Sunday, 14 April 2013

Whiskey Reviews: Aliens Colonial Marines

Information:
Developer: Gearbox Interactive/TimeGate Studios
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: 12 February 2013
Price: £39.99 (Steam)

Intro
   So the best of the 80's is upon us once more; the Xenomorphs have returned and the Colonial Marines have dusted off the pulse rifles to have a second crack at them.
   I'm a big Aliens fan (almost as much as Xeno) and I've always loved the idea of playing the Colonial Marines kicking ass on LV426, it's always been great fun in the past in AvP 1 and 2 and even AVP 3 did a passable job (though substandard compared to previous games) of splattering acid on exposed forearms and faces so hopes for A:CM are riding high for an excellent experience that adds to the canon and reminds us fans why we loved the movie in the first place.
   Developer Gearbox have delivered polarising experiences in the past, with Borderlands being the gaming equivalent of Marmite and Duke Nukem Forever taking a giant shit on the foreheads of the paying public so already there's some apprehension about how they would handle A:CM but they gave everyone a reassuring smile and nod and said “We're fans too. We'll treat it with respect.” and all but the most sceptical of us believed them.
   Onwards, then, we delve into the big black aboard our non-Conestoga class starship and jam our pens into the goopy melted edges of Aliens: Colonial Marines to find out whether or not we should pucker up for the facehuggers or save the last bullet for ourselves.



Gameplay
   Gameplay can be difficult to quantify because everyone has their own tastes and preferences when it comes to character handling or mouse sensitivity but the gameplay here is just so bland that there's very very little to say. This is not a good sign, and that's a recurring theme that's going to keep chomping at the edges throughout.
   You've got your standard first-person shooter controls; run/walk, sprint, mouselook, WASD (or the arrow keys if you're a weirdo), and mouse sensitivity sliders and a simple rebind menu to get the controls just how you like them. It's all very by the numbers and the menus are probably the only place this isn't a bad thing.
   During gameplay you can aim down the sights or fire off the hip, though the former feels completely useless as all the weapons (even the semi-auto sniper-like Battle Rifle) has some amount of spread that makes the ironsights and various optics all but useless. Infact, the sighting systems available through the weapon unlocks/customization menu are all useless save for the red dot laser sight which still isn't ideal.
   While we're on the topic of unlocks; they're pretty sparse too. Each weapon typically has 3-5 categories such as underbarrel, accessory one and two, skin and special. Some of the attachments are genuinely useful, such as the larger magazines but the majority of them feel like the kind of pretend attachments that you'd find in a knockoff airsoft store rather than genuine military gear – case in point the lengthened barrel attachment which purportedly increases accuracy in rifles and decreases spread. The only spread I can speculate they might be meaning is sandwich spread because it certainly does nothing in game terms.
   You've also got the obligatory stealth segment where you creep past blind irradiated cancer ridden (presumably) aliens who explode all over anything that makes so much as a peep, ping, splash, hiss or rattle. Good job the game limits your movement speed and gives you precise instructions for when one gets wind of you. There is zero risk, zero tension and zero enjoyment to be had throughout the forced stealth section but that's nothing new for gaming in general.
   What's left then is bland corridor shootery against what amounts to pop-up targets. Sometimes they'll turn corners, pop out of vents, the floor/ceiling or any other utterly black orifice to be found littered throughout the generic grey and brown (Unreal Engine here, more on that later) environments and a motion tracker that seems to function only sporadically. It's functional as a shooter but that's like saying a toaster is functional at making a pizza (no, not a pizza pocket) and AI team mates are far too eager to hog all the kills to the point where it is entirely feasible to walk through levels without firing a shot (as someone already has on youtube).

