With the abject failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines, now seemed like the best time to revisit an old classic. While Aliens Infestation for the Gameboy DS is a fun 2D side-scroller and 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator is nowhere near as bad an FPS as many claim, neither are what you’d call fantastic games. To see a truly great example of what can be done with the xenomorph license you’d need to look back to the early 2000s when Monolith Productions were allowed a shot at making a sequel to an already big success with Aliens vs. Predator 2.
However, rather than being a review this is to be a comparison. A step by step detail of each aspect of both games to detail why one is a lauded success fondly remembered by fans and the other is a hated wreck. Both for reasons obvious and otherwise.
Being a direct continuation from one of the strongest films in a famous franchise, Colonial Marines had its work cut out to live up to fan expectations. At its core I think this is a major part of the problem.
The title didn’t have had much of a life of its own and instead felt like some add-on to a much bigger production. As a result it got all of the baggage that it could have done without. It needed to explain away the presence of Xenomorphs on the planet after Ripley and co. nuked them to hell and back. LV-426 was going to be without its most identifying location with Hadley’s Hope having been obliterated and most of all it needed to have a story following on from the film. Even after all the characters had been killed either in Aliens or Alien 3 and there was practically nothing left to follow directly on from. It needed to quickly justify the Sulaco suddenly being in orbit again, having colony still be there and characters to follow on from the last film – All of which it did with simple hand-waves.
While it doesn’t excuse its overall quality of writing it does give justification for a few of its shortcomings and leaves you wondering why Gearbox didn’t take a more obvious route: Have it set in an alternate reality. With either the events of Aliens following a different path from what was seen in the film or have the game play out the film but repeatedly throw curve balls at the players. It would have allowed Colonial Marines to be more of its own story. Had it rely far less on fan service, and quite frankly that’s what was desperately needed.
Aliens vs Predator 2 by comparison was very much a story of its own. Any connection it had to the previous films of either franchise was tentative at best and distant with Alien 3 having taken place fifty years prior. The only direct link it had was that Wayland-Yutani had managed to recover the Engineer derelict’s flight telemetry and used it to find another world infested with Xenomorphs. After which it decided to study them for its own use – simple and direct. Effective without having to hand-wave away certain characters and locations surviving the previous saga when we saw them die/be destroyed.
Atop of this the characters in the game stood alone. They were not being overshadowed by the more iconic figures of Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez or risked having direct comparisons made between them. This allowed them to be fleshed out and have interesting histories without previous continuity hanging over them. This allowed boss battles to be meaningful, something I’ll get to later, as the player knew their background and connection to the protagonist. Even when the player characters themselves were blank slates you could be distracted from that by the environment which you were exploring. One new with fresh ideas whereas by comparison we, again, knew just about everything which had taken place of LV-426. Plus rather than just being limited to one character to do this there were multiple ones available. Each story linking in to one another and allowing a much greater level of replayability and longer life than Colonial Marines offered.
Also when sequel baiting was present it was only a brief moment in one ending for one character, not any huge dramatic revelation.
If you’ve seen any gameplay by now you’ll have heard the many problems with the enemies present in Colonial Marines. The Xenomorphs are effectively cannon fodder. While Alien fans might have complained that Aliens took an iconic villain and reduced them to mook status, this game really shows how much more dignity they had in the film.
The Xenomorphs are reduced to simple rushing of your location from head on. They never seem to try and hit you from behind or ambush you from hidden location. Much of this can be put down to the environment but for a creature best known for ambushing its prey and acting as intelligent beings they seem desperate to get shot. Much of this can be put down to their spawn point locations and programming but there’s also another factor in which many are turned into simple jokes.
While given the ability to crawl up walls and run along the ceiling,Xenomorphs seem to have this notorious habit of getting caught in jutting pieces of debris or in corners. Many clips and .GIF parodies have shown the menacing creatures flailing madly, phasing through one another or seemingly dancing on the spot.
Even ignoring the above issues, the “Ooh-Rah!” attitude of the marines and lack of anyone cracking under the pressure undercut any menace. Something only made worse by their ability to seemingly mow the aliens down by the hundreds with little to no effort. Even the introduction of new variants of the aliens seemed to do little to improve this. Spitters seemed to think they were bullet sponges and held their position, Crushers were reserved for a one-shot-boss fight, and boilers have become infamous for looking like someone shoved a rod up their arse.
