Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Aliens: Colonial Marines (PC) - Part 1

Developer:Gearbox, TimeGate, Nerve|Release Date:2013|Systems:Windows, PS3, Xbox 360

Last year on Super Adventures I decided that April 1st would be the perfect day to give a critically mauled Duke Nukem Forever a fighting chance to win me over. Because if I ended up liking it I could always pass my opinions off as being a joke and escape with my reputation intact. So today I’m going to pull the same trick with the hated Aliens: Colonial Marines and see if I can find the good in it too.

Like DNF, this is a first person shooter famous for taking ages to make and impressing absolutely no one by the time it finally came out, though it wasn't in the oven for quite as long before it got rushed out and served undercooked. It started late 2006 and finished early 2013, with folks saying that it spent 4 years at Gearbox, then around 18 months outsourced to TimeGate, and then 9 more months at Gearbox. Apparently huge chunks were reworked each time it swapped over, which left Sega agreeing to pay out $1.25 million to settle a class-action suit when people discovered to their dismay that the demos they'd been shown were demonstrating content and visuals that hadn't survived to the final product.

Anyway I'm playing the PC version here, which I've heard is the least crap of them. I usually only play games for an hour or two to get an impression of what kind of game they are, but this time I’m going to keep playing the single player campaign until either I start liking it or I really can’t take any more. I even watched both 'Alien' and 'Aliens' in preparation so I can nitpick about every tiny thing it gets wrong! I could end up spoiling elements of any of the films in the series though (plus a decent amount of this game, obviously), so if that's an issue you should get out now while you're still safe.

(Click screenshots to view them slightly bigger.)

One thing I already like is how the set up for the story is playing out behind the title screen, with the starship USS Sephora approaching the doomed USS Sulaco from ‘Aliens’ and docking with it. No sure why the new ship is named after a chain of cosmetics stores, but okay. (It's actually continuing the Joseph Conrad theme established by the ships Nostromo and Sulaco, and is named after a ship featured in one of  the author's short stories. In case you were wondering.)

The graphics settings are pretty much limited to a few tick boxes and some detail sliders, but there's an FOV slider too at least! Apparently this is actually twice as many options as the game started out with though, as the film grain, FXAA and SSAO features were added in a patch or two along the way. Shame there's no way to switch profiles in the options, but then you're not likely to find anyone else who wants to play the game on your machine anyway, so it shouldn't be an issue.

"To skip, press 'Escape'" is exactly the kind of thing I want to see appear on screen when I start pressing buttons. I'm actually just hitting the screenshot key, but for all the game knows I could've been trying to make this go away, and it's cool that it respects the player's limited time and patience. "To pause, press '...'" would've been nice too, but I'm not greedy.

The game begins with a very young Corporal Hicks (voiced by original actor Michael Biehn) filling in a some of backstory. I mean seriously, he looks like a teenager here. I guess that explains why the Sephora’s here: they want the secret of the rejuvenating properties of alien blood.

I'm presuming that this distress call I'm watching must have been recorded off screen just before Hicks went into cryosleep at the end of 'Aliens', which is weird because I thought he was drugged into unconsciousness during the entire time he was back on the Sulaco. I guess it's plausible enough that he could've woken up for a bit before passing out again, so I'll let this slide. Though I am deducting points for opening with this video instead of the slow reveal of the title.

I mean c'mon, it's not a proper 'Alien' story if it doesn't start with the title gradually forming on the screen to set the mood while the credits flash up and the creepy music plays.

Yes I realise 'Alien 3' doesn't do this.

Hey look, there's Lance Henriksen too, reprising his role as the android Bishop. Well, an entirely different android called Bishop to be accurate, but it's the same actor.

Turns out we're back at LV-426, the craphole planet from both 'Alien' and 'Aliens', in response to Hicks's distress call. The strange thing is that this is set 17 weeks after 'Aliens' even though the survivors in the movie were expecting to wait 17 days for a rescue. What makes it really weird is that the Sulaco is back here too, even though the ship was on its way to Earth at the end of the film. In fact we learned in 'Alien 3' that the ship had made it all the way over to planet Fury 161 before an on board fire caused it to automatically dump its entire crew into two hours of David Fincher misery. Did the ship get lonely or something and wander back on its own?

