Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Semper Ffff... - Aliens: Colonial Marines

Despite the fact that I have played video games for most of my life, I don’t really consider myself qualified to review them in a conventional sense. I don’t play enough different types of games, for one thing, and for another, I have little to no appreciation for the technical permutations. Graphically, for instance, I am far more concerned with the art design and palate choices than I am with the number polygons used to create a character model. I will happily trade achievements in graphic processing for ones in playability, or storytelling or character design, or just good old playability. As a result when I saw the unflattering to gawdawful reviews for Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game for the PlayStation 3 I had been anticipating for almost a year, I held out some hope that A:CM would still hold out some value for me as about as non-hardcore a gamer there is. In fact, my first person shooter skills are borderline pathetic, which is probably why I prefer stealth games like Metal Gear Solid.

The other factor I hoped would play in my favour is that I am a huge fan of the 1986 movie upon which this is game is based: James Cameron’s Aliens: I saw the movie at least five times in the theatre. I bought the novelization by Alan Dean Foster, which contained material from the screenplay that didn't make it to the theatrical release, like the automated sentry guns, and Hudson bragging about all the weaponry the marines had access to, from phased plasma pulse rifles to pointed sticks, with "sonic electronic ballbreakers" presumably somewhere in the middle.

 Later on, these scenes made it on the a network tv broadcast of the movie, which I taped on my VCR, and then Rob and I dutifully chained three video players together to make our own ersatz director's cut. We were the envy of many until the actual Director's Cut came out years later.

The film was obviously a key inspiration for the DeRangers costumes we made for Con-Version in Calgary, where I got a full set of USCM patches and sewed them onto a down vest. I bought the Aliens comic book that Dark Horse published. I was envious of the handful of people who owned an Atari Jaguar video game system, because they could play Aliens Vs. Predator, which included Colonial Marines.

 At every opportunity, I enjoyed getting more of a peek into modern cinema's first near-future military science-fiction universe, some great, some not so great. For something that had spun off from Ridley Scott's 'haunted house in space', Cameron's USCM idea clearly had legs to spare.

When the terrible reviews began pouring in for the A:CM, I was pretty disheartened, but was determined to play it anyways and derive as much enjoyment as I could out of it, more as a fan of the franchise than of the video game medium, despite the potential shortcomings and hurdles.

Which, let me tell you, are plentiful.
There are glitches aplenty: extremities stick out through walls, tails stick up through ceiling grates, and close quarters combat is a nightmare as a result. Not because of the horrifying, slime drooling xenomorph trying to bite your face off with his secondary jaws, but because you have no idea which way to turn to either get a shot off with your pulse rifle or even a desperate melee attack; a nightmare born more of frustration than terror.

There were a few times where the non-player character I was supposed to meet, follow or lead somewhere would fail to move, standing in some static cycle, either looking at their motion tracker repeatedly or scanning the horizon with a thousand pixel stare, looking for bugs that would never come. I would have to restart the level from the last checkpoint and hope I didn't get sent too far back.

At close quarters, like the mid-deck halls of the USS Sulaco, the xenomorphs are incredibly lethal, which, to be fair, is probably how it should be. That said, your introduction to them is being jumped unawares while you try to cut free a cocooned comrade, long before you have a chance to deal with one at range using your trusty pulse rifle. Suddenly you are on your back with your frail human hands as all that is holding back the biomechanical jaws of one of H.R. Giger's horrific creations. Oh, a quicktime event? I should hit square? Oh, more than once? Oh, repeatedly, like a man playing Track & Field in the midst of a grand mal seizure?
Seriously, I died three times before I finally figured out what I was supposed to be doing.

Another major frustration is the manner in which you grab ammo and upgrades from the field. They are clearly highlighted (thank goodness; with the omnipresent dim or strobing lights, finding them without assistance really would have pushed me over the edge) but the game is extremely fussy about your position and orientation in order to actually pick them up: not too far, not too close, and with your gunsight pretty much pointed right at them, so you are largely unaware of any potential hazards, except perhaps for the face hungers, but if you can see them at that range, it is probably already too late. I appreciate that the players should need to take some sort of action, and not just be able to magically assimilate bullets via some form of osmosis as they run over them at top speed with a slavering beastie hot on their heels, but this baby bear's porridge nonsense is jut too much. And since the same button that picks up items also opens and closes doors, that made for some nasty incidents with unexpected visitors, I can assure you
So yes, there are a lot of elements of the game that are incredibly frustrating, and they combine to make A:CM feel like a terribly rushed project. They are the kind of flaws that will keep away all but the most compulsive fans of the movie which inspired it.
So, what's to like?

