Thursday, 14 February 2013

We Got Nukes, We Got Knives, We Got Sharp Sticks.

Review: Aliens: Colonial Marines - a game with aliens and stuff

The Alien’s franchise is pop-culture fuel for many of us and has touched or influenced much in the way of how the public views multi-media. To say there is a lot to be expected from a “true sequel” would be an understatement. Expectations are mammoth!

So, is this a mission worth taking or should we just accept the alternate continuity and forget any of this happened?

I think it’s important to point out that ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’ is a game that has suffered from delay after delay and was cancelled at one point. Originally announced all the way back in 2001, the rights for the franchise were picked up by SEGA in 2006, and the game was saved from development hell.

Thus, straight off the bat it’s hard not to assume that ACM has suffered the same fate as another loved and much anticipated title that bombed savagely: Duke Nukem Forever. Unfortunately this is definitely something that is evident in the final product. 

Back in 1986 Ripley, Newt, half of the android called Bishop, and Corp. Hicks were the sole survivors of the USS Sulaco. Battered and bruised, they set coordinates for earth and retire to hyper sleep, hoping to have left the worst behind. For many fans of the ‘Alien’ franchise this is considered to be a true ending and disregard the release of a third or fourth movie. And those fans are in luck. Aliens: Colonial Marines, developed by Gearbox Software, picks up after the final moments of Aliens.

With that in mind; if this demo is what you expected then prepared to be disappointed. With obvious graphical and technical cut backs to the final game, my review is not going to touch on what we were promised but what we got and how it compares to now. 

Story -
The player is placed in the shoes of Lieutenant Christopher Winter who is assisting two squads of Marines uncover why the USS Sulaco has inexplicably returned to orbit over the planet LV-426. They board the marooned ship only to discover unknown life forms and murdered marines. After recovering vital flight records, the squads retreat but events take a turn for the worse forcing you and your team to the surface of the planet. 

With the exception of Lance Henrickson reprising his role as Bishop, none of the characters are particularly memorable. All fit expected tropes and stereotypes. The lack of banter or repartee between your comrades seems like a missed opportunity. It would've gone a long way towards building the believability of the characters and your attachment to them. As it stands their lifeless eyes and eerie silence outside of scripted cut scenes or plot progression makes for some awkward gaming moments.

Don't let it lick your face! You don't know where its mouth has been.

The story tries desperately to reach the similar high tension moments experienced in the film but constantly falls well below the mark. Characters like O’Neil do an admirable job at bringing the moxie but it’s really an empty story, regularly acknowledging the greatness of its film counterpart. Unfortunately it is just a constant reminder of how average the ACM experience is.

Gameplay –
Generally speaking gunplay is nothing bad - but also nothing notably unique. The mere fact that it works for this game is an achievement. Whilst you are provided with an arsenal of weapons it’s unfortunate to say that most of those weapons, if not all, suffer from a complete lack of imagination. I found each gun a bore to use since none of the equipment has any 'character' or, and more importantly, visceral and audiative impact.

Controlling Lt. Winter is relatively painless but he lacks some of the basic skills of his contemporary FPS protagonists. Oh, of course he has the ability to aim, shoot and throw grenades, but he isn't able to vault or slide. I wouldn’t have cared so much if it was universal – but it’s not and it sucks. His many comrades are able to do what he can’t - and regularly remind you. 

All essential pickups aren’t collected by running over the item + magic but instead it’s a process of looking and pressing the ‘action’ button. Normally this wouldn’t present any problems as it’s a simple mechanic but it’s painfully unintuitive and slow. In situations where you are facing an onslaught of wall climbing Xenomorphs, a little bit of magic goes a long way. Additionally - and this is a major gripe of mine - the character has no weight behind his actions and feels like you’re constantly running on tip toes. This also results in a melee attack that looks pitiful and weak, but is surprisingly affective. 

At times I found the game challenging and often ended up dead. For a time I thought it was down to my lack of skill. However I eventually learnt that it was a result of terrible A.I programming.

All enemies are directly targeting you and ignore your team mates, so it’s possible for the difficulty to suddenly spike when being swarmed by hordes of Xenomorphs. With the Motion Tracker being your only method of locating and seeing your targets, you’ll find yourself frequently switching from tracker to gun as the next horde appears. It becomes a bit of juggling act.

[source -]
Uh, yeah. Can I order 2 XL Meatfeasts? Delivery to Hadley's Hope.
Based on its source material you would be justified in expecting tense action that pushes your finely honed FPS skills to the point of control clenching sweaty hands. It would be fair of you to assume there would be moments that would cause frustration and high blood pressure as you’re being overrun by Xenomorphs; to feel relief and a sense of accomplishment when you survive swarms of enemies. 

