Hands-On: Aliens – Colonial Marines

Recently, I had the chance to play Aliens: Colonial Marines and I’m going to try and write more than one thousand five hundred words about the experience without quoting Aliens once. Will I manage to describe two varieties of multiplayer from the perspective of both alien and marine without once using the words of Hudson or Hicks? Will I convey my thoughts about the small portion of campaign I experienced without inserting a Vasquez line or two? Probably not.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to space but I was invited to LV-426 by Sega recently and hopped onto the blighted Sulaco for a quick visit while I was in the area. It’s foggy out there and my unscientific mind doesn’t know whether to blame that on the atmosphere – 10% argon, 85% nitrogen and 5% neon apparently – or the devious ways of the xenomorphs. They don’t seem particularly cunning as the attack, acting more like fast-zombies with added verticality than packs of predators hordes of hunters, but maybe their genius can be found in their work as architects and scientists. I didn’t manage to find one of the chitinous critters wearing a labcoat or standing over a drafting table, but it seems inconceivable that they haven’t had some work in the design or modification of the areas the poor colonial marines find themselves trapped in. So many nooks, crannies and vents, and so much fog and mist to conceal their approach.

Before letting the assembled scribblers loose on a small portion of the campaign and two flavours of multiplayer, Sega and Gearbox showed a single player section on a big screen. There was a tense opening, then the bastard things started coming out of the walls and, finally, the player had to hold off a constant supply of monsters as an NPC opened a door. Opening doors often takes ages and involves burning through a foot of metal. I think the aliens run around locking them all when no one is looking.

The campaign section that I played followed almost exactly the same beats. A trek across the wind-scorched surface of LV-426 allows some space for conversation as the marines and Synthetic Bishop, no longer leaking semi-skimmed, head toward shelter. The dialogue is effective, gung-ho in a suitably Aliens sort of a way, and the nerves and fear echo louder for the player, who knows exactly what’s waiting inside. Ruin and death.

Unfortunately, when the second beat hits it’s a little too rhythmic and hollow. The player, as the surprisingly not-mute Winter, is given the task of repairing the base’s defences and, motion tracker in hand, he sets out with a gruff companion. The area isn’t large but blocked doors and corridors mean reaching the several locations marked on the HUD isn’t entirely straightforward. The xenomorphs overcomplicate matters as well, I guess.

And that’s the heart of the problem. They’re an annoyance rather than a horrible threat. A shotgun blows them into pieces with a single shot at close range and they’re almost always at close range because their purpose in life is to squat in position, awkwardly waiting for people to arrive, and then to run toward them and claw at their faces. I spent quite a lot of time punching aliens in their phallic faces, which does make them seem like silly little chompers.

The zombie analogy isn’t entirely apt because the aliens can be extremely mobile when given the space, which isn’t the case in the cramped corridors that I blasted my way through, but their acid blood doesn’t seem to burn and they fall into pieces like insects in the hands of an overenthusiastic and inquisitive toddler.

Once all the mini-objectives have been dealt with, it’s back to the control room where the rest of the squad are waiting. They want me to go back into the corridors and fetch a sentry gun. Do they not realise the place is swarming with aliens? I guess they do but, like me, they’re confident that it’s possible to wade through.

The third beat kicks in when the sentry gun is in place. A horde arrives and the room must be defended but it is a very small room and there are only a couple of entry points, so it feels like a test of patience rather than skill. The weapons are enjoyable though and feel much more true to Cameron’s film than the trailers might lead you to believe. It’s just hard not to escape the feeling that the game’s close connections to the franchise (it’s canonical and everything!) actually deserve more than a bughunt.

There’s more. More bughunting, that is. The next task is to head into the more grungy section of the station, which is like an alien nest at this point. The walls are covered in slime and it’s dark and, blimey, they’re a bit more dangerous down there, the xenos, crawling around on the ceiling and whatnot. Once they were all dead, the NPC companion cut a door open and something big and nasty on the other side waved its arms about and went ‘RAARRGGHHH’, or ‘SKTKTKTKTKTKTKT’, and that was it for campaign mode.

