If I were to sum up Aliens: Colonial Marines in a single word, it would be “lazy.” Not just the weird graphics and sound glitches that permeated the game (Did anybody really expect that hands-off demo to actually represent the game? Come on, now), or that Gearbox farmed out quite a bit of the work to a second developer. Nah, Colonial Marines‘ biggest act of sloth was ignoring Aliens’ greatest themes.
It’s not something technical that directly ruins the immediate, visceral experience of playing a game. The atmosphere of primal, sexual violence and predation that defines the xenomorph’s existence isn’t related to whether or not NPCs move when the script requires them to be running for a ship with Corporal Winter; the subversion of traditional gender roles in all five of the Alien movie quintet doesn’t effect the ability to maintain sound during something as basic as a cutscene. What the recognition (or not) of these things does do is show how thoughtful a developer is to their own work. So, when female characters are relegated to objectives for their testosterone-fueled counterparts in constant need of protection (Reid, a cypher who exists purely on quest logic) or sacrifices on the altar of angst (Bella with her chestburster), we see a regression from the gains made by the development of Ellen Ripley. Such a philosophy infects the entire production.
The version of the Colonial Marines from Randy Pitchford’s crew are superficial fascimiles of Cameron’s Vietnam-era camaraderie and arrogance, not unlike what’s found in Halo or Gears of War, lionized rather than deconstructed (hence Colonial Marines as subtitle). Cameron, pre-Titanic, showed his Marines, the spitting image of masculinity (“Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”), breaking down in the face of real danger and the knowledge their actions were in service not to country but indifferent corporate interests. It’s a human approach that doesn’t conform to rah-rah, “Support the Troops” bumper sticker culture (see also the excellent Spec Ops: The Line). Gearbox replaces thematic depth with jingoism: characters repeat “Oorah to Ashes” as if in prayer, while Captain Cruz (a character resembling Stephen Lang’s Avatar villain) gives a platitude-laden speech before an assault on Weyland-Yutani and the xenomorphs. As a result, what was a last stand for Aliens’ Hicks, Hudson, and Vasquez gets bowdlerized into Colonial Marines‘ run ‘n’ gun hill-taking set-pieces (notably, Reid and Bella are the only Marines shown to crack under pressure when one pulls a gun on the other; The Line‘s squad completely breaks down by game’s end). Only the multiplayer “Escape” mode has any focus on tactics, survival, and desperation Aliens had, though I suspect it’s because the developers lifted from Left 4 Dead. Everything else, including the incurious, hole-riddled story, isn’t even in the same universe.
This isn’t an unexpected development. Gearbox’s biggest projects—the bloated yet empty Borderlands and the lurching corpse of Duke Nukem Forever they helped across the finish line–are born of the insular culture video games have fostered for years: male-dominated sex fantasy at one end, sterile boys-seeking-treasure at the other. Even when the women are permitted to kick ass, as with Lilith in Borderlands, they are void of personality or femininity; this extends further in Colonial Marines‘ case, to the multiplayer mode, where female Marines are given fewer customization options (only two faces with variable skin tones and two voices), as if their inclusion was the begrudging compromise to fans it was. That’s all the game is, really: Gearbox/TimeGate dragging their feet at the thought of actually making an Aliens game, and instead churning out leftovers from other shooters.