Not A Review: Why I Won’t Be Playing ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINE

Over at rockpapershotgun is the first review I’ve read of the new game ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINE (henceforth ACM).

TL;DR: the review made me sad enough to never play the game.

Here’s the long version.

People (mostly those who’ve not read the title of this post) might well feel justified in excoriating me for damning a game I’ve not played, however: this is not a review. The purpose of this piece is to explain why it would be pointless for me to even boot this game up.

The review at RPS identifies almost everything about a first-person shooter that has ever annoyed me: inexplicable & stupid AI & NPC movement, arbitrary/thoughtless checkpointing and enemy spawning, unfair deaths (of the player), unfair not-deaths (of baddies), idiotic dialogue and dated looking textures. Some of these things might have been acceptable when FPS games were in their infancy or even adolescence, but we don’t live in the land of Quake II anymore. We live in a world where FPS cut scenes are the equal of Hollywood CGI, where FPS voice-actors and composers are routinely drafted from Hollywood’s own silver screen rosters and where FPS game franchises routinely out-earn much of Hollywood’s equivalent product. Call Of Duty‘s gung-ho balls-out macho one-man-army fantasies aside, it could be argued that some FPS games even exceed Hollywood in terms of storytelling or unabashed run n’ gun thrills or just plain entertainment (Half Life or Left 4 Dead or Far Cry 3, anyone?). Even the not-really-a-FPS Dead Space series – especially Dead Space 2 – has more genuine freakout moments, a deeper, more engaging plot and better acting than your average Hollywood horror flick.

Given this undeniably awesome progress in tech and storytelling, it pained me to read the above review of ACM. It is in fact the most damning review of a much-anticipated FPS game since Duke Nukem Forever was vomited into the cloud of tubes known as The Internet in 2011. Funnily enough, both of these games were made by Gearbox Software – that’s not to completely malign Gearbox though as their Borderlands series is much-loved, as was their Brothers In Arms series. However it may well reveal a quality control problem or two, or at least overreaching on the part of their PR department.

So what does the RPS review reveal that turns me off? Too many things to mention, even for reviewer John Walker, who nonetheless shares with us some notes made whilst alt-tabbing between notepad and ACM:

You have your scanner of course. Solid blips for Xenos, hollow for allies. Except, well, it can’t scan enemies until they’ve magically spawned into existence, can it? So scanning a room before entering it provides no useful information, since they won’t be triggered into reality until you cross that threshold. And thus can jump from the ceiling onto your head, where you’re already on 1 slot of health because there aren’t any medpacks since the last checkpoint seven miles back, so they instantly kill you. THAT’S FUN.

That, right there. You have your awesome movement scanner – an indispensable defining part of the Aliens film experience – and it doesn’t actually work until you pass an arbitrary spawn-inducing checkpoint, at which point it becomes useless. It’s like if you were skiing a slalom course and, if you missed a gate, the rest of the mountain simply wouldn’t appear. Haven’t we progressed beyond this kind of simplistic on/off enemy spawning? Left 4 Dead has – sure, the Director isn’t perfect, but it shows Valve at least are trying to bring something else to FPS-land beyond “spawn X baddies in X location(s) upon crossing X line in the sand.”

My whole approach to the game has changed quite dramatically with one realisation. You don’t really have to fight stuff – so long as you can run to the next checkpoint, it’s all cleared up for you anyway. It becomes about speed running at that point, and you know what – that’s a tiny bit more fun than playing properly. Which makes it elevated to Not Any Fun Whatsoever.

Speed running. In an FPS game. Based on possibly the most awesome shoot ’em up film from the 1980s and quite possibly the most awesome film James Cameron ever made before he disappeared up his own unobtainius. A good speed-run can be an exhilarating experience in an FPS game (espcially in multiplayer co-op) but as a standard tactic just to complete a checkpoint and shake badguys off? Uncool.

Oh good grief. I’m nearing the end now, and it’s found a new level of stupid. I have to disconnect three fuel lines, each of which requires a lengthy sequence with control taken from me, while the swarms of aliens continue to attack. The two other NPCs do nothing to defend me, so each time I’m killed before it gives me back the controls.

Convoluted time-consuming ridiculously dangerous arse-about task (with lack of control)?
Check.
“Allies” doing sweet bugger-all to protect you while you’re completely vulnerable?
Check.
Multiple attempts but no skill required?
Check.

Forget that for a game of Klop. In the olden days, FPS designers would extend a game’s playing experience by perhaps making huge, maze-like maps with endlessly repeated textures that made you go in circles or cramming them with hordes of badguys or hiding the Red Keycard miles away from the corresponding Red Door. These days, it’s all about making you jump through cinematic hoops as they railroad you into a cutscene you can’t get out of or taking control from you, making you feel like you have locked-in syndrome or, as above, locking you into an impossible task you’ll only ever complete via a combination of luck and number of attempts with no help at all from the AI.