Several types of xenomorph will pop in and out of vents and other apertures during the campaign though, that’s clear. And in case it wasn’t clear, Gearbox told us that it’s definitely the case. Even though I’d rather the drones were deadlier and smarter, rather than being relegated to cannon fodder, variety in enemies and locations is precisely what the campaign needs. Both the video runthrough and the playable section had similar patterns and the video in particular didn’t inspire any particular excitement in me. It ends with an NPC opening a door while the player protects him from lots of aliens running through a room in the Sulaco that could be any one of several FPS stalwarts, from a pumping station to a power core. Despite the license and collaboration with Syd Meade, nothing that was shown had a great deal of personality.

Multiplayer is good though. It might actually be very good, although I’d have to play for longer to qualify that and it’ll only stand out if some niggles become less nigglesome and there are more interesting areas to play in. There were two modes on offer: Escape and Extermination. Let’s go with Extermination first since it’s incredibly simple to explain, particularly if you’ve played Aliens versus Predator.

The marine team is tasked with blowing up alien hatcheries by attaching bombs to them and the aliens, naturally, think that’s a bad idea so they go out of their way to eviscerate the marines. Players on both sides respawn almost immediately when killed but need to work together, at least a little, if they want to succeed. Aliens can ‘see’ marines as a heat blob in their vision and that, combined with their ability to climb on any surface, should make them incredibly lethal. But they’re just as vulnerable as in singleplayer so those controlling them must do what they AI cannot – use their strengths.

Attack in packs, lurk in the shadows, pick off stragglers. It’s fun stuff, although the xenos are annoyingly fragile and the slightest wrong move can see them picked off by a stray spray of bullets. There are games where a character can soak up a hundred bullets as long as he sits behind a potted plant every now and then to excrete them, and yet the same chap will die if he falls off a wall higher than his knee. The aliens are the opposite to that guy. They can leap across rooms and fall from ceilings in yawning caverns without mussing their toupees, but the moment they see someone with a gun there’s a chance they’ll explode in fear.

When respawning, alien players can choose a subspecies (I won’t call them classes; they don’t have wizards). In the Escape mode, I found it hard not to notice the similarities to Left 4 Dead’s special infected and that’s partly because the mode is at least partly inspired by Valve’s creation. Four marines must travel through a series of checkpoints, most of which involve passing a ‘gauntlet’ type stand-off as a lift powers up or somebody cuts open a door. The aliens must try to stop them.

There’s a leaping alien that isn’t called a hunter and there’s one that hangs in the background and spits acid. There’s even one that explodes, like a big acid bomb. Hunting the marines is hugely entertaining, but again they’re a bit too tough. In this mode, a dead marine stays dead until the next checkpoint, although when incapacitated they can be revived. They can even be pinned and savaged to finish them off once they’re down and will fire their pistols feebly the whole time.

Because the punishment for death is severe, they’re even harder to kill than in Extermination, barely seeming to notice when a soldier alien is gouging them from behind. That makes the aliens feel expendable but a few playthroughs of the one map shown suggested this isn’t the way to play at all. My team’s greatest victory came after three minutes, whereas the marines are lucky to reach the exit after fifteen, and I think only one alien fell.

We watched them, followed them, knowing that they were expecting constant attacks. At first they were scanning every corner but eventually they were so confused by our refusal to engage that they became panicky and started to rush. We headed them off on a bridge – two fell over the edge and were finished off quickly and the other two ran for it. They didn’t have the firepower to get through the next checkpoint without their friends and we toyed with them for a while before closing in for the kill.

The niggles are mostly about navigation. Too often aliens become stuck on geometry, particularly at the crucial moment of a pouncing attack. The slightest outcropping of rock can bring them to a halt, sliding down thin-air in front of a marine’s pulse rifle like Wile E Coyote hitting the side of a chasm. The health issues do seem unbalanced as well, with marines too strong and aliens too weak, but playing for longer will probably prove me wrong on that point.

Multiplayer should be fine, with more modes yet to be shown and a happy mix of AvP and Left 4 Dead working well already. The campaign is more problematic. The voicework and characterisation is actually impressive but the aliens themselves, which should be far more important than the marines, could be replaced by grizzly bears with suction pads on their paws. I haven’t seen enough yet to know if the locations have been captured all that well, although I felt as if I was being told I was on the set of Aliens rather than being convinced of it. I was never fully convinced by the xenomorphs though and surely they’re a bigger draw than the Sulaco?

