Aliens: Colonial Marines And The Big Bad Monster

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.


    It doesn't surprise me. I don't think I've ever played a gearbox game that I thought "wow, these guys really know how to make a game".

    I'll still play this one though. I'll wait until it's under $20 and play it with the difficulty cranked.

    Tension is good though. Dead Space nailed it on that score.

      You've never played the Borderlands games?

        Yeah i played the first one. Cool atmo for the first few hrs but it got old and repetitive quick.

    Brit an informal word for ear1 See also lug2 [4]... learn something new everyday.

    I don't know if you've played it Mark, but maybe try Aliens: Infestation on the DS.

    This feeling of just-right-amount-of-power afforded to the player has come up before - last year with the (rather large) learning curve in the Batman games to get perfect _like Batman_ rather than faff about. And more recently, becoming a professional in everything Far Cry 3 lets you do even though you're just an everyman.

      Really? I'd rather practice leather tanning with my scrotum than play another shooter on the DS... Just so un-fun

        I traded mine in but to each their own.

        I hope by "shooter" you don't mean FPS. Because it's more of a Metroidvania game.

        And it is sweeeeet.

      Aliens on DS is great. Mainly because your lives are limited to the 19 marines on the ship. When you die, you lose a marine and have to replace them.

    So it suffers from the same problem pretty much every single writer has had in the last 20 years in reference to movies and games? That they think the dudebros demographic will get bored of patience and leave?

    Horror comes from what you don't see, because your imagination starts playing against you. Have a look at Silent Hill. At the start of the game you can already tell that there's something off about the whole place. But it's very subtle about it, you know somethings wrong but you can't quite put your finger on it. Which is different from the movie and latest Silent Hill game where there's only decay in the streets and they "peel" away the scenary to throw you immediately into Silent Hill. Because they think the general area is scary and not the imagination (I haven't even played Silent Hill and I understand this).
    Slender does a good job by not answering anything and forcing you to look away from what's scaring you, leaving the imagination to haunt you.

    Have a look at Paranormal Activity (not the latest one). It's very subtle about showing you that something is wrong. Unlike other horror movies who think throwing jump scares at you is scary.

    Dead Space in a way does it pretty good. Slow build up, masking the horrors in darkness and strobe lights, forcing you to run without a weapon. Once you get a weapon, you still see shadows moving and wrenches clattering on metal floors. Dead Space 2 keeps the same atmosphere, but it fails at the build up because it's afraid that the player would have forgotton what happened in Dead Space and immediately throws a screaming Necromorph in your face.

      Great post. The first half of Dead Space is just about the only game that got the whole horror thing right this generation.

      They really borked that up with the sequel I thought.

        I still think Dead Space 2 is a much better game, but that the intro wasn't well thought out. It still had the same atmosphere, and it did a great job of introducing new enemies to you. The problem is that they couldn't recreate the intro because people who are already familiar with Dead Space are already familiar with Dead Space 2. Creating a new intro for them, and for the interest of new players, would have been tricky, but do-able. But they just botched it up to get it out of the way. Once it's out of the way it's fine, but it did leave a bad impression.

          I just really loved that initial atmosphere of Dead Space. I guess that was impossible to replicate in a sequel.

            Would it be accurate to say that Dead Space was to Alien, what Dead Space 2 was to Aliens?

              Aliens still has its scary moments though, albeit in a different way. Having the cocky Marines (ie professional soldiers) cut to shreds by an army (not just 1) of aliens shows how they are even MORE scary, but this time that scariness is multiplied by a massive number.

    Aww... I was really looking forward to this game. With all their ranting about "detail", how did they miss the most important one?

    This is an interesting write-up Mark, and one that contrasts what one of your American colleagues said here just a day or two ago:

    He actually makes mention that the Aliens ARE scary and that the game DOES do a good job of re-creating the atmosphere of the movies, but he also said that it feels "like a competent shooter with strong horror elements".

    Do you agree or disagree with Evan's overall analysis?

    He also said that the section of the game he played was perhaps a 1/4 of the way through the game, so he wasn't started at the very beginning. Do you think this is the place you were started from, so maybe you missed any kind slow build up if there was one?

