Sunday, February 24, 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Publisher: Sega
Developer(s): Gearbox... and TimeGate, and Demiurge, and Nerve...
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, & WiiU (eventually)

Spoiler Alert! You shouldn't play this game anyway so I'm going to spoil it in full...

Walking in on your grandfather watching the chestburster scene in Alien when you're nine years old is every bit as scarring as you'd think. A few days later, after I stopped hyperventilating, I convinced him to let me watch the entire movie and the crusty old bastard actually agreed. It's very likely the source of my arachnophobia and my fear of being raped in my face. No matter how many facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs I've gibbed in various video game incarnations since then, it's always remained a primal fear of mine.

When I found out that Gearbox was developing a first person shooter and supposedly canonical sequel to the second movie, I was immediately on board. When I saw the demo footage they showed at conventions, I got excited. Rumors of a troubled six year (!) development and a lack of any real gameplay footage prior to release tempered that excitement but I still picked up the game on day one figuring, well, even if it's crap it'll give me something to write about.

And... I am definitely writing about it.

Watching the explosion of pointed fingers around this game happen (which has been well-documented by Destructoid) seems like it could threaten to overshadow the actual content of the game. The game has been roundly (and rightly) panned by critics but reading those reviews you could pick out a lot of criticisms there were simply nitpick-y. The game failed so utterly at getting you to suspend your disbelief that suddenly everything became suspect. So, is it really as bad as all that? Is it possible to salvage some sense of fun from it?

Thus far, the only people I've talked to who defend the game are avowed fans of the series. This confuses me, for reasons that I'll get into later, but their argument seems to boil down to the fact that you can successfully play it from beginning to end... and they managed to get a lot of the fan service right. Ripley's pulse rifle/flamethrower combo was a pre-order bonus. Scattered through the game are things like Hicks' shotgun, Vasquez's smart gun, Hudson's pulse rifle that you are free to use which, I guess, evoke some nostalgic feelings for a movie that's become a cultural touchstone. You can also find dog tags for the now-deceased Aliens marines, recreations of certain areas from the movie, and other callbacks. Clearly, the developers (whoever they ultimately were) are familiar with the lore. Honestly, though, unless you're the kind of person who is enchanted by the idea of "oh, that's a thing I recognize from another thing" there really is nothing to recommend the game. It is, at best, a mostly functional FPS that ties into a beloved series.

I should note that the least worst experience you can have with this game is on the PC where it looks marginally better. Plus, savvy PC gamers have already come up with mods to improve the graphics of the game. If you absolutely, positively must play the game, go for the PC version. I played the game on the 360 which is clearly the worst available option.

It's hard to know where to start when talking about a game that fails at absolutely everything it tries to do. As shooter, it looks and plays like a last gen title. As an Aliens game, it insults established canon, hand waves away giant plot holes, and misses all of the subtext inherent in the series.

Slogging through the single player campaign, I witnessed so many bugs and glitches that the whole thing become a comedy to me. Kill a xeno on a wall and it'll stick partway into the wall and twitch endlessly. Gib a xeno and little bits and pieces will hover in the air, spinning in circles because they can't touch the ground. The stealth sequence, already widely mocked for the hilarious stick-up-the-butt walk of the Boiler xenos (which neuters any tension of crawling in a dark sewer without a gun), had the additional hilarity of one of the xenos just walking on top of the water like Suicide Bomber Jesus Alien. During a co-op run, one of my teammates fell halfway into the ground and we had to execute him in cold blood in order get him to respawn. Those are just the ones that come to me off the top of my head. You can find gifs and YouTube clips of other people's experiences with the glitch-y, damn-near-broken game for additional laughs. I couldn't even do a quick 100% of the game because it glitched a pair of dog tags, robbing me of the achievement for collecting all of them.