One thing I noticed while watching 'Aliens' right after 'Alien', is that the characters came across more like caricatures and the dialogue was less spontaneous and improvised. Not necessarily a bad thing, they're just more typical movie characters. This takes it a step further, with people sounding like... well, video game characters. Captain Cruz is barking out exposition and mission goals in exactly the same way as a thousand other video game commanders before him, and I'm not seeing anyone else on the ship step up and volunteer to be a likeable 3 dimensional human being. (Plus I'm beginning to get the feeling that the cutscene director may not be as good as James Cameron in his prime.)

This isn’t my character on screen right now by the way. Or maybe it is, they’re kind of interchangeable.

Ah, there’s me on the right: Corporal Christopher Winter, 118th Battalion, United States Colonial Marine Corps. I can tell him apart because he's the one without the cybernetic leg. He’s pretty much the most ‘default’ looking protagonist imaginable, with his standard issue hair colour and regulation chin, but he does come equipped with a voice and opinions of his own, which I appreciate.

Winter has just come out of cryosleep on the Sephora only to discover that another squad of marines is already on the Sulaco, and they're encountering heavy resistance from someone or something. Apparently Captain Cruz was so eager to get over to the other ship and see what happened to it that he couldn't be bothered to get all his troops out of bed first. Which means that I don't have time to eat lunch, get to the know the rest of my squad, or even brag about being an ultimate badass to unimpressed passengers. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing to skip straight to the action in a first person shooter, I'm just saying how it goes down.

Okay here I am in the actual level then, free to walk absolutely anywhere I want down this narrow straight space corridor. I’ve no idea why the designers of this military vessel designed the fragile umbilical walkway to be mostly made of glass, instead of something tough and flexible, but I can’t complain about the view. Well, I could complain a little about the graphics maybe. At first I thought the fuzziness was due to his helmet visor, but it turns out it’s actually the optional film grain... mostly.

Anyway it's definitely nice to get a proper pulse rifle in my hands again. Well actually it's a slightly narrower redesigned MK2 model, but you'd have to be some kind of 'Aliens' obsessed android to notice the difference without seeing the two weapons side by side. It looks fine, everything's fine.

Oh shit, this really IS just glass? I thought it was transparent aluminium or something! There’s been an explosion outside, a marine just bounced off the window, my boss is yelling at me about explosive decompression, and I’m suddenly feeling a little underdressed for this space walk. On the plus side, at least I can finally confirm that I do have legs, even if they only turn up when I’m knocked on my ass. I do have a proper shadow at least, but that only shows up when I'm standing directly on this section of the floor! They must have put it in so that it looks better when Winter glances down while he's picking himself up.

That cracked glass effect is one of the things that was shown off in the misleading demo but then removed in the final product when research revealed that the average consumer wasn't going to be playing the game on an insane-spec development PC. But a few patches later and it's back! Along with higher quality lighting, higher res textures, better animation, and I hear the xenomorphs even act smarter now (or more aggressive at least).

Oh shit, the umbilical led through to the hangar from 'Aliens'! You might not recognise it, because in the film they had the lights on and you could see a damn thing, but it's definitely meant to be the same place.

There’s the airlock that the Alien Queen was flushed out of at the end of the movie, next to the grates that Newt (the little girl) was hiding under; plus the floor's still covered with Bishop's white android blood after the Queen tore him in two. Not sure how his android pants ended up in the wrong end of the room, but with the obsessive attention to detail here it has to be deliberate. I'm just happy I've gotten my shadow back here, apparently for good this time.

Something ain’t quite right about this bit of the ship though. Seems a bit smokier than I remember from the film, plus someone's come in and redecorated.

