Aliens are like Superman. You can't make a game about them without compromising the very thing that makes them so powerful. So the Man of Steel has a health bar and can be beaten up by Sub-Zero, and xenomorphs - described by Ash in Alien as a 'perfect organism' - can be killed in droves by a single Marine with a machine-gun. In the films they're cunning, merciless, and intelligent; here they're little more than dumb animals.
You don't actually see a xenomorph in Aliens for almost an hour. In Aliens: Colonial Marines you're up to your shins in fluorescent green gore within ten minutes. This is because James Cameron understands things like pacing, storytelling, and tension - and because the devs don't.
In fact, they don't even seem to understand Aliens. They think it's a film about guns, one-liners, and being 'badass' - a word you'll hear a lot here. But for all their bravado in the first act of the film, the Marines are absolutely terrified when they realise what they're up against. "How could they cut the power, man? They're animals!" The aliens are so unstoppable - so perfect that even an entire squad of highly-trained Marines can't survive an encounter with them.
Set 17 weeks after the events of Aliens, Colonial Marines is a whirlwind tour of familiar locations. You'll visit the stricken colony of Hadley's Hope on LV-426, the derelict ship from Alien, and the U.S.S. Sulaco, as well as new areas created especially for the game. The environment design is excellent, and the closest the campaign comes to evoking the mood of the films, with claustrophobic corridors and atmospheric lighting. The cavernous chamber in the derelict, where Kane first encounters the facehugger in Alien, is one of its most impressive sights - even if all you're doing is sprinting through it killing people with a big gun.
Yes, that's right - people. They've decided that xenomorphs, one of science fiction's most iconic, terrifying creatures, just aren't good enough on their own, and have brought in some generic FPS goons for you to battle as well. Evil mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani are conducting experiments on LV-426, and they've hired a private military company to protect their secrets - even though all their nefarious research equipment has their logo printed on it. Remarkably, the soldiers are even denser than the aliens, and display about the same level of AI complexity as those man-shaped targets that move from side to side on a firing range.
Aliens is an action film, and there's a lot of shooting in it - but also plenty of horror, drama, and moments of calm. This game can only dream of that texture: it's pretty much just constant killing.
The hiss of an Alien instils about as much fear in you as a gently purring kitten
There are a few attempts at variety - one of which we'll talk about later - but the majority of your time is spent holding down the fire button while aliens run at you. It's one of the most basic, one-dimensional first-person shooters we've played in a while, with no tactical depth to speak of. Smart enemies are absolutely crucial to a good FPS. When you hear the crackle of the Marines' radios in Half-Life, you actually feel threatened because you know you're in for a tough fight. In comparison, the hiss of an Alien here instils about as much fear in you as a gently purring kitten.
But let's talk about what it does right. Despite this cascading waterfall of negativity, there are a few things in Colonial Marines we do like. An early level sees you stripped of your weapons and forced to crawl through a basement full of what look like bizarre xenomorph statues. Occasionally one will spring to life, and you have to stop suddenly to avoid being spotted. They're blind and are attracted to sound, meaning you have to stay frozen as they creep past, inches from your face. It's only a brief level, but a fleeting glimpse of what a great Amnesia-style horror game someone could make with the Alien licence. Alas, it's not long before all the shooting starts up again.