Few films have burned themselves into the delicate, collective pop culture consciousness of the 80s generation the way Aliens did. A blend of teasing, seductive science fiction, primal horror, and the kind of gun blazing action that only an 80s director would find plausible, it became the high watermark that every other SF/Action film would aspire to. Naturally, this was also the case in games. Marines and H.R. Giger’s alien have been going toe to toe digitally as far back as 1986’s Aliens: The Computer Game for the Commodore 64 by Activision. Now, in 2013, we finally get our hands on a game by self-confessed fans Gearbox Software, who’ve been wowing crowds with Borderlands. It’s a no brainer, this game should rock, right?
A Xenomorph May Be Involved
You play Corporal Winters, a marine with the USS Sephora who—17 weeks after the distress call was received—is now investigating the derelict USS Sulaco orbiting above LV-426. Yup, somehow the ship that was last seen ejecting Ripley and crew towards Fiornia-161 is back at the infamous planet where it all began with barely any explanation. Winter and his fellow marines board the ship ready to kick ass and take names and… Well, no surprises for what happens next. The story and characters are flat, basically giving Gearbox an excuse to invoke moments from Aliens for the benefit of the player. The plot makes no sense, and seems to exist solely as a rationale to shepherd players from one fan-service moment to the next.
The presentation however, is where some people are going to start feeling very sad. On the technical side, this game has been in development since 2006 and it shows. It looks like a mid-generation game, rather than the hyper-optimized graphical spectacles we’re used to seeing this late in the generation. Unreal Engine 3 shows all its usual flaws; blurry textures, levels of detail taking too long to load, some screen tearing and the occasional drop in frame rate. Animation is also occasionally weak, particularly with the movements of the aliens themselves, and there are collision glitches with guns sticking out through doors and other technical gaffes you’d expect from a B-List developer. Normally this would be the time to say the game lacks polish and needed another year, but it already had over six, so that’s no excuse.
On the other hand, the art team absolutely nailed the look of Aliens. Blurry textures aside, wandering around the Sulaco hanger reveals all the details a fan pausing the movie would expect to see, and Hadley’s Hope is chock full of little touches like nearly empty sentry turrets and specimen canisters bathed in eerie light. The art team clearly loved Aliens and it shows in the detail and authenticity. The same holds true with the audio where the sound of the M-41A pulse rifle going off, or the foreboding “ping” of the motion tracker sound phenomenal. The sound track invokes both Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score and James Horner’s more militaristic score for Aliens. If nothing else, the sound team has nothing to be ashamed of. The same can’t be said of the design team.
It’s A Bug Hunt
The campaign is flat out mediocre. Dodgy AI makes for aliens that simply charge at you, while uninspired level design creates run of the mill gun battles that only draw appreciation for their visual fidelity to the source material. NPCs are a constant, but they are useless AND indestructible, meaning they barrel into a fight and inadvertently act as meat shields. Some fights can actually be completed by simply hiding in a corner and letting the NPCs do all the work. The chief disappointment in the campaign is the lack of fear. Rather than emulate Dead Space which perfected the paranoia of being in a derelict craft with things
trying to kill you, Gearbox defaulted to Call of Duty. The aliens aren’t a threat, they’re target practice, and players don’t feel vulnerable, they feel almost invincible. This runs completely counter to the tone of the Alien franchise, but someone, either Sega or Gearbox, must’ve felt COD’s power fantasy success was more important than staying true to the source material’s intention. It’s not a bad shooter, it’s not broken, but it’s not exciting and occasionally feels dull. Even co-op, which Gearbox showed a mastery of in Borderlands doesn’t have all the conveniences, bells and whistles of Gearbox’s big success, like simply being able to orient a local split-screen to a vertical split. Again, co-op feels rushed and unpolished despite all the years they had to perfect it.
The multiplayer side of things is where most of ACM’s entertainment value lies. There’s standard team deathmatch, as well as a mode called “Extermination” which is basically King of the Hill, but the two stand-out modes are “Escape” in which marines try to escape a complex, and “Survivor” where marines take a stand in a fort structure while awaiting dropship evac. In these cases, each marine is only allotted one life, no respawns, the aliens, under the control of players, finally bring the anxiety and dread that was lacking from the campaign. It’s still not perfect, and the alien controls in particular can get quite wonky, but these modes feel like Aliens.
In the end, it’s hard to recommend this game at the current price of $60. The single player campaign is mediocre and completely fails the spirit of the franchise. The multiplayer is an improvement, but could use more work and more focus since it succeeds where the campaign fails. If you want an interactive, 3D tour of the world of Aliens with some surprisingly fun multiplayer thrown in, get this now. If you wanted a game that played like Aliens and felt like it, keep your money in your wallet, unless you’re a huge multiplayer fan.