Perhaps not. Colonial Marines may be fighting on too many fronts. Shooting down a stream of aliens I was struck by the fact that I’d done it a hundred times before and most of the time the games I was exercising my trigger finger in hadn’t had any license, let alone sanction to make a canonical entry in the franchise. The distinctive biological horror that the xenomorphs engendered is sapped when they become just another enemy and, as they flail between the reticules, their meaning and power swiftly dissipates. At the moment, I feel like this is a game about the marines. They have neat guns and sound anxious but hard as nails at the same time. I quite like them. Maybe it should be called ‘Colonial Marines (also aliens)’.


  1. Brun says:

    atmosphere – 10% argon, 85% nitrogen and 5% neon apparently

    Wait, what? By the time the Sulaco visits LV-246 (in the plot of Aliens), it’s been terraformed enough for the marines to breathe outside.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      And the marines are indeed happy to walk around and breathe in it – that’s the original atmosphere apparently. Found it amusing that the information is actually available.

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    • CJ says:

      Actually, it’s LV-426., not LV-246,

  2. StingingVelvet says:

    On the numbers and easy to kill front: this game is modeled on Aliens, not Alien, as far as I know. Aliens very much treated them as insects that were dangerous in swarms, not as intimidating killers on their own so much.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      Sure – and that’s a problem in the sections shown because they are just targets with nothing unique about them. Even the acid blood is either completely gone or so mild as to go unnoticed and the scale isn’t suitable for the swarming to have an effect.

      • StingingVelvet says:

        I could see that being poorly handled, sure. Can you compare it to the marine campaign in the last AvP game? I enjoyed that, for what it was.

        • Premium User Badge

          Adam Smith says:

          I knew someone would ask about that – I’ve played the first Rebellion one and Monolith’s sequel but not the more recent one. I did play the opening but that doesn’t really help. The biggest problem I saw with the campaign is a lack of personality, apart from in the marines themselves, who I enjoyed.

          Compared to the earlier games, it does feel as if it it’s going for similar pacing but the aliens are a bit of a mess. It’s not bad at building tension but it vanishes when they start leaping around a room and waiting for NPCs to do something while shooting a horde seemed overused even in just two sections. Hopefully there’s more variety elsewhere but it did feel flat.

    • DiamondDog says:

      I take issue with the idea that Aliens changed the potency of the xenomorphs that much. Obviously the first two films treat the aliens differently. But let’s not forget that a bunch of highly trained, well armed marines get their arse kicked in their first encounter and things go downhill from there. At no point are the marines winning by mowing down huge waves of aliens (apart from the deleted scene with the turrets). They aren’t specifically shown to be individually weak or stupid. One of them takes out the air support. They still cut the power.

      I think it’s a bit of leap to go from the xenomorphs in James Cameron’s film to the the stuff we see in games and AVP. The reduced threat of the xenomorphs seems to be a gaming issue that’s just been compounded as the years have gone by. If we had a game that was truly inspired by Aliens you’d spend most of the game barely surviving or running for your life.

      There’s still a tense horror game waiting to be made based on however the hell Newt managed to survive. But that’s usually going to get put aside in favour of shooting lots of things with a load of dudebro marines.

      • buzzmong says:

        Basically, AVP99 did it right then by maintaining the fear factor.

        Xenos in AVP99 were dangerous due to packing a punch and who despite their general weakness to bullets were terrifying as they were so nippy and jumpy that actually shooting them was difficult to do.

        A game where even on the easiest difficulty, you spent your time running for your life for the most part.

        AVP 2 had slow aliens, but they were a litle bit tougher instead while retaining their punch, AVP2010 took it a little bit further in the wrong direction and made them even more resilient but they had weaker attacks.

        • Amun says:

          Exactly! AVP99 had it right from the beginning.

          Those aliens were weak as hell, but you couldn’t run away from them or hide from them and if they got in melee range you were already dead from a tail whip. Any game that allows marines to survive for more than a nanosecond of alien attacks is junk IMO. =/

      • jdanklefsen says:

        What do you mean, “THEY cut the power”? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!

        is something I heard someone say once. Or fifty times.

