Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Post-Launch Review
Aliens: Colonial Marines
Developer: Gearbox Software / Nerve Software / TimeGate Studios
Released: February 2013
Played: campaign complete in 8 hours; Stasis Interrupted DLC complete in 3 hours (no multiplayer)


Set after the events of the film Aliens, Colonial Marines is billed as the "true" sequel to the movie, altering some of the story of Alien 3. A squad of marines is sent to investigate the distress call sent by Corporal Hicks, and arrives at LV-426 to find the Sulaco back in orbit, despite its last recorded position near a distant prison planet. The marines are quickly overwhelmed by aliens and the Weyland-Yutani corporation, and must fight their way off the planet and prevent Weyland-Yutani from taking specimens off world.

At Launch

Aliens: Colonial Marines received average review scores of about 45%. The few positive reviews praised the game's music, single player campaign, weapon customization, and competitive multiplayer. Most critics complained of poor visuals, bad AI, game-breaking bugs, and a poor co-op mode. There was some controversy as players noticed that pre-release footage was of much higher quality than the released game.

Post Launch

Many patches were issued, including a massive 4GB update. Mostly these patches were aimed at fixing bugs and improving enemy AI, though a couple of visual options were added as well (film grain and ambient occlusion).
Several DLC packs were released for purchase:
  • Bug Hunt is a wave-based survival mode.
  • Reconnaissance includes new multiplayer maps and customization options.
  • Movie Map Pack adds multiplayer maps based on movie locations: the Nostromo, the Sulaco, the atmospheric plant on LV-426, and the prison on Fury 161.
  • Stasis Interrupted adds a five-mission story campaign that explains what happened to Hicks.
The Season Pass includes all four DLC packs listed above. There are also a few smaller packs that add weapons or multiplayer skins.

As a big fan of the Alien movies - well, the first two, anyway - I was very excited when Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced, especially when the developers called it the "true" sequel to Aliens, to replace that Alien 3 garbage. Of course, when the game actually came out, it was universally described as a pretty bad game.  But it's been a long time since then, and I've played some "bad" games that turned out to be pretty fun, so I picked up Colonial Marines (as soon as it dropped to $5).

My first thought on starting the game: wow, this looks... kinda bad. I could have overlooked the poor visuals if the game had come out in, say, 2007, but no, this game released in February 2013. Yuck. I immediately quit and installed some graphics mods to improve lighting, shadows, and textures. Check out this video for a comparison between the modded and unmodded version, and look at the description for download and installation instructions are in the video description. All the screenshots included here are with the mod.
With those mods installed, Colonial Marines actually looks pretty good, and the lighting and atmosphere are much closer to the way they appeared in the movie Aliens. And apparently some players even find that the mods increase performance, which says something about the optimization of the unmodded game. Unfortunately the mod can't do anything for animation, most of which is pretty terrible. Facial animation conveys zero emotion and everyone looks wooden, even (no, especially) when the voice actors are screaming in rage or sorrow.

I could pretty much sum up the entire rest of the game by saying it feels like it could've been good but it's missing a layer (or seven) of polish. I could do that, but instead let's look at exactly what does and doesn't work.
The opening level got my hopes up for a while. You and a handful of marines get stuck on the ship you're investigating - the Sulaco - which is supposedly an empty derelict, but something's showing on your motion tracker, so you set out to investigate. This level is quite creepy as you follow an unknown signal through the dark. As a player you know exactly what's going on - you're tracking a xenomorph and things are about to go horribly wrong - and the game doesn't draw this out too much. Pretty quickly you get attacked, and you're forced to hold and defend against an oncoming swarm as your marine buddies try to get you off the Sulaco.
This is a strong level, but I've already picked up on some annoying bits that would bother me through the entire rest of the game. Even though I just said that using the motion tracker to follow a xenomorph makes for a good opening, the tracker's implementation hurts it a little. Even when you don't have the tracker out, you get a notiication when the tracker picks something up. This is supposed to serve as a prompt to pull up the tracker, but there's really no point anymore because you already know there's an enemy nearby. I would have much preferred it if there was no notification, and keeping the tracker out made you more vulnerable to attack. This way you'd have to choose between being ready to fire at all times, or knowing if something's coming. As is, the tracker is mostly just a standard video game radar that you have to display manually, as opposed to a necessary but risky survival tool.
Melee fighting also feels like garbage. The game tells me to press V to melee when a xeno is close, but the notification often displays when the xeno is actually out of range. Even worse, sometimes the melee just flat-out doesn't work, and I die. And when I do die, the death screen is way too long. I get it, I died, thanks, let me try again. Also, dammit why are the melee and underslung grenade launcher keys so close to each other, I don't want to shoot a grenade into my own face.

