It’s Not Easy Being a Colonial Marine

August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

We Alien fans are a patient lot. It’s been eleven long years since our last truly great game. Twenty-four years since our last good film. Sure, Duke Nukem leads the pack in cautionary tales from Development Hell; Sonic’s death has been drawn out more excruciatingly than any other; Star Wars has been milked to the point of emaciation, but Aliens has punished its fans more than any other franchise in history.

It isn’t the waiting. You get used to the waiting. It’s the hope. Despite the countless – countless – abhorrences that the license has birthed, we have never lost faith that one day someone might come. Someone who knows why James Cameron’s career is on the wrong side of its peak, why Rebellion Developments still exists, what it is that keeps Giger’s creature lurching onwards, beaten down again and again, but still clawing its way towards the back of the unsuspecting entertainment industry.

1999. The Alien film franchise is on its merry way down the shitter and you’ve jumped ship already. You find yourself creeping down a pitch-black steel corridor. You’re armed to the teeth, but you can’t shoot what you can’t see. Flares burst into the corner of your vision on a button press, blinding you and creating a tiny island of harsh purple light in which you can cower. You only have so many, and you still can’t see more than three feet ahead of you. No good against terrible, spindly shadows that flit around ahead of you at a speed you’ve never seen in a game. A small radar gives off high-pitched ‘blips’ beside you.

Blip. Blip. Blip.

You see a single dot moving across the little readout. Numbers scroll at speed next to it. You don’t know what they mean. But they’re getting smaller.

30m. Blip.
25m. Blip.
20m. Blip.

You saw the film. You guess what’s coming. Suddenly, your flare fizzes out, leaving you in darkness.

15m. Blip.

You fumble in the dark and find the image intensifier. One flick and suddenly the screen lights up in an eerie green shade. You wait for the blip and try to still your shaking hands.

Silence, save for a soft buzz. Night-vision comes at a cost. You glance down to check your ammo. Less than full. Suddenly, a blood-curdling noise blares through your headphones, rattling around inside your skull. A mixture of hiss, screech and bestial growl, you only hear it once before a black shape skitters into sight, ricocheting off the walls as it screams along the floor towards you. Years of playing Doom have conditioned you to backpedal as fast as humanly possible, spraying pulse-rifle rounds down the corridor. The muzzle flash whites out your vision and the weapon drones even louder than the creature as you rain lead everywhere. You can just about hear a wet impact as one of your bullets hits home.

You cease fire. Vision returns. There is smoke rising from the floor, where a small black claw lies, dripping acid blood. The creature is nowhere to be seen. Dropping your image intensifier, you watch the motion tracker for a retreating dot.

100m. Blip.

Looks like you scared it off. Wait, was that a decimal point?

1.00m. Blip.

There is just time for you to drop a flare before a loud snap announces your failure. What remains of your skull hangs from the jaws of your first alien encounter as it clings to the ceiling above you. Game: Over. Pants: Browned.

I mean it when I say Aliens versus Predator didn’t redefine horror games. It fucking defined them. Scores of inadequate pretenders from the last decade crouch, shivering, in the dark shadow it casts over them. Cheap shocks fire off between them, complemented by overbearing musical scores and safe-haven cutscenes. Meanwhile, AvP takes place in oppressive silence as you try to hide from opponents that are infinitely faster, stronger and more numerous than you are. You will come across long corridors of absolute darkness, which pressure you to light your path either with wild gunfire, blinding flares or the night-vision which cripples your ability to sense danger. Maybe you’ll sprint along it spraying your flamethrower everywhere like a real USMC marine? Enjoy standing in the dark – back against a wall – when the opposite door fails to open and a horde closes around you until your ammo runs dry.

Back in the days FEAR meant something other than slow-motion gun battles in office buildings and little girls with psychic powers.

We’ve waited a long time for another Aliens game. The frustrating thing is, there’s loads of them. They get released all the time. Mobile phones see the largest catalogue, while the PSP follows up with tie-ins to the beyond-horrible AvP movies (I’d describe them as looking fan-made, but that does the fans a disservice). The most recent – and disappointing – was the 2010 ‘successor’ to AvP 1999. My inverted commas are dripping warm sarcasm all over the floor, so let me qualify my point whilst the gimp mops it up for me. The main reason Aliens were such a terrifying prospect back in the day was not because they’re so well-designed. It wasn’t high-res textures of chitinous exoskeletons or procedurally-animated tail whip physics. It was their blistering movement speed. The films were terrifying because we couldn’t see what was after the crew of the Nostromo and our imagination filled in the blanks. While that doesn’t work in a first-person perspective, you can’t see something that leaps from floor to ceiling and runs circles around you faster than you can turn your head. In 2010, the Aliens move like old people fuck. I had no trouble picking each one out with my motion tracker and flashlight – and disassembling them with my pistol. Not to mention how boring the Alien campaign becomes once you realise the only reliable way to kill something is by getting behind it and pressing the ‘kill’ button. In 1999 we could dismember an entire roomful of marines in seconds, or be embarrassed by a single civilian with a pistol, depending on whether we were fast enough with our claws and walljumps. It was simple: a game of hide-and-seek. Marines were tested by their nerves and caution. Aliens were tested by their cunning and speed. A brilliant layout for incredibly tense gameplay, where victory goes to whoever is least afraid. No game since then has understood this. Not AvP 2, not AvP 2010, not even the glorious AvP: Extinction (which, for the record, had real potential). But there is a painful twist in this tail as it buries itself in my chest cavity. Its name is Gearbox.

I don’t trust them. They stole my heart in Opposing Force, only to crush it underfoot with the piss-poor PC port of Borderlands. They announced and canned a promising Aliens RPG. Now they have fallen silent, with only a few screenshots of their latest project – Aliens: Colonial Marines – floating around the internet.

They are spectacular.

We’ve been promised a character-driven storyline, marines with personality. A story set immediately following Aliens. A mission to recover Ellen Ripley and the squad that followed her into hell. Four-player local co-op where Aliens are fast, merciless and burst suddenly from the world geometry to drag you under. Sitting in a darkened room with your friends, watching the ammo counters on your sentries tick down to zero as the screams of pissed-off aliens echo from the other side of a sealed bulkhead. Acid blood that cripples players who touch it and burns through steel doors. AI that will outflank, outsmart and terrify us. Meanwhile, with news of an Alien prequel in the works, directed by the Ridley Scott, there is plenty to keep us on edge. We will wait for a return to former greatness, no matter how long it takes. If Colonial Marines ever does come out, it will have warped and decayed to the point where its genius is no longer recognisable. Alien 5 will be a Hollywood action flick with no depth and unlikeable characters, which milks the franchise for cheap thrills and commits unforgivable acts of fanservice, just as Predators did to its own series. There will never again be anything of worth that sports the Alien license, be it game, film or terrible cross between the two.

Sometimes I wish I could get out of this chicken-shit outfit, but I know that it’s worth sticking around, just in case. Because if anyone ever does make a game that does this incredible franchise justice, it will be the best-game-ever.

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