You know, it's almost like some of those sneaky xenomorphs have gotten onboard somehow and have spent the last few weeks using alien resin to transform this part of the ship, turning it into a slimy hostile disgusting place, absolutely abhorrent to human senses; so basically the hive level of Duke Nukem Forever. Though fortunately any victims they had cocooned up here must be long dead, so I'm spared from having to listen to frightened helpless people crying out in pain this time.  

Nice low resolution monitor textures there, it’s like I’m right back in 2002! I've heard that a few of the original textures were replaced with better quality versions in patches, for the PC version at least, but I guess this one they left alone. For nostalgia.

You know what isn't low quality though? This soundtrack. It sounds like they've taken music directly from the movie and it turns out that may be a good thing. I know I always complain when Star Wars games do this, but the 'Aliens' soundtrack hasn't been drilled into my brain through repeated exposure, so I'm not entirely sick of it yet.

Hey I’ve found someone alive in here, and I get the feeling he wants me to use my welding torch to cut him down. Using the torch basically involves tapping action when the prompt appears and then watching Winter get on with it, so basically just a lock pick without a minigame. Though I get the feeling he's vulnerable throughout the process so I should probably make sure there's no blips on my tracker first.

Unfortunately these marines haven’t seen 'Alien' OR 'Aliens' and they have no idea that when a man’s cocooned up against a wall with an empty egg and a dead facehugger next to him it’s probably a smarter move to put a bullet into his head and get the flamethrower out. Though now that I think about it, they've had Ripley and Hicks reporting back on these things now, so maybe Captain Cruz knows exactly what's going on and just didn't think to tell them.

Hey, what the fuck man, interrupting me while I'm trying to cut a dude down!

I’m going to be taking the marine with me back to my ship, so I’m basically doing you a favour! In a few hours your little brother will punch its way through his ribcage and then go around murdering my whole crew one at a time, so how about you quit shoving me around, go crawl back into your little wall nest, and let me cut him down?

The alien actually ran off and hid somewhere, so now I have to go poke around in all the dark corners looking for him. These creatures were designed to blend in with pipes and cables and creepy alien resin stuff, so they’re hard enough to see even without the shadows and the film grain.

That's what the motion tracker's for I suppose, not that it's done me a lot of good so far. Plus I can't hold the tracker and fire the gun at the same time, and I know what I'd rather be doing. Fortunately I can at least hold the flashlight and the gun at once, so I'm still one ahead of the Doom 3 marine.


Taking on one timid alien wasn't actually so bad! Then we got the exit open and found ourselves in a room full of his cousins, and these guys aren't nearly as shy.

This is the 'Aliens' variety of xenomorph and they're more keen on travelling in groups, leaping from the girders and out of the shadows, then rushing right at my face claws first. It's like a remake of Alien 3: The Gun in here; I'm just standing my ground and gunning down everything that crawls out on screen. They take about as many rounds to put down as I'd want them to (they're not bullet sponges), headshots seem to do more damage, and with heads that long it's hard to miss them, so as long as I’ve got enough rounds in the magazine and I can see the bastards coming, I should do okay. Plus the gun sounds like a proper pulse rifle when I fire it, and this somehow isn't getting on my nerves yet.

I did have advance warning of this onslaught, with my motion tracker giving out a 'bad things coming your way' beep even without me holding it, but at this point I think I'll do just fine using my eyes. So I guess that's one gadget I'll never need to use again. This automatic motion tracker alert is optional though, for those who haven't given up trying to find some tension in the game.


Shit, I've got 3 bullets in this magazine and I'm one slash away from losing this segement of my life bar entirely. These bloody aliens don't respect the fact that I have to reload sometimes, and they're chipping away at me in the moments that I'm defenceless! Why don't they ever attack Keyes for a change? It's like they ignore him entirely and go straight for me every time. Oh yeah, he's got a baby alien in him... I guess that actually makes perfect sense now that I think about it.

