Alien 3 has atmosphere. Maybe it is not always right or done well, but the thought of a single alien creature being deadly enough take on an entire prison is fascinating plus horrific. The deadliest creatures in the universe are made to be as such Alien 3, and of course, the original.
Aliens makes them targets, although still a threat. They carry an undercurrent of fear as they are blasted away by panicked Marines. That fear is what Colonial Marines loses in translation.
Don’t take that as the only thing wrong with this lambasted licensed effort. Colonial Marines deserves everything being levied at it. The biggest grievance is also a sign of why something so obvious does not translate to video game.
You see the likes of Bill Paxton and Sigourney Weaver and think, “This should be a video game.” Except not. Pacing does not match. Aliens is punctuated with action, not full of it. Between gunfire lies panic, distress, and character development. It is not as simple as it seems.
The best Aliens video game is probably Konami’s 1990 arcade effort which throws everything away and dons an action cap for 20-minutes. Screw atmosphere, blow ’em all up. It does not try to be anything else. In the annals of video games though, no one seems to understand what makes the creatures tick. Acclaim’s Alien 3 (SNES/Genesis) made the creatures often tough to kill, but through sluggish controls, not Xenomorph agility. These are an exceedingly difficult video game enemy to do right. The argument is no one done it to date.
Doing it well means pulling back and evaluating what needs of the license are. What Gearbox (or TimeGate depending on who you talk to) did was overextend themselves with action for five hours. One singular alien should be nightmarish, and instead, hundreds lunge toward the screen as if they’re in a suicide cult. The problem is creating a 5-10 hour video game with only one alien would not go over. I took issue with the Dead Space sequels for the same reason: If I can kill 10 Necromorphs, I can kill 10 more, and 10 more, and 10 more. The game turns into a feeding frenzy of violence with no sense of build-up, just jump scares.
Colonial Marines’ best moment is quiet one. Weird, glossy, albino, and sightless aliens line underground sewers. The player needs to maneuver quietly to avoid detection while xenos walk around, hunting. That is context for a now infamous .gif by the way. There is a sense of danger here despite goofy animation, the player weaponless and almost certainly facing a quick death with a mistake. None of this makes the sequence perfect, but it does represent what the license needs, yet what no one will give.
Maybe it is audience expectation. Aliens are effectively insects that need squished. We want to see them splatter and we like to shoot stuff. Tell the audience you are setting out to make a stealth game around the Aliens franchise, and watch negative feedback fly. But, therein lies the issue: This franchise simply does not translate well to the medium, and Xenos are not as ripe for enemies as you may think. Shooting them and making it feel powerful means fear is low, and weakening the player only means fattening up the difficulty artificially.
I suppose there is a balance in there we will see eventually, hopefully not within a game that took six years to make as it was passed through developmental hands. Until then, Konami’s game works for what we think we want in terms of instant gratification.