Thursday, February 28, 2013

Game Review: Aliens: Colonial Marines By Matthew W-A


“Maybe you should leave this marine behind.” Too subtle? How about “dishonorable discharge?” No? Fine. Enough with the “pithy” one-liner. I'll just outright say it: Aliens: Colonial Marines is a terrible game, and the way Gearbox has hyped it up and marketed it is downright shameful to the point of what some people might call false advertising. If you care about spoilers in this game you should probably avoid this review, but if you actually end up buying the game anyways after reading this, spoilers are the least of your problems. The story is just so stupid and poorly written that it would be a disservice to my readers to not break down the entire thing and explain why it's so bad.

Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place seventeen weeks after the events of the movie Aliens. You are a marine known only as Winter who is part of the rescue team Hicks mentioned in the movie. Canon problems start to appear before the game even gets started, with the game considering Alien 3 to be canon and going from there. In the level immediately after the tutorial, you run across a bunch of Weyland-Yutani computer equipment with timestamps dating back to before the distress signal was sent. How is that even possible? The distress signal was sent at the end of Aliens, and I don't remember Weyland-Yutani setting up shop in the Sulaco at the end of that movie. Story problems run deeper then canon with characters being shocked by the reproductive cycle of the xenomorphs even though they had access to Ripley's briefing like the marines in Aliens, and the plot generally being driven by deus ex machina...

The story isn't even the worst part of the writing though, as the dialogue is some of the most forced stupid dudebro garbage I have ever been forced to suffer through. It isn't cheesy bad, it's forced and boring bad. The game attempts to replicate to highly quotable dialogue of the movie, and fails miserably. The opening briefing begins with “Listen up chicks and dicks!” and it's all downhill from there. None of the characters have any chemistry with each other or any personality to speak of. There are no meaningful interactions between the characters, or any signs of character development from anyone. The script even falls flat on it's face when it comes to giving the colonial marines a badass creed. Seriously, if I ever hear the phrase “oorah to ashes” again, I will probably do something drastic. What does “oorah to ashes” even mean? It makes no sense. It's like one of the writers spent a few minutes watching some marines talk to each other without any context before writing the script. Every single time the game tries to replicate the dialogue of the film we get such “gems” as “every morning I wake up thanking baby Jesus that I'm in the corp.” Of course, all of this dialogue is delivered in the sort of wooden monotone you would expect from voice actors that have given up on any hope of the game being good. Even Micheal Biehn who reprises his role as Hicks delivered a flat and stilted performance. Think Ron Pearlman from the 2008 Turok reboot, only with less inflection, emotion, or hope for the future.

Speaking of Hicks, what is he doing alive? Aliens: Colonial Marines (unfortunately) considers Alien 3 to be canon, and that movie established that Hicks was pretty unambiguously dead. When asked why this is not the case by one of the bland marines in a rare and unexpected case of brain activity, Hicks responds with the classic “it's a long story” hand wave, and just like that, everyone moves on and the major issue of how a character is brought back from the dead is never mentioned again. For a large part of the game we are told that there is a surviving marine from the Sulaco, and build up all this anticipation. For most of the time, I assumed the survivor was Hudson because he was the only character from Aliens we never actually saw die by the end of the movie or in Alien 3, but no, you find him cocooned with a hole in his chest in the form of a blink and you will miss it throwaway reference in the sewer level. Why didn't we get him instead? Could the developers somehow not afford Bill Paxton? Hudson would have actually made sense, and I always found Hicks to be pretty generic and boring whereas Hudson was the entertaining comic relief. Bill Paxton whining into a microphone for forty minutes could have made the game a lot more tolerable, but sadly it was not to be.

Well if the story is one massive boring cliché, is the game fun to play? In a word, no. The levels are linear, although you get to back track a few times, the enemies are slow and stupid, and the gunplay is mediocre at best. You also spend most of the game fighting Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. That's right. This is an Aliens game where the focus isn't even on the xenomorphs. The game quickly devolves into Call of Duty: Space Ops, only it doesn't come close to the base level of quality that is expected from the yearly releases of that franchise. The humans have no sense of self preservation, but to make up for that  have a strange resistance to bullets and near perfect aim. There are also literally three different enemy soldier models: basic soldier with assault rifle or shotgun, scientist with assault rifle or shotgun, and heavy trooper with smartgun and what appears to be some form of personal energy shielding. Unfortunately the xenomorphs aren't all that much fun to fight either. They are slow and about as intelligent as a jar of mayo. All they do is run straight at you, swipe at you once, and politely wait for you to retaliate. For the most part the game was not at all challenging. I wasn't unable to even perceive much of a difference between the easy and hard difficulty levels, and my first person shooter skills are mediocre at best.