The health system works a little bit like in Wolfenstein: The New Order or Chronicles of Riddick, where I have a life bar, but it's split into segments. A segment will regenerate if I can avoid being hit for a while, but once it's gone entirely I can only get it back by collecting a medikit. Unlike Wolfenstein though there’s barely any medikits around, so losing health is more of an issue. Plus it makes the edges of the screen turn bright red and that’s really annoying.

I've also got armour and that doesn't recharge at all, but there's more of it around to grab. It really isn't hard to find things in this, as everything has one of these big glowing icons pointing to it, and that's really useful considering I'm usually in a smoky dark room with plenty of nasty things competing for my attention.

Pick ups have to be collected manually by pointing at them and pressing action though, so there's something else the game has in common with The New Order. It's not really an issue though, or at least I haven't found it to be. Not even sure why I'm bringing it up.

A few doors later I met up with all these other marines, which sounds like it can only lead to good times, but this time not so much. It actually means that I have stand my ground for a few minutes, defending my doomed buddy Keyes from waves of enemies until he can run a bypass on the door and get us back to the cracked glass umbilical corridor. Man, I've really grown to despise 'defend the x' levels in games over the years.

Actually, it seems that my friends are doing a pretty good job of defending him all on their own. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling they may all be immortal, as nothing keeps them down for good. This suits me fine, I didn’t want to babysit anyone, but it does end up making the aliens look kind of ridiculous when a pack of them are utterly failing to hurt one marine. But I guess the law of inverse ninjas was always going to leave the the creatures looking less threatening.

Though I have to admit, they do look less ridiculous when they swarm at me and destroy me in seconds, sending me right back to the checkpoint outside the room again. Okay, let's try this again, for the third time.


Oh Keyes, you fucking muppet… there's never really a good time to set off a grenade in your friend's face, but there aren't many worse times than when you're in a glass corridor in space.

I’m sure I wouldn’t react any better if an alien exploded through my chest (and through the body armour too, tough little guy), but Keyes couldn’t have fucked this up worse if he'd been given a week to come up with ways to fuck this up worse. For one thing, he’s carrying the Sulaco flight recorder we came here to obtain, so blowing that into space means that he and the rest of his squad died for nothing. Also, we’re all in the umbilical too and while blowing us into space is technically going to save us from the harmless little chestburster, suffocating in a cold vacuum while covered in shrapnel wounds isn't a big improvement.

So there’s a little bit of an explosion here followed by some explosive decompression (again), but Winter manages to hold his breath, grit his teeth, and drag himself back through the shattered corridor to the Sulaco. It's just like that bit in 'Aliens' at the end, where Ripley has to climb the ladder out of the airlock! Another marine wasn't so lucky though, as he bounced past me out into space. Now it's just me and a guy called O'Neal left, without a way to get off the alien infested Sulaco. Did I mention Keyes used a grenade to blow up the dropship earlier? Fucking muppet.

Huh, seems that I’ve picked up an extra rank during my misadventures, and I get to spend it on pimping one of my guns! I’m only carrying a pulse rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol right now though, so I think I’ll be using it to buy this reflex sight. Several of the other upgrades come with trade-offs, but I don’t see any downside to having a better view when I aim down the sights.

I’m not sure what I think about this system actually. I mean it’s nice that no microtransactions are involved (and I hate that that’s even a possibility these days), but it harms the immersion that I can just pull this stuff from thin air and swap attachments any time I feel like. It’d be fine if I could collect the upgrades as I go and fix the gun up at workbenches along the way, but I don't find this upgrade system to be good match for an atmospheric game.

You could argue that modern weapon attachments ain’t got no business being anywhere near the iconic 80s-style pulse rifle, and that they make it a bit too 'modern military shooter', but I don’t think they look out of place. If it was a Star Wars blaster I was modding then that’d be a bit weird, but the 'Alien' universe is much closer to our own and this thing is half Tommy Gun to begin with so it’s already a little chronologically confused in its design.