Graphics
   A:CM runs on a modified Unreal Engine (I believe Gearbox were calling it the Red Engine, but it's basically just UE3 with a new lighting renderer) which means brown and grey absolutely everywhere. “But Whiskey!” I hear you cry, “We're on a spaceship and an unforgiving apocalyptic planet that was all grey in the movie too!” To which I say touche good sir/maam (delete as appropriate) but that's no excuse for the terribly low resolution textures, wooden character models, lighting effects that'd be at home in Quake 2 and whooshy wind lines that resemble the lines that often follow tumbleweed in cartoons.
   Obviously the game is dark, that's part and parcel with the  subject matter but I can't help but think that it's to hide the rigid animation and blocky, uninspired textures. That's a big peeve here too because there's little details like nameplates on lockers that are clearly readable but text on 20 inch monitors is just nonsensical blurry blocks. Interactive keyboards have readable keys, but the texture looks lifted from the mid 90's.
   Animation isn't just rough around the edges, it feels positively canned to the point that you'll be looking for the puppeteer in the rafters when you see characters gesturing vaguely with a Smartgun (sans arm) held in one hand while their other retains their Action Man/GI Joe trigger finger death grip. I've seen Lego (no, not the games, yes the plastic blocks) that has a wider range of emotions than characters supposedly in pain or mortal danger.
   Lip synch is pretty much non-existent as characters appear to have a vague diamond shape that expands and contracts between their ill-defined lips. I must however exclude Bella (the female supporting character) that seems to have more time spent on each lip and ass cheek than all the other characters combined. The result is a jarring effect where some characters look like they've just walked off the Thunderbirds set and one is an actual human being acting like a cardboard cut-out.
   Other little discrepancies such as when you come across the C and D auto turrets in Hadleys Hope and find that one turret has a 3 digit readout and the other a 2 digit readout or inconsistent lighting, Xenomorphs that are firmly in the uncanny valley (buried that is) and cutscenes made in-engine that are less than pantomime with sock puppets rendered in the glorious framerates and cinematic quality that the mid 1800's had to offer.
   What little colour there is in the lighting (such as red and green door lights, fires and red emergency lighting) is such a jarring difference from the dark, grey monotony that it's less a welcome break and more of a threat to the health of your retinas.
   Oh and Xenomorphs look like they've been paintballed after you've shot them up a bit.

Sound
   I have the rare pleasure of being rather familiar with the sounds of the weapons and environments of the Aliens setting as I tend to watch the movie at least once a month and the sounds of pulse action air-cooled 10mm fire are irrevocably burned into my mind as one of the single coolest things I will ever hear.
   It's telling then that with such love and familiarity of the sounds that I've spent quite some time now mulling over just how to talk about them without resorting to the words 'repetitive', 'grating', 'utter' and 'shit'. Truth is, I just can't.
   Voice over work seems to have been done by actors either a) told to act as bland as a bowl of muesli or b) held at gunpoint on pain of death for showing emotion, inflection or any kind of passion for the roles. “You're going to die.” Bishop says with near absolute deadpan, acceptable for an artificial person but the rest of the experience is littered with lines like “Did he just call me Nugget back there?” delivered without an ounce of irritation or humour, Microsoft Sam could do better. Scenes such as chestbursters emerging are devoid of screaming and are instead punctuated with what sounds like a monkey trying to gargle sewage.
   Weapon sounds are flat and lacking punch, the iconic pulse rifle just about approximates the sound of the movie the same way a cat plays piano. Environmental effects are almost entirely lacking; there's no rushing of air in decompressing rooms, no crackle of electricity or fire, no unrelenting wind on the surface of Acheron (LV426 for the uninitiated). Acid sounds are also missing in action and notably so since so much of the stuff is flying about.
   The game's music is also equally as devoid of love with the exception of one startling point where wonderfully 80's action movie music kicks in and it's such a bright beacon in the audio wasteland that I couldn't help but sit up and take notice and marvel at this rare glimpse of what made the movie (and 80's action movies in general) great. Sadly it's over just as quickly as it started and you're dumped back into the aural meatgrinder of blandness +1.
   Predictably the Xenomorphs fare just as badly. Their nuances are pretty much absent, the iconic clattering sound of them running on walls and ceilings is AWOL, as are their hisses and other little sounds. Cries of pain and vague squealing is present but lacking that alien, almost electronically synthesized sound that it had in the movies to such a point that the aliens may as well be paper targets flapping in the breeze and occasionally slapping you in the face.