Even all two of the boss battles turned out to be massive disappointments. The first is against some strange oversized mutant xenomorph, and would probably have been a pretty fun fight if not for the fact that the power loader controls are absolute garbage, and the giant xenomorph used the brilliant tactic of clipping through me to get behind me before attacking (and yes, I played through that bit in co-op, and the other person saw us regularly occupying the same location in space and time). The second and final boss battle (which is against a xenomorph queen in the cargo bay of a space ship) involves pulling four levers and watching a cutscene where someone else kills her. That is correct: the final boss is killed off by someone else in an incredibly cliched manner that just screams deus ex machina. It's a disappointing end to a disappointing game, and the only reason I can think of for it being that way is that Gearbox couldn't be bothered to put in the effort necessary to have a proper final boss battle.

Remember how I said that Aliens: Colonial Marines was trying to be Call of Duty: Space Ops? Well that pops up again when it comes to the weapons and several other things. For some reason, the hallowed M41a pulse rifle now has these massive iron sites that look stupid and serve no practical purpose whatsoever. It's actually harder to hit what you are aiming at with the iron sites on any weapon in the game, and the iron sites on the M41a pulse rifle aren't even lined up properly. The progression system that is integrated into the entire game both singleplayer and multiplayer only makes things even worse and feels more out of place. “Rank up!” the game tells me as I stumble across an audio-log that was only differentiated from all the other identical computer equipment by a fain glow. When you rank up you earn points that allow you to purchase weapon attachments such as silencers, scopes, laser sights, and reflex sites that look stupid, serve no practical purpose, and look completely out of place on the weapons. The under-barrel secondary weapons are slightly less stupid. I can see the M41a being able to load shotgun shells instead of grenades, but while under-barrel flamethrowers is a nice nod to Ripley's improvised weapon at the end of Aliens, I was always under the impression that the 30mm grenade launcher was not a replaceable element of the weapon. On the whole, the whole weapon customization system feels like a feature thrown in because other popular games have it, not because it was appropriate for an Aliens game.


Aliens: Colonial Marines does manage to succeed in one section of the weapons department with legendary weapons: perfect in-game replicas of weapons from the movie. Hick's shotgun, complete with all of the markings is pretty easy to find, but there are also some weapons that are hidden a bit better such a Vasquez's smartgun. Speaking of smartguns, you do get to use one. For ten minutes. The interface is actually pretty cool, and it feels fun to use. You start to have fun with it, then never get to use it again after you use up your five hundred rounds of ammo. Also, like flamethrower's (which have a range so short as to be basically unusable) you can't use other weapons while carrying it. Want to conserve ammo for that awesome gun by using your shotgun in close quarters? Well you can't. I suppose such things are realistic in the case of the smartgun seeing how large it is, but the flamethrower is small enough to attach to the bottom of an M41a pulse rifle with duct tape, and being unable to switch weapons while carrying that does not make any sense. Why can't you just replace your shotgun with the flamethrower anyways? They both serve the same basic role.

I should probably mention one last major gripe about the weapon handling and gameplay: the M41a pulse rifle is a huge letdown. The sound that it uses when fired does not correspond to the number of shots you are actually firing, and almost fools you into thinking you are expending more ammunition then you really are. Also, even though the M41a is technically a fully automatic weapon, the devs decided to have the weapon pause every second or so to simulate the feeling of short controlled bursts from the movie, even when you are holding the fire button in full on panic mode. Why does this even happen? In Aliens Ripley is shone firing the M41a for protracted periods of time. This is not an in-universe defect. The M41a is even specifically stated in some places to jam less often then previous assault rifles due to the fact that it uses caseless ammunition, so that can't be an explanation for the gun's erratic firing pattern in the game. Seriously, how do you mess up the M41a pulse rifle of all things? Aside from the xenomorphs it is probably one of the most visually important elements of Aliens.

Well if the game is poorly written, and isn't fun to play, is it at least nice to look at? Once again, no. In fact, it could be argued that the graphics are the worst part of the whole package. Low resolution textures, janky character models, mediocre static lighting effects, uninspired environmental design, terrible animations, and atrocious performance combine to form something that would have been embarrassing as an Xbox 360 launch title. Clipping problems show up in both constantly reused animation (when you are mashing a button to prevent  facehugger from facehugging you, you can see your fingers clipping through it), during cutscenes (I saw one character try to pat another on the back and instead stick her arm through hist chest), and even during gameplay (allies getting stuck in walls, the previously mentioned giant xenomorph clipping through your powerloader). By far the worst example popped up during times when you have control of your character but the rest of the cast is talking about stuff everybody already knows or is glaringly obvious to anyone with atleast a single active brain cell. During these times, collision with friendly NPCs is disabled for some reason, so you can walk right through them. By far the creepiest thing in the game is seeing someones lips move from inside their empty, hollow head. Also, bonus points for the eyes of all the characters not being animated. That too does add to the whole creepiness factor, although I'm not entirely sure that was the type of disturbing the developers were aiming for. I played the PC version, and I hear that was the best of the three. Both console version reportedly suffer from serious framerate issues, and look even worse, if such things are possible.