Now that on the other hand, that kind of hurts the atmosphere. There’s a few of these Bulletstorm-style challenges to complete, but they’re all along the lines of ‘do something x amount of times’ or ‘kill two enemies with one shot’, and there's only three active at once. Well two really, as the third is multiplayer only. Every time I complete one of the two challenges it's replaced with the next one along, so I'm continually getting asked to achieve tasks I've completed ten times over in regular gameplay already.

So here I am, still on the infested Sulaco, shooting aliens as they pour in from the vents and ceilings one or two at a time. The game’s actually reminding me a little of Doom 3 right now, though it’s not really as tense. Partly because I can just duck into a hallway and let my latest sidekick shoot everything for me. O’Neal is a bit crap really and I'd never rely on him to watch my back, but he’s immortal and has infinite ammo, so stick him in with the aliens and he'll get there in the end.

He's also got this weird habit of appearing ahead of me sometimes, like he's got Scotty beaming him around on the sly. I'm sure one time even I caught a blue teleportation flash when he did it, though we're not exactly short of lens flares in this place.


Wow, playing this audio log just got me the XP I needed for an extra rank and a new gun. There’s not many audio logs around but finding them seems to be worth the effort. Shame the audio is played from inside the level, so I have to stick close if I want to hear them.

I can quickly switch between my primary weapon, secondary weapon, sidearm and grenades, but this menu you're seeing here lets me swap the guns assigned to these slots at any time, so I can pretty much carry twelve weapons at once. The bad news is that the guns are: shotgun, shotgun, shotgun, pulse rifle, pulse rifle, pulse rifle, sniper rifle, pistol, pistol, pistol and other pistol. Oh plus a sub-machine gun, in case everything else runs out of ammo and I run out of rocks to throw. The other bad news is that THERE IS NO GRENADE THROW BUTTON. Seriously, this came out in 2013 and there’s no grenade button.


Oh shit, I get to drive a Power Loader! These things are like a cross between a mech and a forklift truck. I press one button to wave the left arm, I press another to wave the right arm, and I lift that door in front of me to exit the Power Loader and then leave it behind forever. Wait, WHAT?

Well that was pretty pointless, couldn't even smash anything with it. Though now that I think about it, it's rare that the game lets me smash anything really. There's plenty of props scattered around, but they're very non-interactive and that's a bit of a shame for a game that came out after Half-Life 2.

Though it does have a Half-Life 2 style chapter select, which is very welcome. It means I'll be able to replay my favourite levels over and over!

Aghhhhhhh, aghhhhh, facehugger, aghhhhhh! Nah, I'm just not feeling it. This should really be scarier than it is. I guess I’ve played too much Duke Nukem 3D. Either that or knowing that all I have to do is mash the action key to safely get rid of it kind of defuses the threat. I just throw it off, shoot it, move on to the next one. Not that I personally give a shit whether it's scary or not, but it's a big deal for a lot of players. I think I’d be more worried if I had to do a QTE every time one of these leapt onto my face, but that’s the kind of horror no one's eager to experience.

Don't get me wrong, I've found that regular enemies are perfectly capable of kicking my ass, even on normal difficulty, and I am suitably concerned when I'm cornered by the things. By the way, when I do get poor Winter killed, it switches to a third person death-cam and the result isn't all that impressive. In fact it looks so laughable with the aliens standing around looking all 'well gosh, I don't really have anything to do now' that I wonder why they didn't just cut to black and stick YOU DIED up on screen or something instead.

Now then, where’d this little bastard scurry off to?


Shit, I leave my ship for less than an hour and now I find that it's on fire! Also for some reason it's been turned to face the other way around (the engines were on the left side of the windows at the start of the game), but that's hardly my most pressing concern here. No, I'm far more distracted by trying to figure out where this row of massive windows are on the side of the hull. The two ships are identical, but do you see any windows over on the Sephora?

The aliens definitely didn’t cause this damage; there are humans aboard the Sulaco too and they’re using its weapons to destroy my ship! Man, it's just like when the soldiers turned up in Half-Life to wipe out the evidence and kill the science team, and players were like 'these new enemies have great AI and add an interesting new dimension to the game!' Except this time they're working for a sinister science team... and it seems that players mostly just wanted them to fuck off so they could go back to shooting aliens.