Co-op was the most fun I had playing the game because it allowed myself and three other people to Mystery Science Theater our way through the game but even that presented a whole host of other problems. If you imagine what a focused Gearbox Aliens game could have been, four player drop-in-drop-out class-based co-op (like a more linear Borderlands), it only highlights how much of a mess the game really is. You load up a map and you are simply dropped into the shoes of one of four random character models. There's nothing exciting or different about them. The game only plays differently in the sense that it's infinitely more crowded and hard to manage, especially when you factor in having additional brain dead, computer-controlled AI characters. The game shudders nearly to a halt the minute you get into a big firefight. Misery loves company and there's laughs to be had but it's not enough of a justification to play the game.

Plenty has been said about how ugly the game is, especially in light of the infamous "vertical slice" demo and the promises made by Gearbox, and what you heard is true, and it's especially true on the 360. The game looks not unlike a launch title. Dynamic lighting was promised and not delivered. The screen tearing, lazy textures, the flat animations. It looks genuinely, shockingly bad. Enemies crawl out of black squares that are supposed to pass for vents. A broken light fixture hanging from the ceiling will completely block you from moving. These aren't nitpicks, these are things that any B-grade shooter has evolved past years ago. Where Alien made the chestbursters a drawn out, horrifyingly painful experience, Colonial Marines has them popping out immediately (through body armor) like a game of Whack-A-Mole.

The actual story of the game is astonishingly amateurish. As one-note as the characters in Aliens were, their one note was usually interesting and had a logical arc. The protagonist, Winter, starts and ends the game a hyper-competent bad ass. Your AI partner, O'Neal, on the other hand, looks like a biker and acts like child. The dialogue between him and Winter is terrible, most of the quips landing flat because they sound weirdly self-conscious, not like self-possessed bad ass marines. It's clearly nerds trying to write tough guys and falling well short. (It doesn't help that the voice acting is wildly uneven, vacillating between "okay" and "fucking terrible.") O'Neal doesn't even have a character arc so much as a bunch of stuff happens to him and he reacts to it. Other characters drift in an out of the narrative like the pilot, Reid. Voiced by Ashly "Tina Tina" Burch, she gets a couple of the only good lines in the game but, again, she has no arc. The plot randomly demands that she act like a bitch for a couple of minutes and then it's dropped.

This leads into a larger problem the game has: in a series that gave us characters like Ripley and Vasquez, where the xenomorphs are essentially rapists, there are no strong female characters to be found. Reid goes from smart-ass pilot to pulling rank out of cowardice for no reason. The other female character, Bella, who looks like she's on her way to the Bikini Bowl, is introduced as having already been face raped by a xeno (with the hilariously dead line reading of "It's dead now") and spends the entire game needing to be saved, first from her hidey hole and then on a Quixotic mission to have her chestburster removed. She doesn't even get to die with dignity as the chestburster pops out (through her body armor, 'natch) before anyone has the decency to put a bullet in her head like she asks. What should have been a tragic moment earns nothing but an eye roll.

Oh, and the whole fuss about adding female character models to the multiplayer last year? Well, the guys all look and dress like standard grunts but the women don't wear helmets and show more skin because... well, of course they do. I can hear the closet misogynists grumbling about being able to differentiate between the two but that's the whole fucking point. Vasquez only got to dress the way she did because she was lugging around a giant smart gun and it played into her badass character. Other women in Aliens like Ferro and Deitrich wore standard military uniforms. For crying out loud, they're called "uniforms" for a reason. Misinterpreting a call for equality by giving special treatment (and a bit of sex appeal) is such a standard dudebro move that you can't help but facepalm.

The bad decisions don't end there, though. Remember how bummed you were when you found out that Hicks and Newt died in the crash at the beginning of Alien 3? Well, never fear, because the game brings Hicks back from the dead, complete with Michael Biehn sleepwalking through his dialogue like he knows what bullshit he's reading. They don't even have the basic decency to give it a proper explanation. Nor do they explain how the Solaco went from crash landing on the planet's surface to back in space again. They could have brought fan favorite Hudson back, as he never died on screen, but instead you find his dead chestbursted body in the sewers. They can't even capitalize on such an obvious loose end.