The few times any hints of competence start to show up, they are quickly squashed under a massive wave of bugs and disappointments. There is a level set in the sewers under Hadley's Hope where you are stripped of your weapons and being hunted by some new oversized sub-species of xenomorph. I was pretty scared for awhile. Then the game introduced the “boiler” xenomorph, that can only locate you by sound, and walks around like it has really bad diarrhea but doesn't feel comfortable letting it out in the sewer. Even then, when you have to stand perfectly after making too much noise, hoping the boilers won't realize that you are there is still pretty scary, until the boilers decide they should just walk through you. Then it just feels stupid.

Even the multiplayer is underwhelming. Sure, you can customize your own marine, but the maps are ripped straight from the campaign, the various multiplayer modes are poorly designed and unbalanced, and there isn't even a tutorial that explains how to properly play as a xenomorph. Xenomorph movement is also pretty broken, and being able to control a xenomorph from the third person perspective really brings out the flaws in the animations. Balance in the entire multiplayer component is a joke, and Gearbox went off in all the wrong directions trying to balance the two sides. There are always the same number of human and xenomorph players. A single swipe with a claw does just as much damage as a shotgun blast to the face. I played it for all of half an hour before thrwing in the towel.

Around every corner of Aliens: Colonial Marines is new, disappointing surprises, and the more you think about the entire mess, the more plot holes you find. Why is Hadley's Hope not an irradiated pit? At the end of Aliens it was hit with a forty megaton thermonuclear explosion when the reactor blew. Why is there ammunition lying all over the colony? The movie made it pretty clear that Ripley and the marines from the Sulaco used up all the ammo they brought with them. How has the Weyland-Yutani corporation managed to set up an entire research facility in the time it took the rescue team to show up, and why to they think declaring war on the Colonial Marines is in any way a good idea? How are there so many Weyland-Yutani mercenaries on the Sulaco anyways? Where were they all hiding from the first marine team that boarded the ship? The entire game is one confusing tangled mess if you make the mistake of thinking about it for any duration of time.

I could just write off this whole mess as just simple incompetence, neglect, and some really poor decision making. I can, but I won't. Gearbox marketed Aliens: Colonial Marines as the true sequel to Aliens. Aside from the base game, there was a $100 collectors edition with a desk statue of a xenomorph queen fighting a powerloader, and people were encouraged to buy a $30 season pass for four upcoming pieces of unannounced DLC, the first piece being Bughunt, a horde mode that should have been included in the base game for free considering how little content there is. Gearbox lied to consumers. There is no possible way that they didn't know how bad it was, yet Randy Pitchford spent the last year going around to every games journalist on the planet and telling them that Aliens: Colonial Marines would be a fantastic game.

If those had been the only lies, I would just assume that some people messed up, and Randy Pitchford was promoting the game without actually knowing how bad it was. Or some. But it gets worse. Much worse. That demo level that showed up at E3 and PAX Prime? Not in the game. The original “gameplay” videos of the beginning of the game on the Sulaco? Pre-rendered. To quote the bland protagonist, “this isn't crossing the line so much as completely reinventing it.” just before the game released some people started to leak some fascinating tidbits, things such as Gearbox spending Sega's money to finish Borderlands, Gearbox putting the game on the back burner to finish up Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox outsourcing the game to Timegate while using Sega's money to make Borderlands 2. It's just shameful what Gearbox has done here. They took a contract and something like $60 million to make a game, they made fake promotional materials, and then they game us this. Normally I don't like to wish anyone ill, but this is too far. I hope this destroys Gearbox. I hope this hole mess burns them to the ground in an inferno of lawsuits and broken consumer trust.

Normally I would recommend waiting for this game to hit $5 on Steam for those curious, but in this case I can't recommend purchasing this game no matter how cheap it is, because Gearbox would make money out of it that way. Unless Gearbox pulls a complete one-eighty, don't buy this game even if it drops to $0.99 or you see it in the bargain bin at Gamestop. What I am trying to say, is DON'T BUY THIS GAME. Gearbox doesn't deserve your money, and Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn't deserve your time. Hey Gearbox, if you want a quote for the back of the box, how about this: when Hudson said “Takeoff and nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure,” I had no idea he was talking about part of my Steam directory.

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