Well, exploring the environments is a real treat. Gearbox, the studio that produced the game, went to great lengths to make sure that everything you see and hear is consistent with what we saw in Aliens all those years ago (and again last week when you said, 'why the hell don't I own that on BluRay?' and went out and got it at Best Buy that very night and put it in the player just to make sure it worked, and the next thing you knew, Ripley was telling Newt they were going to sleep all the way home and it was 1:27 a.m....).

When the game begins, you hear James Horner's brilliant score, and when you press start, you hear the cursor softly burping across the screen like it did when it typed out names like Werzbowski, Hudson, Apone, and Hicks. The chime of the motion tracker when hostiles are on the move, or its 'bup...bup...bup...' when it is too quiet, do a great job of ramping up the tension.

The corridors of the Sulaco, which you board via an umbilical from your ship, the Sephora, look like you remember them, except for where the titular Aliens have redecorated with their signature 'Colonial Trachea' wallpaper, and even here the detail is fantastic and offputting. The uniforms, signage and lighting testify to good research and production design.

You start the game with a variety of weapons from the movie, like the pump shotgun, service pistol and of course, the M41A Pulse Rifle: 10mm exploding tip caseless, standard light armour piercing rounds, plus an under barrel pump action 30mm grenade launcher. (Can I get an "oo-rah"?) Now, your version is a Mk II with a comparatively puny 40 round mag compared to, I believe, 95 in the film, which I think is due more to game balance than anything else, but you can add an upgrade later that will give you 60 rounds instead. Which I quickly did, because buddy, I am no Kit Carson in these games, let me tell you.

Just like in the movie, you can count on expending significant amounts of ammo to drop an advancing bug, but it is some kind of gratifying when you do. The sound design on the pulse rifle is perfect, that same hollow, sputtering roar so ubiquitous to the film; the simple act of firing this now legendary weapon is one of the unmitigated joys of the game.

Since A:CM is intended to have a significant online multiplayer component, and because we would all get bored shooting the same weapon all the way through the game, a range of other firearms is included, some of which you start off with, others which have to be unlocked or discovered. They are consistent in design with the pistols, pulse rifles, smart guns and incinerators we saw in Aliens, and include a phased plasma rifle (in what I will assume is a 40 watt range), an assault weapon with heavier load and under barrel flame unit, and my favourite, a deadly little submachine gun with a small shot, but delightfully high cyclic rate. I was also delighted to see that my pre-order meant I started the game with the mysterious sonic electronic ball breakers in my kit!

All the weapons can be tricked out in various ways, from recoil reducing stocks, to reflex or telescopic sights, or a number of under barrel attachments such as shotguns and mine launchers. There are even unlockable paint jobs, including one for the battle rifle called Shillelagh I am dying to get my paws on.
Unfortunately, the aliens themselves come in a number of varieties as well, such as soldier, lurker, and spitter, but since the multiplayer game allows you to play as either marines or xenos, that is a benefit and not a detriment.

Also appreciated is the variety in mission types, including a harrowing section where, weaponless, you slowly make your way through the sewers, avoiding blind xenos trying to find you by sound alone, and standing stock still when you hear the hiss of one lurking behind you.

I finished the single player campaign last night, and despite recurring frustrations, there was enjoyment to be had as well. As a story, it stands up favourably in a lot of ways to the cinematic sequels, but I recognize that to many Aliens fans, this qualifies as damning with faint praise. You encounter a number of characters as the story unfolds, almost all of them fellow jarheads, and while the dialogue and voice acting aren't up to the quality of the Uncharted or Arkham games, it is consistent and well done. When your character, Chris Winter, enters the hangar of the Sulaco and sees Bishop's legs, he radios his Captain to inform him.
Winter: Sir, there is half of a male synthetic strewn about on the deck here...
Cruz: Which half?
Winter: Well...he ain't sayin' much....
Cruz: Then find me the half that talks. Sulaco actual, out.
Most pleasing to me is that although there is a significant amount of fan service for lovers of the movie, none of the characters or dialogue from the film are simply copied or aped, although one marine does shout, "Let's rock out!" at one point, echoing the inimitable J. Vasquez.

The question,then, is this: although Aliens: Colonial Marines has unquestionably earned the bad reviews it has accumulated for itself, is there enough here to justify its purchase by those of us who, in many ways, have been waiting for a game like this for about a quarter century now?


I certainly can't advise paying full pop ($59.99) for such a flawed game, but when it inevitably goes on sale, it is definitely worth keeping an eye open for as a bargain title if you are a fan of the movie. While I paid more for my 'collector's edition', the statuette, Marine dossier and the two patches it came with certainly helps to soften the blow. As well, despite my reservations about sharing the experience with strangers, I am looking forward to trying out the multiplayer game as well. Heck, the game is even LAN capable, so it might be fun to bring a few PS3s to G&G VIII to see what happens.

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