What’s more is that entire sections have you purely fighting humans in one note firefights, something which was not advertised and no one came to play the game for. They act as you would expect, predictably at best, and lack any interest or momentum. Their inclusion might have worked well had they followed Half-Life’s example and introduced them late on, at a critical moment to increase tension, but they’re not. They just show up and start shooting early on resulting in an underwhelming unpleasant surprise.
By comparison AvP2 had its Xenomorphs show remarkable intelligence. Rather than being bullet munchers everyone but the humans, with a few exceptions, proved to have a surprising degree of intelligence. Xenomorphs made at least a token effort to have a sense of tactics, making ambushing leaps to remove a huge chunk of your health and then breaking off to flee again. The few times they do wade directly into combat they’re inflicting enough damage between the acid blood and clawing to make them a truly credible threat. The only times they will really go down quickly is via the marine’s meatier weaponry or the predator’s game-breaking plasma cannon.
Humans are more like cannon fodder but they at least have lots of firepower and coordinated attacks to back up an assault. Things which help to give them an edge along with technological enhancements such as combat androids and the classic sentry guns. These aspects made you fighting them something you could come to dread and try to avoid any direct fights whenever you could. Predators meanwhile are an even bigger nightmare to fight to the point where taking on just one as a Xenomorph is a minor boss battle. Requiring you to circle perform hit and face attacks rather than enter in any kind of slug-fest.
While not all were foes which were constantly terrifying you could at least see them as a viable threat you had to treat with seriousness, not casually slaughter your way through.
This is a flaw which goes hand in hand with the lackluster enemies: The level designs in Colonial Marines were just bad. While the game might have just been able to surviving having a bad story the terrible AI and limited environments are what ultimately killed it.
To capitalize upon nostalgia many areas of Hadley’s Hope were turned into tight corridors and confined spaces which really hurt any chances of enemies being a threat. Without any room to dodge and no real programming to use ventilation systems, ambush you from above or even stalk the area around you, much of the Xenomorphs’ menace was gone. Even if they had included the relative intelligence and high damage which had made them such a terrifying foe in the original Aliens vs Predator, many levels were too bright for you to be ambushed.
Exceptions to the long corridor hunt were a few of the exterior locations and slightly larger internal rooms. None of which ever took real advantage of the more open locations as the demo showed and often just resorted to again running at you. This limitation on the overall design and frequent use of corridors led to the motion tracker being useless. A tool for role-playing at best, at worst a pointless distraction.
The only thing which made the layouts at all endearing was how many sections resembled the familiar colony designs so well remembered from the film.
AvP2’s layouts on the other hand had a much clearer direction behind them. While corridors and narrow walkways are a part of the game’s levels there are far more open areas and the game’s enemies were programmed to actually account for rough, broken terrain. This also made the motion tracker a vital tool as you had to pick out and spot aliens dropping in around you. Frequently out of sight or striking you from behind, not jumping up in front of you and just begging to get turned into acidic Swiss cheese. You can call this part of the problems with the enemy’s intelligence if you wish but the fact the environment was designed to incorporate their more stealthy ambushing aspects is still something well worth noting.
The few times long corridor sections are used completely for levels, it’s to make life more interesting for you in the Xenomorph campaign. Forcing you to avoid guards, crawl through air ducts to ambush moving patrols and flip around to run along the ceiling. Something which took a lot of getting used to but added a new dimension to gameplay the overall layout of each level. Even those without you playing an acid-blooded Spider-Man did feature some depth to them such as one section of the predator campaign which required you to move underwater, jumping from one level of a submerged tunnel network to the next.
It’s hard to argue that Colonial Marines even has any kind of boss battle. The few it does have are basic puzzle fights so basic they make the average Zelda boss battle look like something from God of War.
One aforementioned boss fight, if it can be called that, was against the Xenomorph Crusher. A giant bull-like creature which gores its enemies by smashing into them with full speed. While the demo seemed to advertise its presence as a type of enemy you would infrequently encounter only one was met in the game and was effectively just a beefed up plated beetle from Metroid Prime. The sort of enemy so lackluster many games turn them into a recurring minor enemy. The only other one of real note is even less of a fight, at least against the Crusher you shot bullets. The “battle” before the final cut-scene consisted of you punching buttons to fire the alien Queen out of a catapult Loony Toons style. I wish that were a joke.
