It’s that time again folks. For those of you just joining us, welcome! Still Alive! is our ongoing series about multiplayer games that still cling to life long after they’ve passed the usual shelf life. Who plays these games? Are they really bad or just acquired tastes? What’s kept them going for so long? That’s what we’re here to find out! Last time we looked into the sci-fi horror game Dead Space 2: Outbreak and found it definitely still was alive. Continuing my journeys into the coldest reaches of space is none other than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
Now, not only is the game’s quality set against this one, but it’s also well known that the multiplayer community took a huge hit after the game’s controversial release state. So finding anyone seemed slim to none, but I was proven wrong twice. Not only is Aliens: Colonial Marines modestly active, but by comparison to some online communities for equally obscure/unpopular games, it’s almost come out ahead. I know, and that’s not the only shocking statement I have to say. Just hear me out, trust me, I did not come into this expecting to utter these words:
After a fair amount of patching, and despite some still notable bugs and polish issues… there’s actually some fun to be found with Aliens: Colonial Marines‘ multiplayer.
Now stop, I see you moving to close this tab. You think I’ve gone insane. Trust me I understand, I did not expect to be writing those words. Yet… somehow… Aliens: Colonial Marines actually has some things going for it.
At first, I had a rough time finding a match. I’d acquired a used PS3 copy, since usually communities hold up longer on console than PC. I had already previously heard a few friends mentioning a PC community, but I couldn’t find a PC version within reasonable price range. Getting the game and it’s Bug Hunt DLC costs a surprisingly high amount on PC. We’re talking $30+ range when not on sale for a game with a Metacritic score that’s been nuked from orbit. Still, for the first week or so of having the game, I always seemed to miss any active games. In the meanwhile, tried to find signs of life on PC through other means.
Not only did I find several YouTube videos from the game’s various community groups, but the game apparently has an extensive (for a game without mod tools) modder support. Visual enhancements are only the start — full rebalance mods, and custom enemy spawns/waves for the game’s Bug Hunt mode. The amount of work the PC community has put in is impressive to say the least, and they’ve gone the extra mile.
Figuring out what assets can and can’t be modified (apparently the DLC is less encrypted so it can be tweaked with more), hosting private game matches with open groups for new players to the game to get their feet wet in safe waters… I wish some games of higher quality got -this- level of support from their fanbases. As much as everyone loves to rag on Aliens: Colonial Marines, that doesn’t change the fact that it clearly clicked for some people.
Now afterwards, I tried one last time to see if I could find players in Aliens: Colonial Marines on PS3. Had the console community dried up? Had the game’s main demographic pulled out? No it hasn’t. As it turns out, I just was looking in the wrong place. As is common with games of this type, Team Deathmatch is the only area you can easily find anyone. I encountered a few players at random in matchmaking for the game’s other, more creative modes, but TDM is where I could actually find full matches. Yes, matches — as in more than just one every so often in a blue moon.
Despite a system that dropped me several times from matchmaking and sometimes even mid-match, I found several active games playing out on PS3 between 4 PM EST till around 12 AM EST. I repeatedly found games for several days afterward, and even played a handful of matches more before writing this up. Not only is Aliens: Colonial Marines still alive, it’s much more active than I’d give it credit for. There are a number of newbies like myself who had only just picked up the game, and several max-rank players. The difference here from Sniper Elite V2 though, is that the gameplay seems much better at evening the playing field.
In Versus mode, one side plays as the infamous Xenomorphs whilst the other plays as the titular Colonial Marines. The asymmetric teams work surprisingly well, bringing to mind almost a Nosgoth-esque style of play. Xenos are melee focused, save for the Spitter class, and each class has a distinct role. As a Soldier, your job is to advance, stab, and use adrenaline to keep pressing forward. Lurkers need to be stealthier, slipping through vents, hiding on ceilings, and pouncing at enemies from above like the Hunter in Left 4 Dead. Spitters provide ranged support and can even be modified to place acid proximity mines.
You get five Marine loadouts, which can use any of the unlocks (save for two Legendary weapons) and upgrades from the game’s campaign mode. As a result, I had almost every gun unlocked, which meant I could get more creative. A shotgun with flame secondary fire, proximity mines, and a submachine gun. A pulse rifle, semi-automatic rifle with a proxy mine launcher, and flame grenades that can insta-kill any Spitters they hit. You get the idea.
What’s really surprising about all this is just how well it works. Xenomorphs have a horribly clunky climbing system when it comes to walls, but navigating upside down is fairly easy. The gunplay favors quick shots and high accuracy due to the speed of the Xenos, and you can find numerous bonus weapons in the field, from flamethrowers to even a working Smartgun.
Xenos can unlock and play as both the Crusher mini-boss and Boiler mini-boss by finding specific locations in the map to awaken them, just like the gang bosses in Batman: Arkham Origins. In the meantime, the game heavily emphasizes using everything in your arsenal. Not just your primary fire, but your alternate fire and your motion tracker. Not just your charge attack, but your dodge move and advanced navigation skills. The game tries so hard to make you think outside of the box that it’s surprisingly refreshing despite the community’s focus on TDM.
