when you play by yourself! Out of the 11 missions, only 1 is good, and that was the mission where you have no guns and aren’t shooting anything! I really hoped at the end of this revisiting that I could have recommended this game, at least as a ”so bad its good” type of game to play with friends. But no, £24.99 is ridiculous, and the game simply isn’t worth it!

The TemplatGFX’s ACM Mod, The Only Way To Play? 

The TemplatGFX’s ACM Mod created by ”jamesdickinson963”, (the man who discovered the A.I typo) is a mod that overhauls the graphics and enemy A.I, dramatically improving the overall experience. However, it can’t save the game from the terrible story, writing and level design, but it does help make the game more enjoyable. In fact, James is still modding the game, with ‘Version 6’ of the mod still in development.

Now, the mod is impressive. It completely overhauls the AI for teammates and enemies. It reworks the guns, shaders, particles, decals and lighting. You can see in the example below the base game and mod in action. But at the end of the day, no matter how many mods and fixes you add to Aliens: Colonial Marines, the game is too flawed to truly fix. But this does show how diehard the fans are of the Aliens franchise that they will spend years of their lives trying to improve this broken mess.

Stasis Interrupted – DLC Story Campaign 

Except we’re not done yet. In the following month’s post-release, four DLC packs were introduced to Aliens: Colonial Marines. Three of the DLCs were multiplayer packs adding new modes, levels, weapons and skins. However, the fourth and final piece of DLC released in July of 2013, called Stasis Interrupted, adds an additional Story Campaign, a prequel to the main game revealing how Corporal Hicks survived the events of Alien 3.

Immediately upon starting, I noticed that the cutscenes look and run better compared to the main game. Facial animation is also improved. The first mission of Stasis Interrupted is actually brilliant. I’m serious. Maybe my standards have dropped, but it was a pleasant surprise. You play as Lisbeth, a woman who was tricked by the Weyland Corporation into be a human guinea pig for Alien experiments. The mission begins with an intense opening with several people around you getting attacked by Facehuggers and Weyland Soldiers. It does feel like you’re playing a precursor to Alien Isolation: a female protagonist in a scary environment, people all around her getting destroyed, and you even hide in a locker and everything!

You then meet two guys called Turk and Stone, a pair of survivors who want to escape the ship you are on. However, Lisbeth refuses to leave until she finds her parents. Gameplay-wise, the Alien AI seems much improved, using the walls and the ceiling with increased regularity. I actually want to use the motion tracker now! The Aliens actually seem like a threat in this campaign. Seeing soldiers get brutally taken down by the Aliens is scary. If only the main game had more of this.

Additionally, without a squad to back you up, the game becomes much more frightening. Even though your AI teammates were useless, they at least gave you the illusion of safety and cover fire. In this opening level, you are all alone and outnumbered. However, fighting humans is just as boring as ever. Their AI is still very dumb, never flanking, never throwing nades and running around in the open. Mission One ends with Lisbeth sacrificing herself to destroy the Xenos after finding both her parents are dead. This was a fantastic opening mission. Why couldn’t more levels be like this?

Mission two was okay, not as good as the first, but I was enjoying this campaign more than the main game. The AI is better, cutscenes are better, the writing is better. It’s a shame that some of these missions weren’t in the main game, as I can’t imagine many people bought this DLC after the terrible launch. In total, there are four missions in the DLC lasting around two to three hours. This is a little on the short side, considering the price.

Stasis Interrupted is told from the perspective of Hicks who is being held captive by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The main game glosses over how Hicks survived, (as he supposedly died at the start of Alien 3) but the DLC does explain this. But paid DLC released 5 months after the main game isn’t good enough. It’s explained in the DLC that a guy called Turk is instead locked into Hicks’ cryotube so the body that is found in Alien 3 is Turk and not Hicks. This does feel like bad fan-fiction, a cheap way of getting Hicks to survive.

Unfortunately, the final two missions are terrible! Awful level design, long periods with no checkpoints and terrible set-pieces ruin any good faith this game earned with the opening level. The final section, in particular, is shockingly bad. It’s a slow boring process where you must go through a medical lab and pull switches. It’s mind-numbly boring and made worse because if you die, you get sent back a full 10-15 minutes because the developers couldn’t be bothered to add checkpoints, I guess! After that, you come to an even worse turret section! You simply aren’t given enough time to set up the turrets where you want them, leaving you with a frustrating battle against hordes of Aliens that come from nearly all angles! If you manage to survive, you finally send out the distress signal that you see at the start on the main campaign, thereby setting off the events of Aliens: Colonial Marines. 

Overall, the DLC was okay. It does a decent job of setting up the main game and showing what happens to Hicks between Aliens and Alien 3, although the story is a clear retcon of the facts. However, the final two missions are so badly designed and frustrating that it ruined my overall experience, even after the terrific opening level.

Game Over Man, Game Over! 

In conclusion, I was disappointed by Aliens: Colonial Marines. I truly believed playing on the PC with patches, fixes and mods would improve the experience to at least get the game to a 6/10. However, the game is broken to the core. Now, if the game was priced at 4.99, I could maybe recommend it as a ‘so bad it’s good’ experience. However, the ridiculous pricing of 24.99 is outrageous. The game hardly ever goes on sale, either! If you’re a fan of the Alien franchise, go play Alien Isolation instead. Let’s leave this game in the past!

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