AvP2 had you fighting multiple bosses on each separate story. These ranged from a cloaked predator, to an Queen backed up by multiple drones, to a Russian general in a combat modified power loader. The game also took the time to make sure you knew how they are, their relationship to you, their motivations and even managed to make two of the three antagonists somewhat sympathetic when you discover their backgrounds. This made them feel far more compelling and meaningful to fight as they were an integral part of the plot and, sometimes, your character’s own history. They were not just thrown in with writers expecting the story to work around them.
In what little praise the game has been given Colonial Marines is effective in its occasionally tense atmosphere and nostalgic feel. Many of the sound cues, effects and even the classic pulse rifle sound were directly carried over from Aliens and this worked extremely well. Making the game feel at least initially like a genuine sequel to the film.
Even ignoring the sound effects, there are several highly praised sections of the title which show how much promise there was behind this game. When searching through the Sulaco the build-up towards first encountering the Xenomorphs is palpable and makes them initially seem like a serious threat. Later sections where you flee from the rogue Raven Xenomorph, hiding from its repeated attempts to capture or kill you and the graveyard populated by boilers have great tension. Where you have been robbed of your weapons and you have to think your way through situations, not just shoot at everything in sight.
Further minor details are utilized to make the game feel more authentic to the films, most notably on the weapons. Both the iconic scrolling digital numbers displaying the remaining bullets in the pulse rifles and the HUD system for the smart-gun make appearances. They are admittedly nice touches which might have helped for an immersive experience were it not for all its other flaws.
The landscapes and large sections of the exterior environments also help to draw you in. Despite some very low quality textures at times, not to mention the god-awful rain on screen effects, there are quite a few areas which look as if they would make for a genuinely good horror game if handled right. Some bits of environments are nice distractions with sights such as Bishop’s still present lower body and Hudson’s fate thrown in your path along with the legendary weapons you are tasked with finding.
AvP2 doesn’t have the same benefits as Colonial Marines in being able to directly copy a very well done and thematic environment to use as a basis for its levels. Even accepting that its graphics have not aged well the game lacks the same dark shadows for many levels with the Xenomorph and predator enhanced vision abilities being able to peer through them.
That being said the environments it has feel very interesting, especially in the human facilities, which are an ingenious blend of industrial and clinical facilities. Ones made in such a way that you do not feel any twinges of nostalgia or feel as if you have been there before. This is again an aspect which helps to give it an edge over Colonial Marines, it felt like something new and not seen before in the universe (at least to some degree) whereas the recent game was all too often re-treading old territory. The few times in which it does attempt to reference the films are usually brief moments kept to a minimum and in the background, or have you being distracted by something else. The battle against the Queen is one clear example, taking place around the iconic fossilized remains of an engineer pilot.
The game ultimately includes moments of fan service but it has not been outright built around them.
Colonial Marines’ weapons options are definitely both good and bad, with a decent variety but a great number of guns limited to pre-orders and collectors editions. Promising ideas such as phase plasma rifle, Ripley’s sellotaped together combi-flamer, exploding harpoon gun, and sonic electronic ball breakers (yeah Hudson wasn’t making those up) are all limited to certain exclusive editions.
Instead what the game has is the classic iconic weapons such as the pulse rifle, two pistols, two shotgun variants, incinerator unit, sentry gun and smart-gun. Plus a few reworkings of older designs into new weapons such as the sub-machine gun, assault and battle rifles. The smart-gun especially is worth mentioning because of the extremely short time in which you are actually permitted to use it. Despite being easily the meatiest weapon in this list you only get it for a few minutes at most. Almost as soon as you pick it up it’s taken away from you and you’re just left with the few others, assuming you didn’t fork out cash to buy a pre-order version.
To try and distract you from the small number of options the game has a Call of Duty style upgrade system with you being able to give weapons war-paint, extensions, laser sights etc… While some of this might have seemed like a good idea, many inclusions such as the silencer are ultimately only for show because you never get the opportunity to sneak up upon someone. It’s also one of two severely immersion breaking aspects of the title as it links directly to the multiplayer but we’ll talk more about that in the next section.
The weapons in AvP2 are clearly much more varied and give the player many more options. Even ignoring the various melee attacks available to the Xenomorph and all the wonderful toys the predator gets, the marine arms up with everything from a combat knife to a full blown exo-suit. While each has its own feel and problems to balance out their power there’s no real limitation upon what you can carry. For example the aforementioned smart-gun repeatedly shows up in the game at multiple points and it’s not even the most powerful weapon available to you. There’s no clear limitation which is being placed upon you to prevent you overwhelming any primitive AI and this is a definite bonus in AvP2’s favor.
