In the movie Aliens the Motion Tracker goes beep... beep... beep. This is meaningful because it inspires a sense of dread — everyone understands that sense of drama. But complicit in this sense of dread is the big scary monster itself. There is something out there and it is to be feared. It will slice you from your arsehole to your lughole. It's made out of silicon and it has acid for blood.
In the video game Aliens: Colonial Marines the Motion Tracker also goes beep... beep... beep. The beeps increase rapidly. It starts as feedback, a thudding white noise. When the beeps come they start slowly, increasing in pace until frantically beating, thumping in your speakers and in your ribcage.
I should be terrified. My brain tells me I should be pee-peeing in my PJs, but I don't really feel it in my gut. It's almost as though Aliens: Colonial Marines remembered to add the sense of dread, but they didn't quite grasp the big scary monster.
In the movie Aliens Ripley is constantly telling us how terrified we should be of aliens. She repeats this fact to silly men who ignore her. By the end of the first act we're screaming internally — listen to Ripley! These alien motherfuckers will knit a scarf from your intestines. They will grind your bones to make their bread. By the time we arrive on LV-426 we are ready to empty our bowels. We are bricking it. We've spent the last hour or so being told how scary these creatures are. There is a slow burn sense of terror that exists, it is primed. It is ready to blow.
So when the aliens finally do appear, they feel like some unstoppable force. We can't kill these things. We can only hope to run. We can only hope to survive.
And the fear. Oh sweet Jesus the fear.
Contrast: in the opening level of Aliens: Colonial Marines roughly 15 minutes have passed before we're tearing through hordes of aliens with an assault rifle. Shortly afterwards we're given a ludicrously super-powered minigun that allows us to shred aliens like they were made of polystyrene, not silicon.
In Aliens: Colonial Marines the 'aliens' feel about as threatening as any other enemy we've encountered in any other first person shooter. The only terror we feel, at any point, exists in the context of the brand. Aliens the movie is scary. Aliens are scary in that movie. Aliens the game, therefore, should be scary.
That feeling lasts for about five seconds. That's how long it takes for you to realise the Aliens in Aliens: Colonial Marines feel the same as almost any other enemy you've been shooting for the last decade or so: zombies, nazies, nazi-zombies. Nazi-space-zombies.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a first person shooter. You're probably already aware of that fact. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a shooter being developed by Gearbox, a studio specialising in very well made first person shooters. It makes sense, then, that a Gearbox developed Aliens game would be a first person shooter. It's hard to argue with that logic.
It's also hard to argue with the fact that Aliens: Colonial Marines is a very well-made first person shooter. But it's also a shooter that could really be about anything.
Wait, scratch that. That's probably a little unfair. Aliens: Colonial Marines is absolutely dripping in detail. It truly is. Gearbox has done its research here, making sure every aspect of the game's aesthetic is faithful to the feel and look of the series. In addition: the game looks good in general. It feels smooth. The character design in slick, the dialogue is serviceable and punchy. Let's re-emphasize — Aliens: Colonial Marines is absolutely dripping in detail.
But this is precisely why it is so profoundly disappointing that Gearbox uses this detail for a handful of fan service moments, instead of truly attempting to replicate the atmosphere and dramatic tension of the Alien series.
I get the sense that Aliens: Colonial Marines is so terrified of the player's boredom that it just throws enemies at players to distract them, but this only serves to dilute the engagement players could be having: with the environment, with a group of enemies that were truly fearsome instead of just pretending to be.
It's a shame, Aliens: Colonial Marines does so much right — the environment, the details — but Gearbox has just taken so few risks with this series and played it safe to its own detriment. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a shooter. Probably as well made as any other shooter you've played this generation, but nothing more. It drains the fear out of Aliens and substitutes it with an overblown sense of power. Really it should have been busy stripping our power away.
Aliens: Colonial Marines has all the weapons, all the toys. But it seems to have forgotten about the big bad monster.