      • fish99 says:

        I’d actually disagree with you quite vehemently there. IMO Aliens kinda ruined the alien concept, turning them from mysterious*, 7 foot tall*, extremely terrifying, clever and very tough aliens, to dumb, under 6 foot tall, cannon fodder, who just throw themselves endlessly in front of turrets. They also changed the design of the alien head quite a lot, removing the transparent dome.

        For me the Alien universe is the first film, and nothing else. The latter films are just alien-themed movies. TBH the series got significantly worse with every film, and while I do enjoy them all, only the first film is a classic.

        * (Ridley Scott deliberately made sure there weren’t any shots in the first film where you saw the alien move like a human, which is part of the reason why the alien is so damn creepy. He also hired an extremely thin 7 foot tall actor to play the alien.)

        • Subject 706 says:

          Isn’t it somewhat accepted canon that the xenomorphs actually have many subspecies, and that the one from the first movie was a more clever and dangerous variety? Agree otherwise, the first movie was the best, and had the scariest xenomorph.

          • fish99 says:

            That’s kinda what I’m saying, that what is regarded as alien cannon isn’t cannon to me, I only count the first film, and none of the subsequent films, comics or books.

            To answer your point though, the idea is that the alien differs based on the host creature, whereas the aliens in Alien and Aliens all come from the same batch of eggs and all from human hosts, so they should be the same.

        • buzzmong says:

          I’d disagree that the alien in Alien was actually tough. It only appears tough because it was facing unarmed civilians rather than the armed soldiers with military equipment as per the second film. The aliens in both were plenty deadly in close quarters though.

          • fish99 says:

            I dunno, it seemed like it could cling onto the escape pods ignited engine for quite a while. Also Ash seemed to think they were pretty hard to kill.

  3. 1Life0Continues says:

    Oh please let the death screen say “Game over man. GAME OVER!”

    • GameOverMan says:

      I concur.

    • GeneralTso92 says:

      I’d be happy with an endless loop of “THIS IS A BUG HUNT MAN! A BUG HUNT!” during the actual game.

  4. Maxheadroom says:

    This is still a thing? I thought it disappeared a while ago.
    Honestly cant see how this will turn out any different than every other attempt (ie fun but forgettable generic fps).

    They need to make an Aliens game more akin to the 1986 C64 version (both of them). Something other than just shooting aliens in the face

    • StingingVelvet says:

      Shooting aliens in the face is the core of countless hit games though!

  5. strangeloup says:

    “the surprisingly not-mute Winter”

    Is that a stealth William Gibson reference there?

  6. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I hope the acid blood thing is just in the super easy mode or something. It’s too established in the series to ignore. I will absolutely concede that it shouldn’t be as nasty as it is in the films, though; an entire game filled with (essentially) exploding enemies is just…just no.

    Also, didn’t RPS recently mention in passing that Creative Assembly is working on an Aliens title? After XCOM’s success, I’d like to see some hard-hitting journalism directed their way to see what’s up.

    • S Jay says:

      Wasn’t it Warhammer?

    • Treebard says:

      Not sure if anyone will see this comment now, BUT when I tried this at PAX East last March, I specifically asked about the acid blood, and a Gearbox developer told me there’d be an option to turn it on or of…so if you wanted am ore hardcore, full-on Aliens-style experience, you can turn it on.

      I have to assume either a) what Adam was playing had that turned off by default, or b) they took that option out. I’m curious to know which it is.

  7. Totally heterosexual says:

    I thought there was not supposed to be any ladymarines but there is one in the first screenshot. I am confused. This was supposed to be a perfect alpha-male-american-marine-XBOX-nachosanddew-4ever videogame.


    • Brun says:

      I know it’s sarcasm, but given that there were actually ladymarines in the film it would be a bigger outrage if they were omitted.

      • Totally heterosexual says:

        Yeah, that’s the real reason for why im confused. There was originally going to be no lady marines.

        Well im actually glad that now there is.

        • Baines says:

          From my now vague recollection of events, Gearbox admitted that they weren’t going to have playable women. Firestorm erupted as anyone would expect for an announcement of a game based on a movie about strong women not having women. The firestorm eventually subsides as time passes. Gearbox then announces that they’d secretly been working on playable women all along, and simply didn’t want to promise playable women would be present until they were certain that they’d make it in the game.