Similar to Colonial Marines, the game does have various weapons which are only available through additional purchases but this was through a expansion pack. With sentry guns and turrets only being included once Primal Hunt was installed. Not a series of weapons which would only be available to certain people willing to fork over a metric ton of cash prior to the game’s release. Plus the game didn’t feel the need to replicate more than one type of weapon to buff out its arsenals.
Even when it comes to comparing basic equipment AvP2 is is again visibly on top, willing to learn from its predecessor and containing items which made use of the limited lighting of the game. Its previous title was famous for many areas being pitch black with awaiting xenomorphs, even during the opening level. As a result AvP2 allowed for a vast number of limited methods of increasing light such as fifteen second flares, shoulder lamps and limited night vision capability. All of which were based upon limited resources and had to be rationed to when needed the most. Colonial Marines only offers you the most basic option, the shoulder lamp, which recharges when not in use and doesn’t offer the same tension as being armed with limited numbers of flares. Something which removes a lot of its horror survival aspect.
If there is one thing critics seem to think Colonial Marines truly got right it’s the multiplayer section. According to rumors it was the part Gearbox worked on the most and did not subsidize to other developers. If this is the case it shows. While horde mode is being introduced in DLC, the four modes available offer far more fun than would ever be found in the campaign. They offer more in upgrades than you would hope to find in single player with sentry guns and flamethrowers becoming available as death matches escalate. The Xenomorphs themselves feel vastly more deadly than they ever would in the actual title under the control of human beings, who take full advantage of their abilities and increased ferocity. With your common or garden Xenomorphs now being able to leap and strike down a marine in seconds and crushers lacking the stupidity which made them such a lackluster boss fight.
The customization available for skins also adds further interest with the different modifications available for both Xenomorphs and marines. While just for decoration they do show certain designs we’ve not seen before and help to make each side feel more dynamic. Even accounting for age there is little which AvP2 can admittedly do to compete with this, largely due to all the advances with multiplayer titles since its time. AvP2’s multiplayer games being limited to what you’d expect to find in something like Turok: Rage Wars or Goldeneye.
However, there is one distinct thing which is a problem with the multiplayer. At many points in Colonial Marines’ single player campaign you’ll be building up points and ranks with images occasionally flashing overhead reflecting your progression. This is something which only really counts in the multiplayer and as with the gun customization it’s something which drags you out of the experience. Even if you manage to look past all of the games problems, suddenly seeing “Rank-up! Master Sergeant Shooter Sergeant Important Person of Sergeants Extreme!” clubs what little immersion you might have to death. The point is that while the game’s plot suffered from Aliens hanging over it, single player suffered from multiplayer intruding into it. All too often one kept spilling over into the other and seeming like the single player was just meant to be a grind towards the multiplayer segment and boost stats. That’s something you should never have in a title if you plan to have the story mean something.
While AvP2 might have definitely had worse multiplayer options, it at least kept single and multiplayer completely separate entities and did not have one constantly interrupting the other.
Comparing Colonial Marines with the older title shows that many of its problems extent from its basic concepts as much as they do bad programing. As a result having a domino effect upon many other aspects of the title –
- It wasn’t enough of an entity in itself due to its direct link with the film franchise,
- This in turn resulted in it not forging a story of its own and instead relying far too much upon fan-service,
- The map designs intended to emphasize upon this fan service resulted in maps reflecting the film’s location with tight corridors and confined spaces,
- Finally the presence of the legendary weapons of the characters likely resulted in the game’s armory being largely limited to what we saw being used by the films characters and barely extending beyond that.
A smaller scale example could be seen as the multiplayer being favored over its single player segment and the game suffering badly as a result of this.
Even without all the problems the game suffered under given half of what we’ve heard since release all of these would have likely still been present to some degree. While a single developer with a single direction might have been able to make something good, the long development cycle prevented this. Gearbox sat on the license for too long. They needed too many other developers to come in and do their work for them. They lacked a distinctive direction for the game to move in. Plus there were all other problems they likely had trying to account for the progressions in technology in the title’s six years of development. They needed to be more focused upon creating a story of their own rather than an extension of an already existing one and actually get it finished within a few years of development.
Whether you agree or not is entirely up to you but as always the thoughts of anyone who agrees or disagrees is naturally welcome.