Design
   It's sad that I have to even use phrases like 'repetitive slog through same-y corridors' to describe the design but it's so by the numbers that it amounts to little more than 1+1=2. I'd like to say it's because everything is trying so darn hard to be iconically Aliens but that's simply not true. It's trying, that's for sure, but it's not to ~be~ Aliens. More along the lines of ~be like~ Aliens. A word to the wise – the term 'trying too hard' only applies when you're failing. Gearbox/Timegate, you're trying too hard.
   Fair warning now, I'm going to get very nerdy regarding things from the extended lore and movies in the following paragraphs and it may not appeal to everyone, especially casual fans of the series. Nerd mode... Lets Rock!
   The game revisits areas from the Aliens movie, that's no secret but the very existence of these areas in the timeline of the game is a mystery which is never explained or even addressed beyond a flippant throwaway, cringe inducing line from a flippant, cringe inducing character I wish had been thrown away. Case in point is walking through the corridors of Hadleys Hope and seeing familiar clumps of cables hanging from the ceiling and visiting rooms from important scenes in the movie feels like walking through a museum and it tickles that little part of the brain that induces nerdgasms but much like a teenager tickling something else for the first time, it's not enough to distract from the fumbling awkwardness.
   Other aspects from the established lore are lazily ignored, or gotten just plain wrong by developers which assured us they were huge fans who would treat it with respect. The M41 Pulse Rifle has the wrong sights, forgivable on the main character's rifle as it may be an updated model, but absolutely not forgivable when you pick up Hick's Pulse Rifle. Additionally the character's weapon doesn't even have the right ammo capacity, either that or he's lazy when filling magazines.
   Some easter eggs are fantastic finds such as an audio log featuring Newt's mother while others such as Xeno eggs painted like easter eggs will make a true fan want to punch a puppy into a bloody pulp and urinate on the remains.
   In a similar vein is the Smartgun sight (again, excusable on the newer model, but not when you pick up Vasquez' Smargun) and little niggling details like wrong numbers on the walls in the Sulaco dropship bay not to mention the fact that it seems to have halved in size in the few short weeks since Ripley was there.
   Design of enemies is lazy and uninspired to the point of being irritating and where Gearbox have had the balls to go off on their own and create new Xenomorphs for the canon they've done about as good a job as the toy manufacturers (who came up with things like the killer-crab Xeno – fuck those guys). The aforementioned blind irradiated Xenos (survivors of the detonating atmosphere processor?) are a prime example – the new types are gimmicky and uninteresting and you just have to wonder what made these highly mutable apex predators don clown costumes or pretend to be pantomime horses (I'm looking at you Rhino-Xeno-thing!).

Functionality
   Functional to the barest possible standard. I should leave it at that, adopting the stance the developers seem to have had.
   Menus are functional but lack finesse or any kind of additional features or extra polish. Why can't I rotate the obviously 3D model of my character when customizing the look? WHY?
   Similarly the online functionality is bare-bones, team-select is completely absent and one of the starting challenges is to buy a Xenomorph upgrade which is only possible after levelling up in multiplayer, but from the single round of team deathmatch I managed to get to actually connect I got dumped onto the Marine team with no option to change to the understaffed Xeno side.
   I really do wish I could go into more detail about the lack of functionality but there's simply nothing there and it's hard to talk about non-existent things (I'm not a theologian) so I'll close with one simple statement on this topic: the devs were lazy, not 3D Realms lazy but they've certainly tried their best to do as little as possible and pass it off as success.

Conclusion
   This is the part where I answer the question of whether you should buy the game or not. I've lambasted it for well over 2400 words now and I can't definitively say one way or the other. On one hand a huge Aliens fan can eke out some enjoyment while simultaneously being disgusted at the sheer absence of love. On the other hand however an average gamer, the casual fan if you like, will take to the forums decrying 'rip off' and 'generic' and probably demanding a refund.
   So what's my advice on the big question – to buy or not to buy? Absolutely not if you're getting it at anything more than bargain bin price. I paid £29.99 and I feel that's about £20-25 too much.
   In closing the game isn't bad it's just the unloved bastard child of developer parents that seemingly had bigger eyes (complete with cartoon dollar signs) than their bellies had the talent to do the source material justice. If you can, go play the marine segments of AvP and AvP2 rather than Colonial Marines, you'll be thankful you did.

Score
   Again something I hate to put a number to so I'll give it two scores. My personal score, as a huge fan of the source material who is overlooking the flaws: 5 out of 10. My critical review score, as a gamer looking for quality: 2 out of 10 (would've been 1 if Sniper: Ghost Warrior didn't exist).