Aliens_Colonial_Marines_Cover

What follows are my initial thoughts based on a 6 hour playthrough of the campaign… Because sometimes that’s all one really needs.

So I finally got round to playing Aliens: Colonial Marines yesterday (on XB360). I played (and completed) the campaign (on Left 4 Dead inspired online co-op multi-player). It’s alright. Certainly not as bad as reviewers make it out to be, although that’s not to say that it isn’t lacking, as the game is clearly a missed opportunity.

The campaign is short (about 6 hours long), and I (along with my fellow online marines) completed the game on “Ultimate Badass” difficulty. Because in case you didn’t know, I AM a badass. Boo-ya!

To be honest, the game does seem rather rushed, unfinished, and is most certainly lacking in polish. I’m glad I (rented and) played it, but I do feel sympathy for anyone who decided to purchase A:CM at full price.

One thing that irked me was that none of the bits which Gearbox showed off during the game’s pre-release demos ended up in the final product. This almost certainly accounts for some of the reasons as to why ‘Alien’ fans feel conned.

However, an even more glaring (and obvious) comparison is to be made with the game’s pre-release and post-release graphics. Why did Alien fans get such a shoddy software release, and why does the final product not necessarily reflect what was shown off at preview events (such as E3)? In short, what the hell happened?

Although it hasn’t been proved otherwise, apparently one of the testers for A:CM was over on Reddit recently (before they deleted their account) and where they had the following to say:

Gearbox didnt care about the game, they spent the money from acm on the borderlands games. Look at the release dates of borderlands and when aliens was anounced, they had the other companies like timegate do the work. When they got the game back timegate had done a terrible job. When it came into sega it was shit basicaly. Gearbox only cared about fixing ‘progression blockers’ (things that stop a player from getting through a level) or crashes.

Now, forgive me for calling Gearbox out on this, but isn’t this akin to stepping into Hugh Grant’s shoes – where he’d rather spend time with a $2 hooker, as opposed to being with his super-model (ex) girlfriend? To me, that’s just dumb. I don’t care if Gearbox own the Borderlands IP. Fact of the matter is that ‘Aliens’ is a considerably more richer, and a far more lucrative brand, with the lore from the films themselves offering far more interesting possibilities with an infinite amount more potential. To see this being so determinedly squandered (in such a laborious and work-like manner) by a studio that is quite clearly capable of so much more, is not only heartbreaking but is also indicative of how complacent Gearbox have become after their recent success with the Borderlands franchise.

So what about the fabled Wii U version – the one that doesn’t as yet have a release date, and the version which ‘Aliens’ and Nintendo fans have so longingly been holding out for as being the best (console) version?

Oh wow. Yes okay. I was hoping someone would ask this. I have played the WiiU version. The one that is supposedly the best of all of them? It is not. It is the worst. It is a bit of a joke. The WiiU is basically the same game as the console version but with framerate issues, worse texture loading, and horrendously misguided minigames thrown in. You get a ‘scanner’ to scan enemies and get bonus points that aid your harming them. When you cut open doors (which happens a lot in the game) you have a game where you have to keep the heat ‘optimal’. They just add frustration, and take away even more from the fun. We don’t know if it will come out, Sega are conisdering canceling it, but right now its still going.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve played the XBox 360 version, but allow me to inform you that the 360 version of the game does suffer from frame-rate issues, with in-game cut-scenes having a worrying amount of screen tearing. Whilst not enough to detract from the game’s overall immersion, the game’s visible problems are compounded by environmental locales often missing textures and having other glitches (doors not visibly opening etc). Taken together as piecemeal, all of these factors contribute in detracting from the player’s overall suspension of (dis)belief.

Due to the game’s far more action orientated approach (in comparison to Rebellion’s Aliens Vs Predator games), the fabled scanner is also largely incorporated as a gimmick, with it never needingly being utilized after the first 5 minutes of the campaign. And with the aliens’ cat-like agility and reptilian grace being portrayed in a manner whereby their representation is now more akin to a badly animated two-legged humanoid, I’m pretty sure that the only horror to be induced from watching the alien monstrosities now is for how disrespectful Gearbox have been towards Fox’s license in what is clearly a blasphemous representation of HR Giger’s iconic xenomorph creation in videogame form.

Not only does the game’s relentless action help to undermine and eradicate any atmospheric tension or suspense, but the game’s all-out shooter mandate also helps to further reduce HR Giger’s once majestic aliens to being mere cannon fodder. In what is clearly an attempt to appease Call of Duty players – right down to the use of iron sights, Gearbox have handicapped the aliens by ensuring that the xeno species never utilize stealth or have sophisticated AI routines. Far from being the intimidating and foreboding enemies that one should associate with the death machines in the movies, the aliens now don’t hand you your ass back on a plate, and certainly aren’t as threatening as the very same aliens depicted in James Cameron’s influential sci-fi action opus.

