Analysis - Aliens, Predators and Inverse Nostalgia

2008: What could have been.

In early 2008, I came across screenshots for a then upcoming game called Aliens: Colonial Marines. In development by Gearbox, creators of Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansion packs for the original Half-Life as well as the Borderlands series, Colonial Marines was to be a  squad-based tactical shooter that promised an authentic recreation of the atmosphere and aesthetic of the sci fi action classic Aliens. To say I was enthused would have been the largest of understatements. In fact, it along with BioShock inspired my Xbox 360 purchase later that year.

But then… things started happening. Delays are common in the video game industry, especially among high budget, high profile titles (Grand Theft Auto V, which was to be released this spring, will not see the light of day until September). One of the key factors contributing to Colonial Marines’ belated release was the announcement of British developer Rebellion’s long-awaited return to the Aliens versus Predator series. So while I was irked by having to wait a little longer for A:CM, I knew I would have another game of a slightly different flavour, and by a developer familiar with the franchise, to tide me over for the time being.

Five years, two 360s and I forget how many delays later, Aliens: Colonial Marines finally saw the light of day this February. I was so accustomed to its seemingly perpetual state of development Hell that a concrete release date was actually shocking. My interest had been slightly diminished because of the removal of any squad-based combat and the simple effect of time, but I would still hear out a few reviews and maybe rent it from Microplay to test the waters.

I didn’t even reach the second stage of my plan. Aliens: Colonial Marines is one of the worst-reviewed mainstream titles in recent history, its 360 port having garnered a measly 48 per cent on Metacritic (still beating out its PS3 and PC counterparts, which stand at 43 and 42 per cent, respectively). My personal experience of the game has been limited to five minutes of actual gameplay at Microplay and some playthrough videos on YouTube, and in the cumulative 40 minutes I saw nothing that made me want to rent the game, let alone buy it. At least not until the price drops to below 10 bucks.

Pathetic as it is to admit, I wasn’t just disappointed in the game’s failure. I was angry. I hadn’t ever been this excited for a game, not even for the two Batman Arkham games. If I can be all fanboyishly melodramatic for a section, it felt like a personal punch in the gut from Sega and Gearbox, who decided to put out a crap, throwaway game rather than let me live with a fantasy of what might have been.

2013: What actually was.


Okay, I’m done.

If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that it’s gotten me to reconsider the very game that contributed to A:CM’s delays in the first game, the 2010 Aliens versus Predator. I’ve had a long, mostly pleasant history with the franchise, from Rebellion’s first stab at the series back in 1999 as well as Monolith’s 2001 sequel (a sequel which, as many of you might know, was adapted by my grade school self as the mystifying fan fiction epic I’ve been dissecting the past year on this blog). My history with the 2010 AvP is shorter, not the happiest and broken in twain, but I’ve recently gone back to it as a kind of rebound from the Colonial Marines disaster and only now do I truly see its qualities.

Is the fact that I’m describing this in relationship terms the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? Yes. But that’s beside the point. Let us move on.

As you might have guessed, I didn’t think too highly of AvP 2010 when I first played it. It was short, to begin with, both in level length and overall campaign time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that different kinds of games mandate different lengths of gametime: first person shooters are better suited to 5-10 hour playthroughs while open world or roleplaying games need to be significantly longer. AvP leaned toward the leaner end of the former. Looking back, it’s still quite short, but given that the single player component was divided into three sections—Alien, Predator and Marine—its brevity might just be a matter of perception.

Secondly, it lacked interaction. Two weeks ago, I elaborated on my love of open world action games, namely the way they allow you to affect the environment and non-playable characters. AvP isn’t an open world game by any means, and so I would have been out of my mind to expect similar interactivity, but aside from a few audio diaries scattered throughout the Marine campaign its level structure is as linear as any Call of Duty game.