  8. Juan Carlo says:

    From what you describe, right now this just sounds like straight up L4D clone–with the easily dispatched “acidless” alien hordes standing in for L4D’s zombie hordes.

    I don’t think a L4D clone is a bad thing, actually (I love L4D), but it sounds like the developers are going to have to decide between a more L4D type model for the enemies (where you have hordes of easily dispatched enemies who mostly do minor attrition damage and slow you down, while the real damage is left to the 5 or 6 “special” enemies) or, in lieu of that, beefing up the “grunt” aliens a bit more to make them more of a threat. I agree that if they go full L4D it won’t really feel like a proper aliens game, so I suspect they just have to find the right balance.

    I didn’t like much about AvP2010, but I did think that they got the lethalness of the “grunt” aliens just right in the Marine campaign. They were smart enough to not just run right at you to get mowed down, and big enough that it took a few shots to take them down–so just 2 or 3 of them at once was sometimes enough to constitute a major threat.

    • wererogue says:

      TBH, I think the franchise is crying out for a left 4 dead clone – but it sounds like they’ve cloned the wrong part of it. It ought to be left 4 dead *without* the regular zombies, and with just the special infected mechanics.

      So you’d have a few player-controlled deadly aliens spawning infrequently, trying to find great hiding places to rush out from and wipe the players. Successful marines will be the ones that are best at spotting an ambush.

    • Thermal Ions says:

      I didn’t get the same impression from the article, but Valve doing co-op “L4D3: Aliens” would be awesome.

      Edit: Okay, I see the L4D bit was about the multiplayer, which I hadn’t read initially as it didn’t interest me.

      The more I hear about ACM the more I’m thinking it’s a wait and see. Most of the articles are focussed on the multiplayer, leaving me wondering if Gearbox is even confident enough in the single player. A concern as SP and co-op are the only modes I’d be interested in.

  9. GernauMorat says:

    I would pay to watch “Aliens versus Editor”

  10. Unaco says:

    “…hopped onto the bloated Sulaco…”

    Was how I read that. Thought you were besmirchifying my sister.

  11. Noc says:

    Oddly, every time I hear about this game my first thought is that Natural Selection 2 seems to be a better Aliens game than the actual Aliens games.

  12. mehteh says:

    Its hard to get excited about AAA games as they’re all console focus aka unchallanging, slow, and made for idiots/casuals

    • mouton says:

      I just play on “hard”/”hardest” most games nowadays. “Normal” has been the new “easy” for a long while now.

  13. Neurotic says:

    Just fucking release it already, Jesus Christ, how many years has it been now?

  14. gravity_spoon says:

    “The niggles are mostly about navigation. Too often aliens become stuck on geometry, particularly at the crucial moment of a pouncing attack. The slightest outcropping of rock can bring them to a halt, sliding down thin-air in front of a marine’s pulse rifle like Wile E Coyote hitting the side of a chasm.”
    Typical shoddy GBX work. It was a nuisance in BL1 and now in 2.

  15. Network Crayon says:

    Underpowered aliens might not be so bad after too many matches of being Flying-Tail-whipped in AVP. you could argue that fragility is cause for alien players to be more tactical.

    Two problems with that though, firstly “Awkard geometry” getting in stuck in the architechture is amongst the most frustating thing in video games, secondly anyone who’s played online recently will know how difficult it is to get more than a couple of people working in the same direction.

  16. DarkLord7854 says:

    Can *all* the aliens pounce like in AvP2? Any thoughts on comparing the MP of this one to AvP2?

  17. Paul says:

    So many years, and Gearbox fucks it up. Predictable, but still sad.

    • jimjam says:

      I played AvP2010 and found it; tense, gritty, gory, hard & sometimes frustrating but overall a good game with deadly aliens.
      So far, this game does not to have any of those points. It seems it is closer to ‘space invaders’ in its portrayal of an alien threat.

      P.S. Is it me or does the blood splatter in game look like sprites?

      • dee says:

        Almost every game uses sprites (as in single particles) for blood? Borderlands 2 and cellfactor are the only ones that don’t, that I know of.

        Maybe you thought the screen-splatter blood was hovering in the air. Not a big leap since liquid in human-eyes-that-are-not-actually-the-same-as-a-camera-believe-it-or-not-vidyadevs does not look like liquid on a camera.

