When it comes to movie-based licensed video games, there’s probably no greater “fit” between games and movies than science fiction and fantasy. While in previous editions of this series we’ve touched on superheroes and more modern sci-fi properties, perhaps no weirder history exists than with the license derived from Ridley Scott’s 1979 original sci-fi horror film, Alien. In honor of our review of Creative Assembly’s first-person survival-horror game Alien: Isolation, it seemed like now would be a good time to ask the continuous question of “why do I keep playing movie games” with an emphasis on the Alien franchise.
Out of all four films in the Alien series (let’s just try and forget AvP, shall we?), the original was always my personal favorite. Its extreme sense of atmosphere, its claustrophobic tendency, and its lurking sense of waiting terror always make for a hell of a viewing experience whenever it’s taken in, and its such a nuanced and intricately produced film that its possible to watch it dozens of times and pick up on something new with each viewing. Whether its the layout of the Nostromo, the oddly erotic and equally menacing design of the creatures from the mind of H.R. Giger, and the great performances from Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright all help to accentuate something that the other films failed to capture as efficiently: the very human response to tension and horror. More than the others, Alien seems to reflect a more realistic expression of human nature than the gung-ho Aliens, the overly mean-spirited Alien 3, and the bizarre Alien: Resurrection.
Still, though, when you look at the world as it was established in the first film, and especially how it was expanded upon in the second film, it doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s very fertile territory for a video game experience to explore. Over the last thirty-five years, there have been 32 released games with the word “Alien” in the title. This includes a lot of crossover games with the Predator franchise, but for the sake of being concise, I’m going to greatly limit the scope of this piece to the “solo” Alien games released either on console or PC (with one exception), as well as games that were released starting when I was a kid in 1996. That year saw the release of a multi-platform game on PC, Sega Saturn, and Sony’s original PlayStation.
Alien Trilogy (1996)
An old school first-person shooter in the same vein as the original Wolfenstein and Doom games, Alien Trilogy places you in the role of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley character, though with a bit of creative license taken. Ripley is a Colonial Marine, and she’s not afraid to just barge onto a planet’s surface and shoot the living hell out of Xenomorphs and Facehuggers alike. The story can be generously described as “loosely” based on the first three films of the series (hence the title), and after your other marines are wiped out by the alien infestation on the planet LV-426, it’s up to you as Ripley to make your way across the planet and blow all of the ungodly creatures away with a variety of weapons.
It’s not exactly a bad game, but it just doesn’t feel like something that is nearly as unique as the property it’s based upon. While it was likely a very strong first look at where FPS-based games in the Alien universe could go, from that perspective alone it can be respected as a good first step toward other, better (and worse) games that would come along. In that respect, Alien Trilogy has a place in the legacy, even if it’s relatively forgotten today.
According to the game’s publisher, the now-defunct Acclaim Entertainment, Alien Trilogy was to be the first video game to use 3D motion capture technology. It’s frankly hard to tell if this is the case or not, though, since there are only a handful of pre-rendered CGI cutscenes. Most of the story is delivered via text in “briefing sessions,” and the gameplay itself features sprite-based 2D animations. Although the game was relatively well received, it’s pretty unremarkable by today’s standards for classic games, and likely should only be sought out by diehard fans of the franchise that want to take in every facet of Alien game history.
Games Between 1998-99
In the closing years of the 20th century, two games were released: 1998’s Aliens Online was an online-only PC multiplayer game pitting teams of Colonial Marines against teams of Xenomorphs. It could like be described as a first-person shooter with action and roleplaying elements, since it was tied to a sense of community based on the faction you would choose before a particular game. The idea actually sounds ahead of its time since we’re examining it from the era of Titanfall and Destiny, since online-only games were few and far between in the late 90’s. The servers for the game were permanently shut down in May of 2000 after its parent subscription service, GameStorm, was acquired by Electronic Arts.
The other game released in 1999 was Aliens vs. Predator, the critically-acclaimed and highly revered 3D first-person shooter. In the intervening years since the release of this game, it’s widely seen as the high point in both the Alien and Predator game franchises, and even though it’s more than 15 years old, players can still buy and play a “remastered” version of it through Valve’s Steam service. But, since it’s not strictly an Alien game, let’s move onto the next one.
Alien: Resurrection (2000)
A PlayStation exclusive, Alien: Resurrection was released to consumers a full three years after the film of the same name had already completed its theatrical run. Originally conceived as a horror game in the vein of the original Resident Evil, various production delays eventually caused it to be reimagined as a first-person shooter. Did it ultimately become a good first-person shooter? Well…it depends on how you want to define the word “good.”
One thing that Alien: Resurrection managed to nail for the time in which it was released was its sense of atmosphere. Although by today’s standards the graphics are primitive, when this first saw release, it was actually pretty scary seeing a Xenomorph kill someone right in front of you as your introduction to the creatures. Beyond that, exploring the dark and dank hallways of the ship can get pretty damned creepy as well, especially early on, when you get to tour a bit of the devastation left behind by some of the alien attacks. A corpse with a big hole in it over here, a trail of blood over there, a giant hole in the wall where it either entered or exited…you get the idea. By this point, too, it’s worth noting that gamers still had an overall positive outlook on licensed Alien games largely due o the success of Aliens vs. Predator, but it’s attempt to create viable analog-based three-dimensional controls was one of the first, as well as one of the most imprecise. In their archives, IGN still has their review of this game on their website, and reviewer Marc Nix makes a note in his verdict of 6.5/10 that it’s largely due to the imprecise nature of the original DualShock controller.