    Last edited 13/12/12 3:44 pm

      That's what i was thinking too, how the two articles have almost polar opposite opinions on the same aspect.

    hmmm not looking good then i see as RPS and think PC Gamer also gave the impression that it wasnt great but wasnt bad, just very very average.

      Slightly off topic, but these days horror really doesnt exist as genre anymore because we have really seen it all and theres just been so many "horror" movies and games that people are just so use to them.

      3 perfect examples are Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves. with the over exposer that they have had, its just really hard to scared of them even if no all their different mytholgy. Hell even rampaging animal movies like Jaws suffer greatly now. people today are conditioned to expect the unexpected

    I don't know if I'm the only one, but Alien Trilogy on the original PlayStation had a very scary feel to it. I think it was mainly because of the emptiness, there was a lot of time wandering around corridors with nothing more than the occasional facehugger jumping out at you.

    Games these days just feel like we always have to be busy, always running, always shooting, always in the middle of action. Sometimes the empty spaces in games are the best parts, that creeping suspence of just when is the next thing going to come. When will I have to jump for the trigger?

    Modern games miss this by a lot, sadly.

    I'm ok with the game playing out this way, provided it's in context within the story. The xenomorphs were far from unstoppable and were easily mowed down as individuals. The sheer number of them coupled with their relentlessness and the marines' lack of preparation was the problem. If the marines of the game have been informed about what occurred during the movie on some level (through the distress signal or the Sulaco's logs), they have no reason to react like the first team who were overconfident in their ignorance and/or disbelief. For this team it really would be "just another bug-hunt".

      I agree it's a good point you bring up.
      One of the real kickers in the Alien movies is that the main characters are always going into the unknown.
      - They don't know or understand what they're up against.
      - They don't understand the Xenomorph or really know how to deal with it.
      - Every movie it has been a first encounter for the majority of the cast. Except for Ripley - Who knows what she's fighting and fears it. Because every situation she faces the life form in, she's under equiped, ill prepared and surrounded by people who cannot to face such a threat.
      Either due to lack of experience or lack of tools and techniques to defeat it.

      In 1999 AVP playing as the marine and Predator, I knew what to expect, but the isolation and limited resources made it scary.

      Also the Aliens speed and damage potential made them tough, which i guess is what alot of people are griping about in the newer games.

      The way I see it, the Aliens aren't all powerful, it's just the characters in the movies are just pretty useless ( I'm thinking of resurrection here ). It would be nice to see a new movie set with in the francise that took the subject matter seriously without falling into hollywood cliche and overused tropes.

      Last edited 14/12/12 1:05 am

    From the sounds of the things I've been reading here lately (versus what I've been playing), ZombiU seems to be a better Aliens game than Colonial Marines.

    I seriously recommend it to anyone who wants to see some "proper" horror, it's been doing my head right in. I'm constantly more scared of what I think is there than anything that's actually there. Don't think I've even had any jump-scares at all either, which is great to see (or not see?).

    To me, this game simply has to be L4D with Aliens, and it needs to make me really value my life.

    I think the key for me from playing AvP games is that the marine (player) needs to be brittle and feel brittle. You are armed to the teeth and you can drop aliens like a champion but you are very small and squishy. There were never very large amounts of aliens on screen for this fact. The slow pulse of the motion sensor (1 per sec as opposed to the movies 3 per sec) meant you knew things were coming but judging the speed became harder. You could use your night vision but that would remove your scanner. The challenge was stopping things getting up close and personal.

    There were also the face huggers. Small innocuous things that didn't move super fast but you were filled with dread at their presence due to the threat of instant death. I learned to dread the faint scrabbling noises they made because it was a case of get it right or back you go.

    Things were also limited too. Your flares which were your life blood in some areas were finite. You could only throw so many in a pitch black area so you had limited time. Hang around too long and you need to throw another, rush to much without pacing and you'll run out.

    There were a few times in which you were made a god and given a minigun which made you walking death or getting into an weaponised powerloader.

    The series needs to feed off the players vulnerability that without their torch, flares, scanner and guns you will die very very quickly and the pacing needs to reflect it.

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