  18. The Random One says:

    Was I the only one who thought that of the one thousand five hundred words seven hundred fifty would be SPACE and the rest HULK?

  19. Jason Moyer says:

    This looks great, but I wish someone would make a game that’s more Alien than Aliens. Something like Penumbra/Amnesia with the Alien license.

  20. Baines says:

    I had low expectations when it was announced that Gearbox was making the game. While Borderlands was fun, Gearbox tends to over-promise and under-deliver, while not even seeming to realize that they are under-delivering.

    Then the multiplayer details came out, and the game sounded like a Left 4 Dead clone. On one hand, it could work. On the other hand, it could be the equivalent of [insert licensed brand] Monopoly. The details were sounding a bit too Left 4 Dead-ish, though.

    And now an RPS Hands-On, and yeah, it sounds like the trepidations were warranted. The story sounds like it took the cannon fodder approach to Alien tactics, like you see in the AvP movies where the Aliens are only there as an excuse to get humans and Predators to work together, and to die in large numbers. The multiplayer sounds like it can be fun, but more because it is a competent L4D clone than from being Aliens versus Marines.

    It may be a good game, but it doesn’t really sound like a good Aliens game. (Except maybe the multiplayer, where human players might be able to play the Aliens as an effective group. Even if they have silly design gimmicks like the special ability to explode into a cloud of acid.)

  21. junglist 69 says:

    Actually two words spring to mind… Space Hulk!!!!

  22. DickSocrates says:

    Is it at all scary? For all the action, the second film was still scary and the marines themselves were making a mess of their pants.

    Randy Pitchford probably believes he’s just made the best game ever. His bewildering enthusiasm for Duke Nukem Forever makes me wonder if he isn’t actually cracked and perhaps shouldn’t be the one making the final call on anything. I bet after taking a dump he looks into the bowel and smiles with a tear in his eye like a man looking at his newly born baby. I bet that happens.

    • ZIGS says:

      Thanks for the hearty laugh!

    • greenbananas says:

      “I bet after taking a dump he looks into the bowel…”

      Is it that he’s always sticking his head up his ass, or did you actually mean “bowl” ? ;)

  23. davorschwarz says:

    Wot 2012 game release without bow and arrow? This is doomed to fail. In order not to they need to include Space Marine Archery squad and give those pesky aliens some slingshots.

    Envision this:
    You (an alien) spits a ball of green goo and fire it via sling-shot at unsuspecting Space Marine Archer.

    winner or?

  24. davorschwarz says:

    Or if you do want to take a whole squad of Space Marine Archers – you could empty your bowels (just had to do it to tie in with previous posters) and make a brown-greenish ball and fire it via catapult. Of course not before you can earn the upgrade by eating many marines and having a nap so they can digest properly.

  25. Nemrod says:

    I say give us the whole facility level, a map, a good squad planning tool, deadly alien packs hunting you and you have to plot your course to the end.

    That would make a good “cinematic viceral” game… why don’t they just do this?

    They are so full of sh£t.

  26. Nemrod says:

    And didn’t Hadley’s Hope explode at the end of Aliens?

  27. Iskariot says:

    I would like to see a single player aliens game where I start out with a crew on a ship and just like Ripley I experience them getting picked off one by one. I want the space ship to be huge and incredibly detailed, with lots of cool stuff to see and do. I want a space walking sequence, perhaps get boarded by a military rescue ship, but the military underestimates the threat and fall victim to the alien too etc. etc.
    After an attack by the alien I lose an arm and I discover I am not a human at all, but an android and then I get to use features that only an intelligent machine can do. I download military protocols to my system and I replace my lost arm, I can survive in a vacuum, mask my heat signature, use build in infra red and motion detection etc. etc. I become a hunter instead of the hunted.

    • Dilapinated says:

      It’s an interesting premise with a lot of neat ideas.

      But the question that springs to my mind is why would the military create an android with lots of Cool & Useful Features and then not tell them about any of them?

  28. theaborted says:

    This is all sounding far too AvP (2010) which was one of the biggest let downs in terms of gameplay, in my life.

    After AvP and AvP2, it really let the side down.

    I like the idea they are making it Left4Dead-a-like but the rest of it just sounds done and dusted to me.

  29. theaborted says:

    Oh, and…