“It’s like Left 4 Dead,” said the journo playing beside me to the Sega man.
“Yes,” said Sega.
Yes, I thought. The problem with using Left 4 Dead as a model for your game’s multiplayer is that you inevitably invite comparison with one of the best games of the past ten years. If you don’t do things as well as your model, or if you don’t do things sufficiently differently, then you’re going to find that everyone shrugs it off as a ‘watered down version of X’ or a ‘black and white photocopy of Y’. “What are these games X and Y?” you ask. “They sound incredible.” Please, let’s not dwell on that, I was just trying to make a point.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is like Left 4 Dead in that it pits the Men against the Not-Men (But-Not-Women-Either (the Aliens)). In Escape mode the Men have to get from one end of the map to the other, pressing buttons and opening doors along the way, eventually calling for help. All the while the xenomorphs are out to stop them. In Survivor mode the marines have to hold out in one location for a number of minutes, sealing off doors and setting up turrets to make it harder for the aliens – who spawn faster as time goes on – to get at them. Oh. There is the other mode too. Deathmatch mode. The Kristen Stewart of multiplayer gaming. (There’s also at least one other mode called Extermination, that I didn’t get to taste at this press event.)
Marines are all basically the same class, although you can change their weapons, grenades and perks in the loadout screen between games. Ranking up gives you new guns while the weapon attachments and special abilities can be bought with points earned in play. Xenomorphs have a similar loadout screen, with scary abilities (flurry strike, tail-spinny-jab-thing... mostly different ways of hitting things up close) but are also divided into three main ‘castes’ – to use the language of the humble myrmecologist.
There’s the Hunter – I mean ‘Lurker’ – who can leap on people and start tearing them up. The ‘Spitter’ (sort-of Boomer) who can spit acid at folks from far away. And the ‘Soldier’ (regular Joe Zombie?) who I’m told is pretty good at Being Shot Lots. Although, honestly, I didn’t notice a big difference here. There are two rarer castes that can be ‘awakened’ for a limited time during a match. There’s a big guy that does the job of the Tank by charging in and knocking people around, and another whiteish fella who does the Boomer’s other job by vomiting acid and exploding on people. All the aliens can walk on the walls and ceilings and traverse vents or tight spaces the marines can’t get to.
As a model for multiplayer design, it all makes perfect sense. The movie at the source of all this hoo-hah was mostly about trying to get from A to B without getting Aliened, and such an objective fits into the Left 4 Dead mould pretty well. Except, like I say, models beget comparison. And where Valve’s zombie apocalypse saw hordes of NPC irritants constantly keeping players on their toes and helping the baddie team out, the alien team have no such threat with which to unsettle the marines. Likewise, the nastiness of the Boomer et al was so specialised that it felt like each class had its place. In the matches I played the overwhelming trend was for the xenomorph players to pick the Hunter – I mean ‘Lurker’ – almost all the time, the Spitter only some of the time, and the Soldier class not at all.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming trend for the marines is to shoot everything. I mean EVERYTHING. I get the feeling that the odds are stacked in the marines favour (although that might just be that as a team of vicious extraterrestrials we didn’t work very well together). The aliens are fragile and easily killed. While the soldiers are tougher than a cold Maoam. Sticking together makes them pretty unstoppable, especially when they get their hands on the big guns to be found throughout the map. The portable turret, for example, can be set up outside the alien spawning ground and shred the whole team to bits before they even get out of their slimy xenohole. And the Smart Gun. Jesus. It’s that gun from the movie. It does all the aiming for you and fires approximately 25 million bullets per second. Pick up the Smart Gun as a marine and the Hunter – I mean Lurker – becomes the hunted – shit, I mean lurked. LURKED. I picked up this gun once and I instantly murdered three of the four-strong xeno team in less than thirty seconds. And I’m a peaceable guy. I like aliens.
But I think I’ve figured out the main design difference that makes Colonial Marines that much less inviting than its Valveian inspiration. The big mistake.
None of the aliens smoke.
In the original Left 4 Dead, the Smoker is there to screw with the one thing that keeps the human team alive: their togetherness. He’s the only regular class of zombie who can displace a player. He literally rips them from the rest of team. He’s vulnerable, everyone hates being him, but he’s ludicrously important. The Tank can also displace someone, but to a far lesser extent because of his infrequency on the field. In Colonial Marines, you have a ‘Tank’ xenomorph – but he’s even more infrequent. More importantly, there’s no alien class to substitute the Smoker, one that could forcibly separate (or threaten to separate) the team. There are also no ‘lesser’ enemies to keep the marines twitchy. And as an alien you can’t choose where to spawn – so to get to a group of marines you have to gallop across the map, again and again, further and further after every putdown. It all results in a fairly lop-sided affair. Playing as a marine is fun. Playing as a xeno? Less so.
Of course, we are told that being an Alien is purposefully hard. The idea is to stalk and prowl around the gunmen, to lurch at them when they are vulnerable. To use the environment to creep around. Sadly, the environment is almost as annoying an enemy as these walking shellfish men. I mean, as cool as it is to walk on walls, getting stuck on a simple corner that the map designer never intended you to traverse, or glitchily leaping halfway across the map instead of pouncing on your quarry, isn’t really very Aliens. It might get more fun with time and patience. Getting more practice as a xeno could give a good team a lot more kicks. But how many more kicks? We just don’t know.
Admittedly, I also don’t know how much Gearbox and Sega are pushing the multiplayer component as a selling point to the six-years-in-the-making Aliens: Colonial Marines (longer if you count the abandoned PlayStation 2 game of the same title, left behind by another company). It could be that the single-player or co-op campaign is the focus. But that’s barely relevant. As we all know, the videogame industry is ruled by bromocracy and competitive multiplayer must be analysed in its own sphere. It is the way things have been done for generations. And after a brief analysis of the multiplayer of Aliens: Colonial Marines I can tell you, with a most serious authority, that, yes, it is like Left 4 Dead.
We'll have a full Wot I Think of Aliens later this week.