The writers take such astonishing liberties with established cannon that it boggles my mind how even fans of the series can defend it. Generally, when writers play fast and loose with series canon, the fans are the first to get up in arms but it seems to be the one thing people defending the game fall back on. Considering fans still loudly disagree on which movies in the series are good, I suppose it should be expected to some degree. Is Aliens 3 crap or an underrated film with a troubled development? Is Prometheus utter shite or an ambitious failure?

The game ends with a resounding "thunk" as you eject a Alien Queen from an airlock by running around and hitting buttons. No need to fight her or even fire a bullet. Just hit a few buttons. To top it all off, they have the utter temerity to end this amazing crapfest with a cliffhanger. As if the game would ever get a sequel in the state it's in. For the sad, sad people who actually were invested in the story, you'd better hope that your $30 Season Pass nets you some single player DLC because that's the only resolution you're ever going to get. This is a game that will be quietly swept under the rug and ignored as quickly as possible.

If you were thinking you could justify your purchase by playing the multiplayer... not really, no. It's a serviceable but completely uninspiring suite of modes you've seen many times in the past. There's the requisite Aliens vs. Marines Team Deatchmatch and a couple more modes cribbed from Left 4 Dead. Controlling Xenomorphs is more of a chore than a good time with wall and ceiling crawling poorly implemented so that only there are only certain walls and ceilings you can crawl on. There's only a couple maps to choose from so the replay value is nearly non-existent. The persistent leveling system is fine, allowing you to level up in single player as well as multiplayer but the amount of customization you can do is fairly limited. One of the four pieces of DLC with the Season Pass is a Horde Mode that absolutely should have shipped with the game. Add a couple of much needed Map Packs and you'll be lucky if you get one piece of Single Player DLC to try and wrap the story up.

I haven't been reviewing games that long and I generally know enough not to waste my money on stinkers but I thought I'd buy this strictly for review purposes and the hope that it would be so-bad-it's-good. But it's not. It really, really isn't. It's a cynical, greedy mess only on the market to try and make SEGA back the money they spent in the six years it's been developed. If you paid $60 for it, you've been played. Allegations are already flowing from anonymous sources about who took advantage of who. Between this game and Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox has crippled any goodwill they gained from the Borderlands games. You will hear this game mentioned the next time Gearbox puts a title out.

Ultimately, Aliens: Colonial Marines will be more famous for the questionable practices surrounding it than the game itself... but don't let that fool you into thinking you should give it a try, even just to see what the fuss is about. This game should be retired the bargain bin as quickly as possible and forgotten as a thick, black stain on a beloved series.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Favorite Albums Of The 2012

Again, real life seems to interrupt my attempts at writing. Things are back on track now, so I hope to be back to weekly updates. In the meantime, I've started a Tumblr page and have been doing some micro-blogging with reviews and assorted weirdness. Be sure to check that out:

Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind: My love for Converge can be summed up in an anecdote: I got to see them live for the third time last year headlining a show the day before Halloween that awesomely had Torche and Kvelertak opening. I was waiting to use the one bathroom stall in the men's room when lead singer Jacob Bannon came literally bouncing out of the stall and out of the bathroom like he was lit on fire. He didn't look like he was late for anything. In fact, he seemed to be smiling. Dude doesn't even slow down to take a dump.

(Also, my butt touched the same place his butt just touched so I think that means we're now lovers. I'm pretty sure that's how it works, right?)

To me, that's Converge in a nutshell: bursting with restless energy. They've been doing this with a consistency and a pace that left most of their peers wheezing in their wake. They all seem to have creative endeavors and side project outside of Converge that keep them busy. (Dear Nate, more Doomriders, plz?) Rather than run out of ideas on their first couple records, they actually seem to be getting better as musicians and taking more chances with their sound as time passes.

After what might be a career highlight with 2009's guest-heavy Axe To Fall, they've responded with a tighter, more focused album. They can still batter you with sound but time has also taught them where best to hit for maximum impact.

