Aliens: Colonial Marines - Duke Nukem from orbit

Back to the Sulaco, and back to the future

The game Aliens: Colonial Marines reminds me of most is fellow Gearbox effort Duke Nukem Forever, and in an amazing twist, this is mostly a good thing. Like Forever, Colonial Marines is a deeply nostalgic affair - a high fidelity call-back to the thick-bevelled world of '80s sci-fi, when super-computers still had keyboards and handheld technology came in a suitcase. But it's a retro vision untainted by tawdry flesh shots or any miscarried attempts at satire, leaving you to enjoy all the references with a clear conscience.

This is a world that's been ripped off more times than I can remember, both within videogames and without, so it's a testament to the strength of the film's design and production values that Colonial Marines immediately stands apart. Gearbox's looting of the Fox Film prop cupboard is wholesale, and revealing. Remember when fantasy battle rifles weren't undemonstrative, skeletal affairs that look like they'll snap in your hands? Remember when they had microwave oven ammo readouts and enormous khaki frames?


Nowadays, our science fictions are pared-back, tasteful creations, all cool colours and gentle clicks. Colonial Marines breaks that sense of decorum down one honking, elephantine chunk of metal at a time. Helmet cams and lights jut hugely from lantern-jawed profiles, slabs of armour are criss-crossed by crudely chiselled graffiti. The aesthetic's brutal heft carries over to character performances. As our demo begins, a short way into the Colonial Marines campaign, main character Winter treats a superior to a vigorous thumbs-up and a bellowed "On it, sir!" There's none of the whispery jargon you associate with latter-day military shooters. It's enough to make men of a certain age cry and pound their chests.

Winter and his troop are investigating the wreck of the USS Sulaco, the warship which bore Ripley and her ill-fated Marine squad back to planet LV-426. Members of the salvage team are already aboard, but comms are down, so Winter's got to trot across and see what's what. You and I already know what's what, of course, so it's no massive surprise when an explosion rocks the umbilical corridor connecting the two craft, cutting our contemplation of the Sulaco's faithfully recreated exterior short.


Nor are we greatly shocked to find the vessel's interior suspiciously abundant in blood stains, butchered Androids, dying Marines and glistening Alien sculpture. For all the studio's talk of answering unanswered questions, there's very little that isn't understood about the core workings of the Aliens universe; serving up shocks without scuppering the lore is one of Gearbox's major challenges.

Producer Brian Burleson summarises how the developer's going about this in a nifty aside. "You know they're coming out of the goddamn walls, but you don't know which walls." The Xenomorphs - for it is they - are pop-up book nasties at heart, seldom in action long enough to do more than screech and spread their arms for the cameras, but the game impresses with how creatively it deploys them. Screw the walls - practically ever shiny surface could be an Alien in disguise. As Winter penetrates deeper into the Sulaco, drones crash through windows, scramble from beneath over-turned cabinets, ram lift doors apart and burst from vents.

There's some science, too, to what they do during their few seconds of action - each Xeno has its own little routine, built around some nearby nugget of architecture. One might leap a railing, jaws extending; another might dart perilously away into the darkness of a hatchery, jerking panicky shots from your rifle, then locking you into a QTE. Besides displaying a mastery of scripting, Gearbox plainly understands how you can and can't direct HR Giger's iconic monster; the Aliens are rarely visible in full, for instance, thanks to a sparking cocktail of malfunctioning shipboard lighting and muzzle flash.

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