You would think that with their relentless onslaught, the aliens would represent a significant challenge, but they don’t. Instead however, the human enemy types are far more intimidating, and are also far more dangerous. Maybe it’s just me, but whose (dumb) idea was it for human enemies to constitute the majority of the game, and how come they’re considerably more dangerous than the aliens? Contrary to Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford claiming to be a fan, it’s evidently clear to me that no-one at Gearbox has taken the time to watch and understand the ‘Alien’ movies and mythology. Indeed, and similar to what Hudson said in ‘Aliens’, Gearbox clearly haven’t been keeping abreast of current events as I would often get my ass kicked (by humans).

Whilst playing the Left 4 Dead inspired co-op mode on “Ultimate Badass” difficulty, it struck me as to how woefully inadequate this feature was, with it seemingly being tacked on and with very little thought being given towards its execution. If nothing else, this should have been one of the game’s sole redeeming features, and (to a certain extent it is) its saving grace. While the online co-op mode certainly made the game fun during its short 6 hour campaign, the haphazard manner in which the co-op mode had been implemented often made me question as to what Gearbox had really been doing during the game’s 6+ years development.

In Left 4 Dead, if a player ever leaves the company and security of the main party, it is usually to their detriment as they often find themselves being regularly ambushed and threatened by the undead horde. In this way, Valve’s masterpiece encourages co-operative teamwork, where it is in everyone’s best interest to stay and work together. Gearbox however takes no such cues from the title which it clearly seeks inspiration from, as when someone does fall behind (or roams astray) in A:CM, they’re magically teleported close to the other players and the main party. Not only does this rubber-banding effect help to dissuade any notion of exploration from the player – in what is clearly a linear corridor-based shooter, but players are also not routinely penalised for breaking squad behaviour or formation. Surely having an isolated player become vulnerable to an alien attack would have made the game far more interesting – with the consequence being that A:CM would have ended up playing out more like a conventional survival horror title for the isolated player. Indeed, the potential for imitating Left 4 Dead play mechanics would have been extremely interesting on the Sulaco ship and LV-426 colony, where the AI Director could have ensured to invoke very real feelings of dread and isolation among players, while making the aliens an all too real a menace and threat to contend with.

Aliens: Colonial Marines may not be the all out disaster its detractors claim it to be, but in Gearbox’s capable hands, fans clearly expected more. With the game’s campaign feeling rather short, it is not at all surprising to learn that the ending is also absolute garbage and a big let-down. While this may placate those who end up yearning for a sequel, it doesn’t help to take away from the fact that A:CM itself feels rather shoddy as a software release, and a huge mis-step in what should have been one of the biggest (and brightest) software releases this generation. Alas, and with a rumoured 8 GB patch that is to be released soon, maybe the only thing (console) players should be scared of is the extra work required to bring this painfully average (and sometimes broken) game up to speed.

I wish Gearbox considered Ripley’s quote from ‘Aliens’ – you don’t see them fucking each other over for a god-damn percentage – when developing this game. What should have been a labour of love was eventually released as an acutely average product – with its development outsourced and siphoned off to lesser developers (such as Timegate). It is no surprise therefore to find that the game itself often feels as if it’s been put together via committee, where all of its disparate parts don’t necessarily gel, and where A:CM often feels like being less than a cohesive whole.

With Gearbox’s inconsistent and insincere practices allowing them to release a sub-standard and acutely average product on to the market, A:CM acts as an indicator of not only how eager the developer is to compromise its professional principles and integrity for personal gain, but also how untrustworthy and unreliable the company is in the face of fan expectation. It is with slight trepidation therefore, that in the event a sequel ever be optioned, that I hope that it is developed by a studio that tempers the burden and expectation of fans, whilst understanding and respecting the ‘Alien’ core legacy and appeal. Because as it stands however, what Gearbox promised and what they delivered is not only a tragic indicator of how much more harder they have to work so as to become a truly consistently respected developer, but also a humbling reminder of how easily developers can lose industry and fan favour in an increasingly volatile market.

As I write this, I’m dismayed to realise that Aliens: Colonial Marines is an average shooter at best, with its one distinguishing feature being that it carries the ‘Aliens’ brand name. That such a game could be so mediocre, despite Sega’s repeated attempts to ensure its healthy gestation, means that A:CM is already 2013’s first AAA critical under-performer. However, what my sadness doesn’t convey is how much I was looking forward to this game, and how its sub-par quality makes it my biggest disappointment this generation. ‘Aliens’ fans deserve better, and with Gearbox and Randy Pitchford promising so much, with each of the game’s preview videos offering tantalising glimpses of what they were about to offer, I truly expected more. But come the final release, what Gearbox delivered was a truly mediocre product, where promises were betrayed and where hope was left unfulfilled.

Game over, man! Game over!

6/10

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