Baroness - Yellow & Green: According to my stats, I listened to 674 Baroness tracks in the last 12 months. "March To The Sea" 89 times and "Take My Bones Away" 86. That sends a pretty clear message: I am deeply disturbed. Or I have a desk job and I listen to a lot of music. Y'know. Whatevs. Honestly, the worst thing about Baroness' switch up from dynamic sludge metal to a more palatable hard rock was watching music journalists contort themselves into uncomfortable shapes trying to describe it. The vocabulary for talking about hard rock music has completely atrophied from disuse so seeing comparisons ranging from Nickelback to Thrice to Foo Fighters were kind of inevitable.

Baroness, of course, sounds nothing like any of those bands. They're similar only in the sense that no one in them are legally considered dead. The imagery of the lyrics alone should separate Baroness from the pack. Bones and water are recurring themes. Textural interstitial pieces help the album flow and keep a sense of atmosphere. Lyrics about bones and bodies of water give everything a sense of immensity or expansiveness. This is not a pop record.

Downshifting from the exhilarating Blue Record still leaves the band cruising at a healthy speed. "March To The Sea," "Take My Bones Away" and "Psalms Alive" all sound fantastic blasting out of a car chugging well over the speed limit. "Eula" is gorgeously dark, one of their very best songs. "Cocanium" and "Stretchmarker" allow them to experiment more with the listeners expectations while remaining very much a Baroness song. In the end, I guess it's okay that music journalists couldn't find the right words for this band. No one else is doing it like this.

Golden Void - Golden Void: Based in the Bay Area, named after a Hawkwind song, and with a sickly yellow cover of dead tree limbs, you can get a good idea of what you're going to get from Golden Void's first album before you drop the needle on the platter: gauzy production, hazy psychedelic atmosphere, and some champion level guitar playing. This is no empty throwback, though. Isaiah Mitchell's limber guitar playing cuts through the smoke with ease. I could listen to the guitar solo on "Atlantis" for days on end.

In true record fetishist fashion, the album is a brief seven track, thirty-seven minute and change affair, perfect for two sides of a thick slab of vinyl. (You get a bonus live track on the iTunes version.) While the atmosphere is thick throughout, they still try on a fair share of styles. Mitchell's vocals may recall Hendrix one moment or Ozzy the next. They may go at a more languid pace on "Jetsun Dolma" only to charge straight through on a song like "The Curve." It's all foreplay to get to "Atlantis," as far as I'm concerned. It's rare for a song to so clearly hit me where I live. All the promise of the earlier tracks comes together for a nearly eight minute ride that begs for big headphones and a volume dial broken at 11.

My only hope is that this isn't a one off project.

Pig Destroyer - Book Burner: Read my review here. Easily the best grind band working today.

High On Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis: Read my review here. I follow guys named Matt Pike on Twitter who aren't the actual Matt Pike in hopes that one day they'll miraculously transform into him and play a gnarly riff that will make you HEAR WRITTEN WORDS. Because that's how awesome Matt Pike is.

Unsane - Wreck: Read my review here. The last and best of a dying breed.

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music: Sometimes all a rapper needs is a distinctive voice. Not "voice" in the sense of his overall approach to music, just the way words come out of their face hole. There's plenty of rappers who don't have much in the way of technical skill but can convince you solely through the power of their voice. Others have technical skill to spare but no personality or charisma. Atlanta's Killer Mike is the total package.

Buoyed by El-P's most accessible production to date, Killer Mike tears through twelve tracks without stopping for penny ante skits or instrumentals. This is a lean, mean, no bullshit rap album. The album opens strong with monster track "Big Beast" that has a sly turn from T.I. and a confident Bun B but most of the album's guest stars are only there for the hooks. This is Killer Mike's show and rightly so.

The album's centerpiece, the incendiary "Reagan," is soaked in well-earned paranoia as he tears down sacred cows in his own culture as well as the government that enables them. It's strong stuff and an album full of similar political rap would have blunted (pun intended) it's impact. While the tone of the album certainly isn't light, it's not oppressive either.