So, while this movie-based tie-in game (that arrived a few years too late) could’ve been a lot worse, it still showed some baby-steps as video gaming was starting to acclimate more and more to the third dimension.
Games Between 2001-10
We’re skipping ahead a few years, since most of the games released at the beginning of the 21st century were either more crossover games with the Predator franchise, or released on older handheld or mobile formats. As you can imagine, it’d be pretty hard for me to play a cell phone game from 2002 on my iPhone, and I haven’t had a Game Boy Color in a long time, but the most notable games released during this period included Aliens vs. Predator 2 (the direct sequel to the modern classic), and a real-time strategy game called Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction released on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 that garnered mixed reviews. 2010 saw a revival game simply called Aliens vs. Predator that tried to recapture the first-person glory of the original 1999 game, even being developed by the same studio, but it was also released to mixed reviews and a lot of lamenting. Most of this was likely due to the massive reconception of the first-person shooter genre that occurred with games like the original Halo and the dawn of the Call of Duty franchise, as the latest AvP just couldn’t quite measure up.
Still, there were still more adventures to be had with the Xenomorphs, and one solid adventure came on a relatively unexpected format: the Nintendo DS.
Aliens Infestation (2011)
A 2D sidescroller game in the Alien franchise hadn’t been seen since at least the 1993 SNES release of Alien 3, but that’s exactly what we got with Aliens Infestation. Released in 2011 on the Nintendo DS, Infestation put players in control of four Colonial Marines right after the events of Aliens and Alien 3. You run and gun, blowing away any Xenomorphs and Facehuggers you come into contact with, and if the marine you’re controlling dies, then another will take his/her place. If your team of four is completely wiped out, then it’s “game over, man!’ Infestation should, in a lot of ways, remind peple of games like the original Metroid or Castlevania since there’s a pronounced exploration element to it. While it’s mostly action-based, there’s some backtracking for the player to do in the midst of all the alien killing that needs to get done, and it’s a surprisingly solid experience overall. It won’t change your life or anything, but it’s definitely in the “good” column in the history of Alien games.
Game Informer‘s review paints a clear picture of how well-liked this game was upon release, when it says in its review, “Infestation‘s quality is surprising in a sea of mediocre licensed games. It’s not afraid to show off where it got its inspiration, but that’s okay. Metroid‘s format works well in the world of Aliens. There are a few minor frustrations, and the mortality of the characters was surprising, even frustrating at first, but ultimately it adds a worthwhile sense of fear to the entire game. If you’re a fan of Metroid, Aliens, or just solid handheld experiences, don’t let Infestation become forgotten as the 3DS wave washes over us.”
If only things could’ve continued to go on the upswing for the next major game in the franchise…
Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013)
Apparently lingering in development hell for years, and with a sizable amount of shady practices going on behind the scenes, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Colonial Marines sucked pretty badly. The only problem was that it was a pretty legitimate shock to the gaming community at-large. Not only did you have 20th Century Fox –stewards of the Alien film franchise — putting the weight of official canon behind the game’s story,but you had a lot of involvement from the original castmembers of the beloved sequel (like Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen), a development studio hot off the success of Borderlands, and a great deal of apparent care in making the game an authentic experience. Unfortunately, the elements did not combine into a game as remotely playable as it should have been. With stories of multiple studios stepping in while other stepped out, a complicated and protracted development cycle, and good, old-fashioned bad game design, Aliens: Colonial Marines is often looked at as one of the biggest bombs of recent video game history.
Upon first playing it after eagerly awaiting the installation on my Xbox 360, I was actually initially impressed with its feeling of authenticity. Locales from the Aliens film were recreated in pretty solid detail, such as the leaking bottom half of Bishop in the Sulaco landing bay, to the dead Facehugger on the ground of the medical facility that almost grabbed Newt. It’s clear that the idea was to be an organic extension of the film. From there, though, things fall apart with shoddy A.I., sloppy texturing and model design, overly linear levels, and a flatly unimpressive story that seemed to find no logical reason to take place in the locales that it did.
I was really looking forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, but it seems that the perfect storm of developer difficulties, shuffling of resources and teams, changing technologies, and the simple existence of time seriously crippled this game from being what I and so many other franchise fans hoped it would be. Reverence for the original film can only take you so far in a video game environment, and while there’s some cool homages and moments in the story mode, Colonial Marines just doesn’t add up to the fans’ expectations or the conventions of good FPS gameplay.
The latest game release, Alien: Isolation, will be the subject of the next GeekNation game review. It’s a survival-horror game from a first-person perspective, and the first time the franchise will have made it onto the new generation hardware of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. After the disappointing experience of Colonial Marines, can we learn to love again? Or, will our devotion to the franchises we love continue to be over-exploited in awfully constructed licensed games? Maybe there’s reason to hope. Why do I keep playing movie games? Well…maybe Isolation is the answer.
Check out our review and find out.
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