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Thursday, March 07, 2013

When Franchise Fandom Outrage Becomes Hilarious - Review & Commentary on Aliens Colonial Marines

I don't normally do entries about video games on account of the fact that I'm terrible at 'em and have the patience of a scorpion on fire. However, I will be making a few exceptions from time to time because it is rather fun to watch the cult of a franchise writhing in the throes of outrage and dismay as they watch the self-inflated perception of their franchise get sullied at the hands of mainstream commercialism or cash-grab attempts to repackage said franchise into some form of entertainment media. As if such notions can even be juxtaposed; the franchise is generally a mediocre product of the same industry that the critics often bash for subsequently tarnishing their sacred cow. Cynical as it may sound, people love having the opportunity to get excessively self-righteous, which is a hoot, and there's nothing more hilarious than watching fans of a science fiction franchise slip into this pit of despair when some video game that they were hyping up themselves, ends up jumping the shark, just as expected. So what's the latest title in question that's got a certain cult of people frenzied?


This again? Really?!

The Outrage

So, many people--loyalists of the brand--are caught up in this matrix of angst, denial, depression and a whole new slew of steps adding to that already questionable concept called 'stages of grief' (Maciejewski, Zhang, Block, & Prigerson, 2007, p. 716-723)*. Clearly, the latest video game entry into the Aliens franchise, Aliens Colonial Marines, has been a sore spot of contention for many fans who bought into the hype that they helped manufacture in the first place, and despite contributing to said hype, have trouble facing the disappointment even though some others have had the grace to both rant and make amends on their own initial impressions (Angry Joe Show, 2013). As a self-professed member of this very cult--or legion, as I like to call it, because it's cooler--I would like to offer a different perspective in my erratic review of the game that goes as follows.


A Change of Perspective

C'mon, what is all this blasphemy?! Aliens Colonial Marines is phenomenal on grounds of being a sheerly uncomfortable work of art that challenges our expectations and conceptions. Hang on a second now . . . I'll substantiate my claim.

This game successfully created a sense of expectation from its own lofty history and the Aliens canon, and then in one fell swoop, it contorted everything by horrific proportions. It took all of the elements that everyone was expecting, and turned them and the plot upside down, leaving both gamers and loyal fans of the franchise deeply distraught and disoriented. What better way to capture that 'What the hell is going on, man?' feeling, eh? For starters, the Xenomorphs suddenly became a pack of retarded ostriches, and what massive droves of IQ they lost--for being the hauntingly cunning stalkers they were in the films--was transposed onto the annoying Weyland-Yutani PMC troopers that took the entire suspense out of the concept. Closing off this perplexing morass, we have the main assisting AI and support character on the team, O'Neal, who was probably the worst enemy in disguise that a gamer could have, from getting in the way of the player character, to not helping out at all and fantastically epitomising his ineptitude at every turn and corner of strenuous urgency. Forget the enemies. Forget the big scary alien killing machines. Worry about the babbling and counter-productive dunce who'll be by your side for a good portion of the formative part of the gaming experience.

Now one would look at this mess and naturally assume that it was a large catastrophe in motion, but really, what the creators were trying to capture here was the true hopelessness of Aliens with a surprise element that would invoke cognitive dissonance on the part of the gamers and further infuriate them as they attempted to  make sense of the entire mess. In essence, the developers and writers wanted gamers to feel helpless, lost, confused and utterly infuriated at the same time, much like the marines in the movie.

From the phenomenally gimped Xenomoprh AI, paired with the phenomenally cunning and almost Godly PMC AI, finished off with the bafflingly obtuse ally, we have an atrocious amalgamation that perfectly captures that same sense of canonical misery, inexplicable bane and hopelessness that defined the movies, but with the added surprise element of role reversals that elicits a kind of gamer acrimony that treads the edge of madness. I mean, just getting into the momentum of the game, how many of us were aching to frag O'Neal to hell? I am willing to guess that I have the majority on my side in this opinion, which is a rare situation; such is the magic of a title that is so profoundly polarising. O'Neal, who happens to be a major support character in the game, was by far the biggest burden of the experience because unlike the dumb yet inexplicably relentless enemies, one can't kill him, but only suffer the repercussions of his asinine and team-sabotaging contributions that no one would even wish upon their worst enemies.

What a fucking tool!
The O'Neal character as well as his AI, wholly epitomise the ultimate insult in modern gaming; it's the tortured nightmare scenario where the gamer is playing a co-operative campaign that is hauntingly nonsensical while being forcefully paired with the world's biggest, most intellectually stunted bonobo who has a perpetual god mode cheat to his sole benefit at the peril of everyone and everything else. One would be right in wishing for a game mode where the Xenomorphs could team up with the Weyland-Yutani forces, the Colonial Marines and the player character, with the unified and sole aim to hunt down and kill O'Neal. They could've called this "Official Apology" mode.

So there you have it; Aliens Colonial Marines does pull off the snide artistic service of sending the gamers screaming for the hills in conflicting fits of rage and terror that successfully mirrors the feeling that was exuberating from the characters in the actual films, albeit, in the most unorthodox of mannerisms bordering on satire. Some would assume that such an accomplishment was purely accidental, and in fact, a product of an absolutely mediocre development effort, but as we should know, the whole ploy was an unexpectedly evil, convoluted and clever ruse to mess with the audience's perception where reality is tormented with tumultuous fiction to achieve the artistic goals!
Got a steaming pile of shit? Slap an art label on it!
Ah, what the hell! Yes! Of course it was a terrible game . . . but were we really expecting something different?! Did all present-day trends of the market--such as generally bug-infested crappy games--collapse to give way to the collective will of the Aliens fandom and their wishful thinking? Please, this franchise is not that important.


