Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines Review (single player campaign)

Aliens: Colonial Marines released Tuesday morning (shortly after 1 AM my time in fact) and despite some Steam hiccups it was working in time for me to jump into it today. As it happens I've been sick, thanks to moving over the weekend in some very chill air, I think....sneezing and coughing uncontrollably at times! And yet, somehow, I not only managed to play Aliens: Colonial Marines, but thanks to today's relatively low standard for campaign length I even managed to finish it.

This sort of thing never happens to me. Traditionally I buy a game, play it for a bit, decide I would like to set aside a decent weekend to finishing it, then never get around to actually doing so. A year or two later I realize I've got this great (sometimes) neglected game still on the HDD and I finally tackle it. So buying a game and finishing it immediately after release feels really...weird.

This review is for the PC version. I snagged it plus the season pass for about $50 on Green Man Gaming after applying some decent discounts and credit I had over there.

Raptr says I spent 10 hours on A:CM today, and I am inclined to believe it. The single player campaign is a direct sequel (as in, immediately following) Aliens and Alien 3. It addresses the way things wound up by the end of those two movies, more or less, and probes some interesting questions about what was going on away from the prison planet Fury 161 (Alien 3) as well as the condition of LV 426 and Hadley's Hope after the reactor explosion in the terraformer at the end of Aliens. It specifically sets out to address the following questions (which I will not provide the answers to, so no spoilers, as such):

1. We see Michael Weyland and his mercs moving in on Ripley at the end of Alien 3. What else were they up to while in the neighborhood?

2. What happened to the Sulaco? For that matter, is everything that we thought we knew about the Sulaco correct?

3. Was Hadley's Hope destroyed by the terraformer explosion?

4. What about the alien vessel? The engineer vessel (called the "origin" vessel here) was only really touched upon in the Extended Cut of Aliens and the is it still sitting out there, full of eggs?

A:CM takes place 17 weeks after the LV 426 skirmish and three more weeks after the events in Alien 3. It focuses on your character, Winter, a marine who's part of the crew of the military vessel Sephora, sent to respond to the Sulaco's distress signal. They find the Sulaco where they least expect it (back in orbit around LV-426) and crawling with both xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. A brutal firefight ensues, as the marines are caught off-guard by both the xenomorphs and the mercs. Eventually we get to see LV 426, Hadley's Hope, and more (including the promethean vessel) as the game cascades along at a cinematic breakneck pace.

If this had been a real movie sequel, it would have been fantastic (and might have made one overlook the blemish of Alien: Resurrection). As it stands, this is supposedly an official sequel, which is good...there's a lot here to appreciate as a fan of the Alien universe. I can't go into specifics without spoiling it, but at least one familiar face pops up that I didn't anticipate, and of course Lance Henrickson reprises his role as Michael Weyland from Aliens 3 as well as another Bishop model (or two).

In terms of game play A:CM handled well although it's built using some variant of the Unreal 3 engine that felt a little funky to me; not as "tight" as some other Unreal 3-powered games I've played. The game, while largely linear in design, had some very wide-open spots and level design that felt less restricting than is normal for shooters these days. If you're used to Call of Duty style rail design, this game will feel oddly open. Do not expect a Borderlands-like experience, however. Even if you are leveling your marine and equipping level-earned weapon mods, it is fairly unintrusive and does not betray the core conceit of a good shooter (that skill and a decent weapon are all-powerful).

Graphically it looked good, but not state of the art; it looked (and felt) like a great release for 2008-2009, but maybe not quite up to current graphic expectations. When you notice the character models you'll see what I mean. If this game had been released at the same time as Bioshock, it would have looked amazing.

Was it scary? Well, I did find some spots that were a bit nerve wracking but to be honest I've found other games (like Rage, for example) to be more nerve-wracking than this. I played the campaign on middle-of-the-road soldier mode, however, so maybe more difficult settings are a bit more harrowing. Just keep in mind, this is a direct sequel in tone and flavor to Aliens, and is not meant to model the original Alien. In this regard it does a fantastic job. This is also a negative, in so far as you can only provide so much depth to a story focused entirely on the colonial marines. Space marines just aren't that good at nuanced depth. But the story is there, and it is worth checking out.

I have one gripe: why do the alien heads seem to change more and more with every new iteration? There are a few different types of alien in this game, and there seems to be an underlying explanation (which is fine), but the core alien seems to have mutated quite a bit from the original Alien xenomorph (with a long smooth skull). I know, they're closer to the actual look of the aliens as seen in Aliens and Alien 3, but still.....ah well, just a curious gripe. We're not talking "oddly different" on any level comparable to the proto-xenomorph at the end of Prometheus, for example. But, to contrast, take a look at the aliens in, say, AvP and notice how different the heads seem to look from one depiction to another over time.

EDIT: I take it back. The weird types of xenomorphs in the game were interesting, but the more I think about it the less sure I am that a good explanation for their existence is provided.* There's an acid spitter, for example, that I was thinking might have been a product of Weyland-Yutani's tampering, but best I can tell no actual assertion of such was provided. A big four-legged brute shows up, too....but what was its function, and was it due to tampering (as I was thinking) or a natural form? There's also a level where you encounter strangely diseased aliens that are slinking off to die. It's an eerie and interesting level, but they never provide an actual explanation for the condition of these particular aliens (that I can recall). I sort of assumed they were deformed or dying from radiation exposure due to the reactor explosion....but I could be wrong.


Bottom line: great shooter (A+), good story (A), okay graphics (B+) worth the time of any fan of shooters and the Aliens film to check out. A:CM is a solid A. Don't let jaded critics fool you! It's better than they make it sound.

*Technically there is an explanation, as follows: a video game of this nature must have a skirmisher you can shoot as it runs at you, a spitter/shooter that you pick off at a distance, a brute you must dodge when it charges, and so forth. The alien types are here because someone in the design team thought these were inviolate archetypes and they must shoehorn them in, regardless of whether they are really needed or not. Please, game designers, stop doing this. Please.

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