Here’s the thing. We live in a world where Left 4 Dead exists – you don’t have lengthy unskippable cutscenes and you don’t have tasks to complete that are any more complex than “push this button and run (or shoot) like hell”. Your only goal is to get from point A to point B alive, however you can – which is invariably slaughtering hordes of sprinting, spitting, clawing, mindless, meaty killing machines with your firearms or melee weapons. This is one of the most fun games I’ve ever played and, in terms of game-hours, is second only to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. We also live in a world where Dead Space (I know, not a trad FPS – but FPS-land could sure learn a thing or two from it) exists. Your goal is to complete many & varied & challenging tasks to revive a stricken spaceship or just to survive endless assaults from space zombies who can climb walls and pounce on you from out of vents. You do this by hacking them to pieces with plasma tools. In both games, you’re not a super soldier with a massive arsenal – you’re a survivor with a combination of amazing and terrible luck, hell-bent on just continuing to survive. Just like Ripley.

Given the above – given the fact that two games exist which, between them, more or less cover the Aliens plot points of alternately running for your life from and eradicating hordes of various murderbots biting & clawing & spitting at you and pouncing from above in dark/claustrophobic/post-apocalyptic/space settings, how did Gearbox manage to apparently fail so hard? When there are not only existing and highly successful game precedents for the story you’re attempting to tell (not to mention the beloved and still not-dated Aliens movie from 1986), how is it that Aliens: Colonial Marine sounds for all the world like a rushed and cheap B-grade shooter from 2001?

By the sounds of things (and by the looks of the captured videos in the RPS review), if you were to give some talented amateurs a decent FPS mod kit and a design brief that read “Make an Aliens FPS”, you’d have a four-star game in a year or two. Can we do that please?

To reiterate, no: this isn’t a review of a game I’ve not played. It’s a list of reasons I’m not even going to bother. I realise I’m taking RPS’ word for how awful this game is, but RPS and I have a long track record of agreeing with each other both before and after the fact of a game’s release (although I didn’t quite nail how woefully bad Duke Nukem Forever would be), so I don’t think it’s too far out of the question to trust them on this.

C’mon: this is Aliens. I – along with anyone born in or before the 1970s – have adored that movie for almost 30 years and I know every line and every gunshot backwards. It is, quite simply, the perfect setting for a FPS game (especially a multiplayer). It’s in space, it’s in a dystopian future and you have awesome tech, awesome guns and waves of relentless xenomorph homicide-bots. You have numerous set-pieces which would be perfect FPS game-fuel. You have the (now standard for James Cameron) sub-plot of corporate sociopathy. On paper, giving that kind of brief to a major game studio, with all its attendant budget and roster of personnel, should be a no-brainer. You should be able to produce a game that looks and feels like Aliens that is, whether simple shooter or challenging tasker, fun – not, as the RPS review and attached videos seem to indicate, what looks for all the world like a hasty, cheap, even lazy 3rd-party mod of some other game.

This whole experience is the reason I’m never pre-buying a game and not even committing to buying one, post-release, until I’ve read at least one review (that policy served me well with Duke Forever – but in all fairness that game had the stench of failure all over it before I’d even seen the first trailer). This experience has cautioned me not only to be prudent in my purchasing, but has highlighted the main difference in meatspace vs online purchasing: not only can you not return an unplayed, mint-internet-condition turkey for a full refund, you also don’t have a disc in a case that you can put on ebay for five bucks before the reviews spread, hurl across the room, use as a coaster or shove up a developer’s acid-hole.

To conclude: I probably sound – as most Gen-X gamers do – like an entitled arsehole, moaning about something I haven’t even tried. But this isn’t just another lukewarm FPS we’re talking about, set in some brand-new fictional world noone cares about or some expected-to-be-crappy tie-in with a new-release movie. This is Aliens, for crying out loud. It’s a classic. It’s special. It turned the gung-ho action flick on its head. It gave us Ripley – perhaps the first mainstream female action hero. It gave us Michael Biehn with a shotgun in space. It gave us Vasquez. The director’s cut gave us sentry guns. Perhaps most importantly, Aliens gave us our very first reason to hate Paul Reiser. But how have subsequent contributions honoured the franchise? Alien 3 was widely reviled (not by me, for the record). Alien: Resurrection was a complete space-turd. Prometheus was a goddamned weapons-grade space-turd, made all the more turdulent by being directed, inexplicably badly, by Ridley “Alien” Scott himself (space-Judas!) and written by the guy who apparently made up Lost as he went along. The games in the Aliens universe thus far have been mediocre at best. It appears that everything produced in the Aliens universe since Ripley and Newt laid down for their hyper-nap has been mediocre, poorly written and badly executed. And now we have Aliens: Colonial Marine – a game I’m pre-judging and avoiding as much as I would a romantic tear-jerker movie by that creatively bankrupt schmaltz-merchant who keeps copy-pasting The Notebook and doing a find-replace with the character names.

TL;DR Part II: hasn’t the Aliens franchise suffered enough?