The flashlight is kind of lame too. It hardly adds any light and I frequently forgot I even had it turned on because it's so weak.
The next few missions are also pretty good, especially the part where you crash-land on LV-426 and set up a command post inside the Hadley's Hope settlement. As you move to Operations and set up a motion tracker perimeter, you're taken through all the rooms seen in the movie, and everything seems to be carefully laid out to match the film. The level designers must have had a blast recreating settings from the movie. After that, things take a turn for the generic, and then a bit of an interesting twist again somewhat late. I'll get to that after I complain a little more about gameplay.
Shooting is frequently difficult and annoying, which is a really big problem for a first-person shooter. Accuracy is pretty low across the board on all weapons, and there isn't even a sniper rifle to help at long range. The closest thing is the battle rifle, but you need several weapon mods just to achieve a usable accuracy at long range, and even then it doesn't do enough damage - it takes two or three shots for a kill, minimum, and on some armoured enemies it takes a lot more. The other big shooting annoyance is all the chest-high boxes and walls to use as cover. Unfortunately the visual doesn't match the hitbox, I often found my bullets impacting the air in front of me, or the air right in front of an enemy's face. You can't even compensate with explosives because the radius is small and the falloff is big. I chucked a grenade right into a tight bunch of six guys; the grenade hit only two of them, and neither died.

Oh, and speaking of guys - a lot of the time you aren't even fighting aliens, you're fighting Weyland-Yutani troops.
Some parts of the game are disproportionately hard for weird reasons. Enemies almost always place priority on you, no matter how many other marines you're with, so you'll see xenos charging right through your allies to attack you directly. Any time you have to defend someone while they open a door, the xenos all come straight for you, not the guy you're supposedly defending. This behaviour is especially nasty with one of the bosses, a very fast xeno that's invulnerable from the front. Since the boss will only ever go after you if you're playing solo, there's no one to attack its sides and rear, so you have to sprint constantly and take a few shots whenever you can. And there's no enemy health bar, so it's hard to tell if you're even dealing any damage.
There's a mission where you get captured by xenos and have to escape without weapons which feels awfully forced. Why did I get captured but not implanted? Why does the xenomorph hunting me refuse to enter tight spaces or do more than swipe at me? (because it's not supposed to catch me, I guess, creating exactly zero tension). This mission has a sewer segment where you encounter sound-sensitive blind xenos and shed skin husks. This part is both spectacularly creepy - in the darkness and flashing strobes it's very hard to tell which are husks and which are alive - and also really silly when the white xenos awkwardly shuffle around, standing up straight with their arms clutched against their chests and teetering left and right as they shuffle. When they hear something they move fluidly, like hungry predators, and that's scary. But the silly shuffle really isn't.

