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Death by a Thousand Chestbursters

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Friday, Jul 26, 2013
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a fantastically flawed game.

Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game, but it should still be played by people who love this medium because it’s bad in some interesting and uniquely ludic ways. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the death scenes in Tomb Raider might have felt more gratuitous than they actually were because of the gameplay around them, and the same concept applies to everything in Colonial Marines/ It’s a fantastically flawed game in which every poorly implemented system helps bring down every other poorly implemented system.
  
Shooting


The mere act of shooting in Colonial Marines is awkward at best because there’s so much reticule sway. When you look down the sight of your pulse rifle, it swings back and forth so much that it’s hard to get an accurate shot off. This stems from an attempt to add RPG progression elements to the game: As you level up a gun’s accuracy, it sways less. It’s an interesting idea, and one that does abstractly convey a growing proficiency with a gun. It would be a great system for a horror game in which you could excuse the swaying by saying the character is scared, but it’s an awful system for a shooter.


The modern console shooter has trained us to expect more precision when looking down the sights, not less. Thus, Colonial Marines is immediately uncomfortable to play. If the enemy encounters were designed around this lack of precision (as they are in The Last of Us, which offers stealth and melee alternatives), then this would be forgivable. But that doesn’t happen.


Enemies

Soldiers are meant to be shot at since the average combat scenario puts you out of melee range. Aliens are meant to be shot at since they can’t be killed with a punch. If one of them gets too close, then a “melee” prompt appears on screen. However, this only knocks them back, giving you the chance to shoot them. Enemies are meant to be shot at, yet actually hitting them is unduly difficult.


Enemies move around a lot, which means (ironically) that they’re always out in the open and that they’re damn hard to hit. Whether it’s an alien that runs at you in a zigzag or a Weyland-Yutani soldier running between cover spots, your opponents have very little self-regard. Normally, this kind of bad AI would make the game painfully easy, but in this case with all that reticule sway, it has the opposite effect. It’s hard enough hitting an enemy when he’s standing still, so when he runs away, you end up spraying bullets in his general direction hoping that a slim majority find their target. That kind of shooting wastes ammo, so you’ll quickly get into a habit of firing from the hip, thus avoiding the reticule sway altogether. However, this tactic forces you to get in close before you can start doing damage and that leads us to another serious design flaw.


Health and Ammo


Enemies can hurt you very badly, very quickly, and health and armor are relatively rare. You’ll die a lot playing Colonial Marines, and this feels like an attempt to inject horror into what is otherwise a straight action game. Weak characters and strong enemies are a staple of horror. This imbalance is supposed to scare us by forcing us to acknowledge our physical inadequacies, but Colonial Marines doesn’t understand that. It mimics this form of this horror without understanding the function of it.


Ammo is never really an issue. You might run out of bullets for one gun, but there’s always another weapon that you can switch to that’s fully loaded. This kind of support is necessary because you’ll be shooting a lot of bad guys. As an FPS, our default method of interacting with the world is to shoot at it, and the game does nothing to change this.


Colonial Marines is thus balanced like a horror game but paced like an action game. You’ll die a lot and at no point does that death feel deserved. The bad shooting and bad AI force you to get near enemies who can kill you absurdly quickly. It’s as if the game is punishing you for trying to compensate for its weaknesses, which leads to the final issue with its gameplay.


Repetition:


Colonial Marines feels like a 1990s PC game, the kind that has no patience for mistakes and no desire to coddle players, the kind of game that you’re meant to play with a finger on the quicksave button, saving after every fight, allowing you to inch your way through a level death-by-death, save-by-save.


Except Colonial Marines doesn’t have a quicksave button. It uses checkpoints to mark your progress, and these checkpoints are not as common as they should be considering everything else. You have to survive through multiple fights before hitting a checkpoint, so you’ll inevitably find yourself replaying large chucks of the game. Enemy spawns are preset and the AI is extremely predictable (making it even more frustrating when you can’t shoot them due to reticule sway), which quickly kills any tension the game might have built up. The predictability becomes repetitive, and every time that you die the game becomes a little more boring.


Yet this is also the most natural form of progression: You’ll enter a combat scenario and replay it until you’ve memorized all the patterns and can exploit them. Then you move on to another combat scenario and the loop repeats. This is an awful gameplay loop. I started Colonial Marines determined to see it to the end because I heard it was very short, but I couldn’t do it. This downward spiral of gameplay systems broke my spirit.


Aliens: Colonial marines is a bad game, but at least its weaknesses offer lessons to be learned and highlights some of the interesting conundrums of game design. It’s not just that these systems are poorly implemented. It’s that each poor system interacts with every other poor system to compound the game’s problems to an incredible degree. You end up with a shooter with bad shooting that forces you to get in close to the bad AI that are so overpowered that they can easily kill you and force you to restart the entire battle. It’s a connected, miserable, fascinating experience.

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