Aliens fun, but flawed experience
As a rule, I try to avoid coverage of games I'm planning on reviewing.
REVIEW: However hard you try to remain objective, other people's opinions, whether positive or negative, will always have some kind of impression on your own, especially if the reviewer is one you respect.
There's also the added risk of subconsciously absorbing a viewpoint or turn of phrase only to unintentionally regurgitate it in your own write-up.
When it comes to plagiarism "I didn't mean to" is no excuse. So, as much as possible I try to steer clear of reading reviews until my own is done and dusted.
Sometimes though, the sheer weight and volume of critical opinion is so forceful it becomes impossible to avoid and I find myself unable to resist taking a sneaky peek out of morbid curiosity.
The media outcry that greeted the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines is one such example.
In 25 years of gaming I don't think I can remember a major release that was so universally and unanimously panned by the critics.
Xbox Achievements called it "shameful and consistently woeful", Machinima slated it as " languid, broken, and laughably frustrating" and one of my favourite games journalists, Destructoid's Jim Sterling was equally scathing, dismissing the game as "bumbling fan fiction... embarrassingly puerile and heartbreaking in its awfulness."
With that kind of reception, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was one of the worst games ever made and I found myself actively avoiding it for days, fully expecting it to be an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed.
It was some surprise then, to find that Aliens: Colonial Marines wasn't quite the turkey of epic proportions the critical mauling had led me to believe. While it certainly couldn't be described as a great game - even "good" would be pushing it - it's not without its redeeming qualities.
Hyped as a canonical sequel to James Cameron's 1986 sci-fi horror classic Aliens (itself one of the greatest movie sequels ever made), the game picks up a few weeks after the events of the film, with a new squad of marines dispatched to investigate and explore the abandoned Sulaco in an attempt to discover what went wrong.
Aliens fans will immediately recognise the iconic environments of LV-426 and Hadley's Hope - sets are authentically recreated and the introductory level involves the discovery of Bishop's dismembered android torso on the deck of the Sulaco, exactly where it was left in the film's climactic scene.
The game's introduction of the alien xenomorph is also initially promising.
Terror and tension slowly builds as the bleeps from your hand-held motion tracker gradually increase in pitch and the creature scuttles around in the darkness before finally attacking.
Unfortunately, things go rapidly downhill from here and it's a shame that this early atmosphere of fear and foreboding never makes a re-appearance for the remainder of the game.
The sense of being stalked by a lethal killing machine soon evaporates when they attack in numbers only to wither in the face of a couple of bullets.
The low-res graphics and jerky animation of the aliens is also more hilarious than horrifying.
As Penny Arcade's review memorably put it: the game "answers the question of what would happen if science fiction's greatest predator had to hold something between its butt cheeks while walking around a dimly lit room".
For a studio-approved script, the story also leaves a lot to be desired, with one-dimensional characters, predictable plot twists and phoned-in voice acting.
Despite its many shortcomings, the game still has its moments.
Taking out entire hives of xenomorphs and exploring infested environments is entertaining, and the multiplayer mode where you play as the alien and take out squads of unsuspecting marines is heaps of fun.
It's also genuinely funny (albeit unintentionally) in a so-bad-it's-good, 80s action flick kind of way, which lends it a certain charm.
With sub-par shooters 10 a penny these days it's difficult to say exactly why reviewers were so furious in their condemnation of this game, but I'd hazard a guess that expectations had a lot to do with it.
In development since 2008, Aliens: Colonial Marines was long-awaited and over-hyped; preview videos contained features that never made it into the final product and it promised far more than it delivered.
The game was delayed, farmed out to stand-in studios when Gearbox couldn't meet agreed deadlines and the finished product left a lot of people feeling cheated.
After such a vicious critical reception, my own expectations couldn't have been lower and I was pleasantly surprised to find it a flawed but fun experience.
If high hopes lead to low review scores (and vice versa), the pre-release hype and hyperbole that surrounds almost every major title these days might actually be doing more harm than good.
Aliens: Colonial Marines. (Xbox360, Playstation 3, PC). Gearbox Software. $89.
- The Nelson Mail