Sadly, you won’t find that here.

Presentation & Style -
The game runs on the Unreal Engine and seeing what other developers have done in the past with lighting textures it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar calibre. 

Graphically the game is a mixed bag. It’s rendered with heavy shadows, consisting of a much muted colour pallet with a hiked up contrast setting that you can’t tweak. It also suffers from very blocky, unsophisticated, lighting and hard edges. There are moments where the developers have attempted dynamic lighting; though I can’t say it was very well executed or memorable. Similarly the environmental textures are nothing to gab about. As I continued my play through, it became painfully obvious that essentially Gearbox has hidden many cut corners in heavily darkened environments.

Generally during gameplay the frame rate held up but cut-scenes showed regular inconsistencies and jittery action. Expect to see some of the greatest slide shows of space, displaying some of the least thrilling moments in the game. 

Oh wow. That's sooo much better. It's such a snug fit!

The sole gem of this poorly shadowed glitch-tastic coal pile of a game is the excellent music score. Many of the finer moments in the SPG reach a decent level of tension because of the truthful reproduction of strings and thematic structures similarly experienced in the movie. 

Alas, at this point, it comes down to the finer touches and nuances of the game that are there for fan service where a lot of the many aforementioned ‘average qualities’ are redeemed.

The weapons that we know and love from the film are treated with great accuracy. The Pulse Rifle maintains its bizarre sound when being fired. The Motion Tracker, possibly the most anachronistic piece of space tech ever committed to film, does a remarkable bringing the lost ‘Aliens’ quality to the game. Moreover, the little nerd in me spent 10 minutes running around USS Sulaco’s hanger, tracing the steps of the films climax through the conspicuous puddles of android blood and over turned grates, re-telling the events of what happened there like I was some sort of historian.

Layman’s’ Terms –
There’s a lot here to like and dislike, so what this comes down to is: How much do you like ‘Aliens’? For me, tracing the steps of the movie counterparts and experiencing the environments first hand is enough to enjoy this title. 

Ultimately I think many of the problems experienced are examples of development hell and delay over the past decade. Similar to Duke Nukem Forever, the game shows ideas that one might consider outdated or behind the times, whilst also being presented with more contemporary ideas such as interspersed QTE. Having said that, there is also something equally significant at play, and that’s the idea of franchise branded games.

Sure it has it’s failings but people, let’s be honest with ourselves, when have these titles ever been anything but average? If you are a user who has been let down by this game, then your expectations were way too high. It wouldn't be the first time a demo has been rendered showing great promise only to be released at a lesser quality. If this is a franchise you have enjoyed time and time again, consider picking this one up. Not brand new mind you, good god no! Bargain bin for sure.

I'll be revisiting this game again to let you know my impressions of the multiplayer. 

Wandering Comments:
  • Character modelling and facial gestures are just downright laughable. ‘Nuff said.

Following Wandering Comments are brought to you by Hana Stewart-Smith:
  • Hicks provides a short exposition filled video log before he goes into cryo sleep, voiced by Michael Beihn. Aliens Colonial Marines earns its asking price.
  • Two characters, after defeating a few aliens and looking at the chestburstered corpses of their comrades, discuss finding out who is responsible for the carnage. At absolutely no point is this considered stupid.
  • Keep waving around that thumper without looking at it, Bella, you’re a great help.
  • 'HERE! Look at the butt of my gun and flinch in pain! This is in no way a terribly animated melee attack!'
  • Rule the 1st of Alien scariness: Don’t let them stand up, or they turn into Barney the Dinosaur and then it’s harder to kill them.
  • "Corporal Hick’s wouldn't appreciate you changing his weapon, because he needs his shotgun for close encounters, because he’s frosty." And Aliens Colonial Marines earns its asking price again.
  • 'That's where Newt crawled under the grate! That’s where Bishop was torn in two! There are Bishop’s legs!' - Why can’t we have a real Aliens game yet?!
  • Is it intentional that nobody can pronounce the word ‘Winter’ so people keep calling you ‘Winner? Or ‘Winder’? Is this a self esteem thing?
  • “Listen up Chicks and Dicks!” Your captain addresses his hanger full of male marines and a single female pilot.
  • Valid concerns: Why is it we can travel in space, but the best equipment we've got is a basic echo locator and a shotgun?
  • There are female marines in multiplayer, yet your four optional skins do not include Vasquez, but you can use Drake, who uses the exact same weapons but died far earlier and was far less interesting? Not cool, Sega.

By Rod-the-Pod, 14-Feb-2013

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