And lastly, there really wasn’t any further support from the developer or publisher. The official downloadable content was limited to a measly two map packs (themselves basically compensating for the initial release’s limited multiplayer offering), and whatever extended lifespan the game could have had was stymied by a lack of mod-ability (that is, making the games’ files accessible enough to modify character appearances, weapon sounds, etc). Both AvP1 and 2 had prolific modding communities that kept the two games alive long after they should have expired in the gaming public’s eye, in large part to map and skin development programs released by Rebellion and Monolith, respectively. AvP 2010, on the other hand, managed to tread water for a couple months before slipping beneath the waves of obscurity.

Hmmm. Probably should have included a gore warning.

(I should mention that the first two AvP games were released near the end of that console cycle for the time, when PC games usually see a resurgence and increased support. AvP 2010 was put out while the 360 and PS3 were still at the forefront, which probably contributed to its lack of continued support as console-centric games aren’t the most easily modified.)

In light of all this, 2010 Daniel played AvP for a month, traded it in at the EB from which it had been purchased (and, it being EB, I barely got anything for it), and then didn’t think about it for close to three years. Had it not been for Colonial Marines’ colossal critical failure it probably would have disappeared completely into the recesses of my mind. But my severe disappointment in CM and longing for what it could have been made me almost feverishly desire a decent Alien/Predator game, and to my surprise it was to AvP that I turned. The Centretown Microplay had it for $15, and so, partly out of desperation, Aliens vs. Predator and I began anew.

We all know about nostalgia and its pitfalls, how the present can seem so crappy that, unconsciously, the memories of things that were pretty much “meh” then and now—grade school, your first off-campus residence, Transformers—become some of our fondest. It’s the same concept as “the grass is always greener on the other side,” but with a temporal bent. But when I went back to AvP 2010, I realized that whenever I had thought about the game previously, I had been viewing it through a lens of inverse nostalgia. That is to say, I was having such a crummy time in my personal and scholarly lives at the time of its release my memory had made it worse than it actually was.

To put things in perspective, my 2009-10 school year sucked. Because I was a cheapass, I decided to relocate myself to the basement of a retired Newfoundland jail guard all the way out in Alta Vista (to those not too familiar with Ottawa, it’s the least accessible part of the city). Getting anywhere, be it to school or to anyplace interesting—Alta Vista has nothing worth seeing—was a genuine hassle, I didn’t live close to anybody I knew, and my landlord basically treated me as one of her former prisoners, going so far as to ban me from flushing the toilet after 10PM. Basically, Alta Vista sucks, and if you live there, move as soon as you get the chance.


Bitch went into my room when I wasn’t there. Oh, if I had known about tenant’s rights back then…

Anywho, I’m getting distracted. Basically, I barely had any fun that year, and as a result it tainted stuff that really wasn’t too bad. And Aliens vs. Predator isn’t too bad—in fact, it’s actually pretty damn fun. While the problems I listed above remain, it really does have a lot going for it. The atmosphere is great, capturing the feeling of both Aliens and Predator (and from the perspective of each species, for that matter. It’s immersive in subtle little ways—if you whip around quickly as the Alien, you can see your tail quickly glide out of frame—that help to make the game feel more solid than anything previously in the series. Each species feels different to play in a really tangible way.

And you know what? The story isn’t half bad; it doesn’t have half of the quality of AvP2, which in spite of my preteen attempts at butchering it actually had one of the best plots in the history of the video game medium. All in all, and in spite of its flaws, it’s a really fun game that I recommend any Alien or Predator fan take a stab at. It’s available on Xbox Live Marketplace, Playstation Network and Steam for relatively cheap.

So maybe my love for the game is a desperate means of coping with Aliens: Colonial Marines’ far less than stellar qualities, an act of cognitive reframing. But I don’t think I’m delusional about it. Like Prometheus and Alien³, I recognize its issues and won’t make excuses for them—that this game hasn’t nothing in the way of a modding community is as tragic as gaming gets—but in a Gestalt fashion I can live with it.

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