I don't often buy instrumental albums but after hearing his beats on this record, I picked up El-P's instrumentals just to admire them in their original form. I love El-P's records but seeing him try his hand at a more mainstream friendly style only highlights the range of his productions. When you put Killer Mike over top the beats, you end up with a really killer collaboration that I hope continues on more records in the future.

Easily my favorite rap record of the year.

Swans - The Seer: While my 2012 wasn't exactly rose-scented, two high points of the year were standing front and center on Halloween night to witness the mighty Earth play Phoenix for the first time in fifteen years. It was fucking transcendent. The other was watching with awe as Michael Gira and company (including a Nordic-looking guy named Thor who naturally played shirtless) absolutely wreck the audience at Crescent Ballroom. Lucky for us, what makes them so captivating live is very evident on record.

Their latest album, a double CD titled The Seer, is not casual listening. Swans records never are. Each disc is weighted down by dark epics like the 32 minute "The Seer" on disc one and the one/two punch of "A Piece Of The Sky" (19 minutes) and "Apostate" (23 minutes) on disc two.

If you're willing to put in the time, Swans can open up a whole new world of oppression and darkness. Wielding a different kind of heaviness since their reformation, the band is continuing down a path of apocalyptic folk and psychedelia. In other bands, that would be hyperbole but with Swans it's just facts. It's absolutely pummeling in it's bleakness to the point that comparisons to other bands would be doing Swans a disservice.

It's an exhausting, emotionally draining listen but it's well worth the trip.

iOS Game Review: Pixel People

Pixel People
Devoloper: Chillingo
Price: Free With Micro-Transactions

Tip toeing through the minefield of free-to-play apps can be a grind. Due to poor planning or outright greed, you can find yourself with an app that gives you as little as fifteen minutes of game time before you herding you into their store to buy a fifty pack of Star Dollars for a bigger gun or a stat boost. So when a game hits the sweet spot where it's compelling enough to make you volunteer your hard earned rather than hold you hostage, you almost audibly unclench.

Pixel People is a city building app not unlike a smaller scale Sim City with a cute 8-bit design. You start the game with only a clone factory and create new jobs by splicing together two different people. New jobs generally create new buildings to populate your world which generate money to continue your nascent career as an urban planner.

Depending on whether or not you are splicing a character with a new job or a new kind of building, there's a timer that always ticks down. These can go from ten seconds to twenty-four hours depending on the size or complexity of the task. However, rather than make you wait around, the timer continues even when you back out of the app. This allows you to essentially check in on your city a few times a day for maybe ten minutes at a time rather than grinding your way through an endless series of in app purchases to speed things along. Tap your buildings to keep the money flowing, assign clones to their new jobs and go back about your business.

While Pixel People doesn't punish you for taking their app and never giving them a dime, it's certainly not removing the option. In addition to standard gold coins, there's a secondary currency called Utopium that can be used to speed up creation, to build higher end buildings or to trade for more coins. You may occasionally be gifted some Utopium for creating parks or trees or completing a brief series of "secondary experiments" that regularly pop up but otherwise it's only available via the in game store. Even in the game's more advanced stages, you aren't required to buy anything. It's just a matter of dutifully maintaining your city until you raise the money.

With a maximum of 150 jobs, you could potentially play Pixel People for days and not fully unlock everything in the game. If you don't purchase more Utopium, it could take more than a month. I've had the app for about a week now and the urge to check in on my miniature city is still strong. Not even Temple Run 2 hooked me that long.

So far, my only niggling complaint about the game is that creating roadways is entire optional. It doesn't give you any bonuses or speed anything up. It's purely aesthetic. Given how every other decision in the game has a tangible bonus, making roads merely a design choice seems out of place.

Ultimately, I think the best compliment you can give a free-to-play game is whether or not you want to give the game your money. Not "I was frustrated at my lack of progress" or even "I must level up because: feedback loop." I bought four dollars worth of in app purchases because I was enjoying myself and I wanted to reward the developers for making an addictive yet fair game that didn't treat me like a spigot full of money. Well made games that respect their audience are few and far between. It's worth it to support them.