There is some rather fun dialogue, at least. Stuff like "We'll wait for you, but goddammit son, don't make us wait for you" or "Be advised: shit's all exploding and shit!" or "You didn't tell me these guys exploded! They were all 'uh, what's that noise' and then they FUCKING EXPLODED!" Lines like that are great and help convey a sense of regular guys caught in something way too big for them.
The story is heavily dependent on having seen the movies Alien, Aliens, and even Alien 3. It's mentioned here and there that the Nostromo was the first ship to encounter the xenos, and that marines from the Sulaco were on the planet for whatever reason, but none of that is really explained and you need to have seen the movies to grasp the timeline. Colonial Marines starts out pretty boring and standard for an expanded-universe Aliens story, the kind of thing that's been done countless times in various media: marines go to investigate something mysterious, they get attacked and outmatched by xenomorphs, marines discover that Weyland-Yutani is conducting horribly unethical research on the xenos... blah blah blah. Much of this is carried on the player's recognition of areas from the movies and the references hidden within. Late in the game, though, things take a twist for the interesting when you rescue a marine that Wey-Yu had been holding captive. Without spoiling anything, this is where the game really lives up to its advertising hype as "the true sequel to Aliens". Longtime fans will appreciate where this game goes, but anyone new to the franchise will likely be pretty confused - this is really not a standalone game. And even if you do get what's going on, the campaign never really explains why this marine is still alive, how Wey-Yu found the Sulaco, or whether anyone else has been retconned back to life. Guess they had to save that for the DLC.
The ending is pretty lame. As you'd expect, the final boss is the xenomorph queen, but it barely counts as a boss. You can't hurt the queen with your own weapons, so all you do is run around and push buttons with almost zero danger to yourself. And it turns out that what you do is useless anyway, and another marine has to sacrifice himself to take out the queen. After that, you get a cutscene which is vastly anticlimactic, given how awful the animation is - the level of emotion required for the scene is not present at all. And finally the game closes with a bad tease for a sequel: you get Weyland-Yutani's information. What information? All of it. Well that's great, but what is it exactly? Presumably it's something meant to carry a sequel but what it is isn't revealed, so I don't even know if I care enough for a sequel.
After finishing the campaign I moved on to the Stasis Interrupted DLC, and wow, does it ever feel better than the original campaign! In the three hour add-on there are a few weird little things - for example, despite never having killed anyone before, Lisbeth shouts things like "Killed him good!" - but for the most part the DLC campaign feels more polished and slick than the core game. Things move quickly, and there's a lot of action and tension. The xenos feel faster and smarter somehow than in the core game - I don't know if their behaviour was changed or if it's due to the closer quarters, but they feel a lot more threatening. Even the flashlight seems improved somewhat.

That said, Stasis Interrupted does keep all the same gameplay problems as the core campaign. One extra thing to note, too: it seems that xeno spawns are scripted, so you need to kill all xenos before continuing forwards, unless you want to be completely overwhelmed. This is especially tricky in the very last level of the DLC, where climbing certain stairs or walking twenty feet forward will trigger more spawns.
I tried out the Bug Hunt DLC and it seems fun enough, with the main problem being the game's low multiplayer population. You can play by yourself but it's pretty hard without any friends. You earn money for kills (and presumably other things like assists which I couldn't do solo). You can use your money to do normal stuff like resupply, or for more interesting things like unlocking access to new areas and upgrades like turrets and suppressors.

The DLC weapons are interesting. The most fun is probably Ripley's pulse rifle, which has a flamethrower instead of iron sights. These weapons don't seem too powerful - in fact some actually seem kind of weak. Better than pay-to-win, I guess.

So I think I've covered everything. Time for the verdict!

Recommendation: play it only if you're a big Aliens fan.

Aliens: Colonial Marines looks like it once had some potential, but it's extremely rough around the edges. A lot of the gameplay mechanics feel like they aren't completely thought through or properly playtested, and don't feel refined enough for an actual game release. The visuals are poor (considering the release date) and require graphics mods just to get to a respectable level for a modern AAA game. AI isn't great, and enemies will frequently walk straight towards you or get stuck. Despite a few patches the game still crashes, which can be solved by lowering your texture settings, but making the game look even worse. Overall it's not as bad as I expected, but still not very good, and requires a bit of work to make it playable.
But if you're a fan of the films, the music does a great job of matching the movie soundtracks, and there are a few new interesting developments, especially in the Stasis Interrupted DLC campaign.

1 comment:

  1. You can actually turn off the automatic motion tracker alert in Settings. I highly recommend doing so, as that flashing icon bothered me a lot and took away most of the tension.