Can you imagine a more ready-made game mechanic than Aliens' motion tracker? That iconic, beeping box of menace is like having tension on tap. It's useful enough that players are forced to lower their guard to gaze at its rather crappy sub-Game Boy screen, yet vague enough that there's no way of knowing exactly what that terrifying cluster of blue dots heading towards you represents, or when and how they'll arrive. It's hard to imagine how a first-person shooter with that device and James Cameron's alien horde at it's core couldn't be at least a little scary.
Well, it was hard to imagine, but then we played Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game that takes some of the most viciously terrifying beasts in movie history, straps them to a veterinary table, produces a really sharp pair of scissors then sends them home markedly better behaved than before. A rather impressive feat for a race that doesn't even reproduce sexually, we think you'll agree.
In a sense, Aliens is a fantastic movie-to-videogame adaptation. The cold metal aesthetics have been perfectly captured, whole sets have been digitally recreated, and even one or two characters and cast members from the movies appear. The dialogue does a decent job of replicating the boisterous banter of Aliens' ill-fated marines too, while there's entire set-pieces here that might as well be Aliens' deleted scenes. You will stay frosty. They will come outta the goddamned walls.
Yet Colonial Marines is a superficially faithful clone with little of the films' spirit inside. In Aliens, the xenomorphs were always threatening, the tension was always raising, the marines always outgunned (well, outclawed). But for Colonial Marines to offer the COD-style rhythms of running and gunning it wants to, the aliens themselves have been reduced in threat to the point where - on normal difficulty, at least - they might as well be pack of shiny, skittering dogs. A bit scary, in other words, just not scary enough.
It's hard to imagine getting within melee range of an aliens' claws and not coming away with at least some of your face removed, but it happens in Colonial marines time and after time, a mash-X QTE being all that stands between you and survival unless only a sliver of your health bar remains when they lunge. There's no weight or intelligence to these beasts, either, which dumbly charge at you in waves and pop like balloons.
That nasty acidic blood meanwhile, has been nerfed to the point it might as well be sour milk, temporarily stopping your segmented health bar from recharging but otherwise leaving you unscathed. Increase the difficulty and some of the challenge is restored - but it's a purely mechanical need to aim better, shoot faster and dodge more. The terror never returns. It's telling that the gun-toting mercenaries representing Weyland-Yutani's sinister corporate interests are more dangerous.
It would all be ok, of course, if Colonial Marines was a breathless thrill ride of a videogame. And there's certainly some ideas here worthy of a set-piece or two. But they feel embryonic, as if somehow, after five years in development, they still weren't ready to burst from Gearbox's chest cavity fully-formed.
Turrets, for instance. Early on Colonial Marines sends you to fetch and place a turret in a sequence that feels rather like tutorial, your marine squad's commander telling you exactly where the gun should be placed before the aliens test their might against your scrappy, ragtag forces. But the conceit of establishing perimeters and defending them is never really revisited, bar a couple holdout scenes that creep upon you unaware.