It should also be particularly praised how playing like a Xeno Soldier (which bears a striking resemblence to the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation) feels incredibly satisfying. Seeing the flipside of the monster I’m currently evading in Alien: Isolation really puts you in mind of how quickly and easily this thing can kill. Now, it can be killed here because the Marines have military grade weapons; but by being stealthy and using my knowledge of the environment, I could take out marines before they could put me down.
Despite my team getting a number of kill streaks, the same match was a neck and neck race to the finish. Both factions are so good at killing each other, so effective when working as a team even without voice chat, that almost every match is a tense fight to the finish. The game even counts down the time and ups the music like the original Alien film, pressuring you further to pull out a last minute win. And sometimes it would actually happen. One match where I was playing as the Marines was going horribly until the Xenos got sloppy near the end, and we pulled out a victory over them.
It also helps that each map is built almost like a co-op survival mode level, with several choke points, rooms to try and hold out in, and a very specific vibe to each map. Sometimes it looks like a last stand for the marines, sometimes it looks like an offensive into the Xenomorph hive, but the battles play out similarly. Once again, it feels very Nosgoth-like, and it makes me feel a bit of pity that I never got to try the game’s Survivor mode, which even further emphasizes this aspect of the game. It plays out like a mix of Dead Space 2‘s Outbreak mode and Left 4 Dead‘s versus mode, from what I understand, with all the items and auto-turrets from the game’s campaign. Except there are no bots for either side — only humans play, so there’s a genuine challenge to be found.
I feel like I should have something really negative to say but other than the stupid lack of an “any” option for when searching for games, and an inability to modify loadouts mid-match… I don’t have much to say that isn’t bug/polish related. The game is not perfect. It definitely has some problems.
The community is so focused on TDM I highly doubt anyone other than some PC players are using the DLC maps. The only DLC you might still find people playing would be Bug Hunt mode which seems to be universally enjoyed by the remaining fans of the game. Still… I’m just surprised how little critical feedback I have on this game’s competitive multiplayer. Having spent some time with the campaign since acquiring the game, I see no real reason for SEGA to have not cut their losses and just shipped the multiplayer as a downloadable versus game. Then the Obsidian RPG could have existed for the story-focused fans. It wouldn’t have been all that they promised, but it probably would have done better.
What can be learned from this? Well, first of all, don’t be like Gearbox and try to take funding from one game to fund another one entirely, then make a smaller studio or three try to finish your game in roughly seven month’s to a year’s time.You’d think this would be a given, but apparently Gearbox couldn’t figure it out, so this is a warning to any other devs out there. Make the game you promised to make, then if it succeeds, then make the open world grindfest you wanted to make or find a publisher for the latter. Anything other than something vaguely resembling a badly made heist plan.
Second, asymmetry can be your friend if you know how to balance your sides and make them both fun in their own way. I mean, now I wish there was an Alien game where all I did was play a Xenomorph, because this actually really sold me on the concept. Making the various alt-fires for guns swappable and distinctive for each gun added a lot more strategy to your loadout and can seriously impact playstyle (seriously, use the stun darts with your shotgun and you’ll have so much more breathing room). The maps are all built with both factions in mind, so you don’t have Xenos being like ninjas all the time nor do the Marines always have a clear line of fire.
Finally, what we learned is that while it was never worth the sixty dollar asking price it launched with, Aliens: Colonial Marines… I can’t believe I’m saying this… is actually worth your time now. On sale. You’ll want to go with PC if you want better graphics, Bug Hunt modifiers, and a slightly better campaign mode through mods. Find one of the active community groups, see if they work with your timezone, and join up with them. Otherwise, PS3 has enough players at most hours you should be able to find someone.
I did not expect to say this, and I imagine many friends and colleagues will think I have gone off the deep end, but I can only report on what I find. What I found was a competitive multiplayer game I expect to actually pop into my PS3 some nights. It’s no Alien: Isolation, and the damage done to Alien fans has already been done, so they may have already sworn it off entirely. This is definitely a game for only budget minded gamers, those who just can’t get enough of survival horror multiplayer, or who are just as unsettled yet curious as I was, to see if Aliens: Colonial Marines was Still Alive!
While it may be struggling to keep itself together, it fights on with heart thanks to support from those who care for it. If it keeps up its current rate of activity, it might even survive into 2015.
Lessons To Be Learned
Despite however ugly it may be, don’t judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, a game by its lackluster campaign, remaining post-launch bugs, and horrible developer practices. It might still turn out to be worth something after all that mess is cleaned off.
Worth Digging Up?
Yes. I still can’t stop being surprised by that statement but, if you can find it on sale for PS3 or PC, it’s worth a look. Around the $5-15 USD range. Bug Hunt DLC is another $10-15 usually, so bear that in mind if you want to do co-op
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City