It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single xenomorph in possession of a good brain, must be shown in the style of Alien (1979). A multitude of aliens moving as mobile cannon fodder must follow the Aliens (1986) route. One may add all manner of additional layers to this formula (religion, Winona Ryder, more aliens, etc.), but your basic haunted house in space is either being prowled by an 8-foot Dracula or flooded by a horde of hive-minded zombies.
With the video games set in the same universe, the same pattern largely follows here as with the films. In the solo-monster corner of strategic survival horror, there’s Alien (1984), adapted from the movie, where the remaining crew members search the ship, presented on a rudimentary top-down map where blips and open ducts drive the tension. There’s Alien: Isolation (2014), in which the player protagonist (Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter) is embroiled within the trappings of a first-person-perspective nightmare where the lone alien cannot be killed and only evaded. And then there’s the made-for-mobile sequel Alien Blackout (2019), which despite its inexplicable existence, is essentially a decent extra-terrestrial riff on Five Night’s at Freddy’s (2014), incorporating elements of the other two games (a love of cartography and claustrophobic scares). Over in the Alien Shooty Bang Bang corner of action-horror, there’s over a dozen of every other game: either a loose adaptation of titles from the film franchise in the platformer and first-person styles [notably, the first game, Alien (1982), also predates the Aliens escalation trend, being a solid Pac-Man (1980) clone featuring multiple colour-coded xenomorphs], or uses the Aliens moniker to create their own spin-offs, such as the hand-held, pocket monster games Aliens: Thanatos Encounter (2001) and Aliens: Infestation (2011), arcade shooters on an “express elevator to hell,” such as Aliens: Extermination (2006) and Aliens: Armageddon (2014), and, of course, Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013).
The emphasis within video games on Aliens over Alien is tantamount to a preference for the cigar-chomping, ever frosty Marines with their auto-turret guns and pulse rifles over the crying, wailing, and utterly useless antics of any civilian that is not directly played by Sigourney Weaver. Obviously, everyone in the Aliens universe always dies horribly in the end, but you can’t go wrong with the Space Marines on your side, even when Aliens is largely a screed against the exact kind of blustery smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning rhetoric that would traditionally result in over-confidence, under-preparedness, and lots of failure. In its inevitability, the gun-toting scenario always plays out the same, like a sci-fi Final Destination (2000), except it’s a xenomorph leaving the hair dryer near the expanding pool of water while the Marines witlessly “Hoorah” in the shower to themselves.
Sadly, it’s these negative traits that have also been poured directly into the making of some of these franchise games. First-person shooter Colonial Marines had a famously protracted development cycle (courtesy of the developer passing the job onto a sub-developer and then trying to cover their progress up with the license holders) which resulted in an “uninspired and unfinished game, […] not remotely worthy as a sequel to the Aliens film”, according to IGN. Befitting the substantial budget thrown at it, Colonial Marines had the fan-service, recreating the Sulaco spaceship and parts of LV-426 in exacting detail at times, but in other areas the game was rough and ill-conceived. Undoubtedly, every player must have felt acid creep into their veins as a variety of wobbly creatures shuffled past with pea-brained A.I, ultimately sharing more in common with a crocodile puppet trying to steal the sausages in a Punch and Judy show, than the apex predators that should deserve our fear and respect, before earning a grim place in our soft bellies as nightmare incubators.
Colonial Marines is the gold-standard in disappointing franchise explorations, with it being competent enough to constantly remind the player that a better game could have been made, if only the circumstances had been less corporate – less Weyland-Yutani – in execution. Perhaps then, this makes Colonial Marines something like the experiments to recreate Ripley in Alien Resurrection (1997), a tragic road marking on the path to a perfect specimen of Aliens action games.
Having arrived at Aliens: Fireteam Elite (2021), I wouldn’t put away the flamethrower quite yet….
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