None of this would’ve happened if the ship had a crew to begin with. Seriously, in 'Aliens' the gigantic Sulaco was carrying around just a dozen marines on board and they all left for the planet at the beginning of their mission. They were basically asking for their massive empty ship to get hijacked by mercenaries.

Sephora does have a crew though, a fairly large one, and they’d very much appreciate not being blown up. They can’t shoot up the Sulaco in self-defence though because half their marines are running around inside it at the moment, so Sephora Actual is requesting that I do something about it. They really love saying ‘Sephora Actual’ over the radio in this by the way, to the point where I thought was I in 'Battlestar Galactica' for a second.

Also I keep seeing 'BSG75' written all over the keypads, which is the writing on that Battlestar badge that flashes on screen at the start of every episode. So I checked who wrote the game, and it turned out to be Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, writers of a full fifth of BSG!

This story ain't so good though.


Right, so now I have to make my way to the bridge and retake it from the mercenaries, which is a little bit of a hassle as they’re way over there in the smoke and I can barely see them even when they're not hiding behind a computer console. Annoyingly all my Colonial Marine guns are designed for shooting at fast moving creatures with huge heads, and when I try aiming at something in the distance the sights sway all over the place. I feel like running over there as there's a side room up ahead I can cut through to flank them, but the health system doesn’t encourage me to be heroic. Running between cover is an invitation for them to cut one of my life bars off, and I don’t expect to be getting a refill for a while.

In fact when I reach a new checkpoint I sometimes get my character killed off quickly so I can restart with full health. Makes me wonder why the designers didn’t just put some health around the checkpoints.

And after a bit of keyboard tapping the Sulaco’s weapons have been turned off! Now I get to enjoy the view. Actually I just want to enjoy this design of this room, as I love the architecture of this place.

We never saw the bridge in the movie, but original concept artist Syd Mead was brought in by the developers to design some new interiors for the ship, and it definitely looks like an 80s sci-fi movie to me. It's not quite on the same level as Alien: Isolation, but that game in a league all of its own when it comes to retro sci-fi visuals. Or visuals in general really.


Hey, I found Hicks’s shotgun from the movie! Now I just need to find the asshole that’s shooting me so I can use it on them.

This is the first of the ‘legendary’ weapons that can be found scattered around the campaign, and considering the level design so far I expect they will be found. They’re more powerful versions of the standard guns, with the trade-off being that they can’t be modded. Personally I reckon the designers should’ve kept things simple and had the legendary weapons replace the basic ones when found, then let players do what they want with them like with any other gun. Maybe swap the skin on them back to the original weapon if they miss the look of it.

I mean I’m sure Hicks won’t mind what I do to his shotgun, seeing as he got killed off screen in 'Alien 3' to ramp up the misery a little. OR DID HE? Signs point to his demise being retconned by Neill Blomkamp for 'Alien 5', which will likely make a lie out of claims that the shocking retcons and revelations in Colonial Marines are canon. But who knows?

Oh man, that does not seem like a good idea. How can the developers get so much right from the movies, yet not realise it’s really weird to let a player do close range attacks on the xenomorphs? Every single time the marines try this in 'Aliens' they get sprayed with acid blood and their skin gets burned off. I guess Winter’s wearing his antacid suntan lotion today. He can even walk through puddles of the stuff, which is kind of weird for an Alien game.

Anyway I’ve fought my way to another hangar, fought my way around to the button to move the crane to let me reach another switch, then fought my way over to the switch to unlock the doors so we can all leave on one of Sephora's dropships. Now we're free to fly somewhere else! Somewhere we don't have to worry about aliens or Weyland-Yutani or... oh crap, the dropship was clipped by debris and now we're going straight for the planet. Joy.

This endless nightmare concludes in part two! I promise.

Semi-Random Game Box