Post-Patch Concessions?

A massive 4GB patch was released as the proverbial mea culpa. What did it accomplish? Well, it gives the game a filtered feel that is reminiscent of the Aliens movie, along with some texture enhancements... and that's all she wrote. So they've improved some of the visuals by a pathetic hairline margin, but I assure you that the game feels just as broken as it was before this patch.

"But did the AI improve?" some of you might ask. What the fuck, man? Didn't you just read my summary on how it's still as broken as before? Look, even if it took a few steps forward, it definitely took another dozen backwards, because O'Neal is still a retarded bonobo and possibly even more retarded than before in terms of how much he can compound the player's strategy and tactics going forward as a major support NPC.

Post-Patch Autopsy: This game is still, very much so, the same steaming lump of shit, but with some fancy glitter. So save yourself the 4GB hard drive space for something of remotely better value. Anything, at this point, would be a probable improvement over this exorbitantly sized patch that only seeks to put a cheap shine over what is--and will always be--a substandard piece of crap that speaks to the uninspired state of the industry in general.


Now Let's Get Real

In the midst of all this hoorah, a very important point becomes obscured. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of ZeroPunctuation posited the most valid criticism, not just of the game, but also of the unrealistic fan perception and expectations attached to the game (Croshaw, 2013). Does anyone remember some of those poignant comments that were made about the Aliens franchise in the commentary section of the Aliens Quadrilogy box set? The idea that in essence, the whole franchise was pure nauseating horror built on a B-rate concept that was turned A-rate through good directing, production and a hint of some disturbing elements and thematics? An inconvenient truth, but a truth no less. This franchise was never that large of a creative silo of primordial ooze that would one day have some riveting and grotesquely shaped work of art emerge from its gelatinous womb. One could toss in a ton of lens flare, blue haze, damp dingy planets most reminiscent of a cold icy hell, over populated with enough fiendish acid-spitting abominations that could make Adam Richman lose all the food he's consumed since the inception of that horrible show, Man v. Food, and one would still fall well-short of a challenging or thought provoking experience. No escaping the fact that this is where the experience begins and most generally ends -- grotesqueness with a bit of edge. I'll be the first to say that the Alien movies were great fun, but unfortunately, they don't merit the level of hype that was being attached to the games of the franchise in the first place. Of course Gearbox screwed up royally and got away with the act (Evin-Thirwell, 2013). But why did anyone even give a fuck? The outrage from series purists, in my opinion, is rather disproportionate when one takes into account the overall inanity of the series in the first place -- it was never meant to produce gemstones.

It is about time that the fans of the franchise fill up that chip of righteous indignation on their shoulders, stop cuddling with their stuffed Xenomorph toy, and step out from the dark corner of their bedroom to face the series for what is really is, because it'll certainly allow them to make terms with the pitfalls of such an uninspired game in an era that is generally characterised as uninspired. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to also confront the long-standing fact that hardly any decent video game has spawned from the franchise--the odd arcade fluke not included--in the last thirty or so years. This would help people in realising that against the backdrop of general mediocrity within the video games industry, there was little motivation for anyone to get this game right when its general template and following has very little to offer in the first place. I remember how my friend used to criticise the marines in the film for being a bunch of one-dimensional pricks who made a lot of noise, well guess what, those marines are somewhat representative of the fan base and the consequent outrage: a lot of righteous noise with little substance or validity to justify said noise. There's no doubt that it's a shitty game, but even if a few corners would've been ironed out, it wouldn't have really made a world of difference. People need to shift their focus towards more pressing issues within the industry such as the general decline in quality titles rather than franchise cash-ins that generally follow the trend of being let-downs; it's like watching a spousal abuse victim with battered woman syndrome -- constantly going back for more and acting surprised each bloody time.

Aliens Colonial Marines is a disastrous game, but no more a disaster than most disasters on offer, especially those of the franchise cash-grab variety. Any outrage it deserves, it deserves for being a large orgy of in-game bugs, lacklustre visuals and O'Neal; all ugly elements that epitomise the malady afflicting modern gaming. But it doesn't deserve outrage for letting down the potential of a franchise that was always mediocre in the first place with little to no good games to be had in its thirty-plus-year life span. The more we channel misguided fan-rage and expectations, the more we will have to get used to such sub-par nonsense actually topping charts (Johnson, 2013).

Despite the convoluted nature of things, all press is generally good press, especially when it is a mishmash of lofty expectations followed by horrific awe and disappointment!



References

Angry Joe Show (2013, February 14). Aliens: Colonial Marines Angry Review [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGX2WE4QUw8

Croshaw, B. Y. (2013, February 27). Zero Punctuation : Aliens: Colonial Marines. The Escapist. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/6912-Aliens-Colonial-Marines

Evans-Thirlwell, E. (2013, February 14). Gearbox didn't actually develop Aliens: Colonial Marines, claims TimeGate source. Xbox 360 Games, News, Reviews, Videos - OXM - Xbox 360 - The Official Magazine. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.oxm.co.uk/50225/gearbox-didnt-actually-develop-aliens-colonial-marines-claims-timegate-source/

Johnson, L. (2013, February 18). Aliens: Colonial Marines tops UK All Format Gaming Chart - News - Trusted Reviews. Trusted Reviews - The Latest Technology News and Reviews. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.trustedreviews.com/news/aliens-colonial-marines-tops-uk-all-format-gaming-chart

Maciejewski, P. K., Zhang, B., Block, S. D., & Prigerson, H. G. (2007). An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA, 297(7), 716-723. Retrieved from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=205661


* Yes, I take every opportunity to reference academic criticisms levied at questionable aspects of popular psychology.

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