Aliens: Colonial Marines & TemplarGFX’s ACM Overhaul Mod Review

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I consider myself a big fan of the movie Aliens, I think it’s the best in the series, and it’s easily one of James Cameron’s best films. The scene where Ripley first encounters the Alien Queen has to be one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema, at least in my opinion. While the original Alien is a horror movie, Aliens is an action movie at heart with a touch of horror and is both tense and exciting. James Cameron expanded on the actual Alien species by exposing more of them, examining how they breed, and he put them to war with Colonial Marines in one of the best films of 1986. Then Alien 3 came along in 1992 and fucked everything up. A more direct sequel in video game form was in development for quite some time starting in 2007. Developed by Gearbox Software and published by Sega, Aliens: Colonial Marines is that sequel and was released for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in February, 2013. Honestly, I didn’t follow this game’s development but did play through it once before shortly after it released. The game received a ton of negative reception upon release and I can tell you right now that this is not a very good Aliens game. It should be noted that this is from the same developer that released the dreadful Duke Nuke Nukem Forever. Now I understand Duke was in development hell and went through multiple developers but Gearbox should have never released that game the way it was but that’s a topic for another discussion. Ultimately, Gearbox was responsible for two long awaited titles and really dropped the ball on both. For this review, I played the PC version and even though Colonial Marines is a pretty awful Aliens game, not all hope is lost. I’ll also be taking a look at TemplarGFX’s ACM Overhaul mod which rebalances the gameplay with changes made to the friendly and enemy AI, weapon mechanics, ballistics, and it even includes some visual changes.

There’s actually two campaigns in Colonial Marines, that is if you acquire the Stasis Interrupted DLC. The main campaign takes place seventeen weeks after the events of Aliens. Just prior to the events of the campaign, a group of Marines were dispatched from the Sephora spaceship to the Sulaco spaceship, the very same ship seen in the film, and they were slaughtered by Xenomorphs, or Aliens. You play as Corporal Christopher Winter, a Marine from the Sephora and are sent to the Sulaco only to discover that the Weyland-Yutani corporation is breeding Aliens on the ship for research. Winter and a few other Marines fight their way through Aliens and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries and eventually escape aboard a dropship which lands on planet LV-426. The Marines then take shelter in the Hadley’s Hope colony complex and basically rage war against Weyland-Yutani. The Stasis Interrupted campaign takes place before the events of the main campaign and explores what happened to Corporal Hicks between the films Aliens and Alien 3. You play as three separate characters across four missions and one of the cool things about this campaign is that each character has their own little storyline and they all sort of intertwine with each other. But in the end, both the main campaign and the campaign in Stasis Interrupted are forgettable. All in all, it feels like the developers just wanted to create a rehash of the film but with less excitement, almost no tension, and uninteresting characters. On a somewhat positive note, some of the actors from the film make up part of the voice cast and reprise their roles as their characters in the film including Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks and Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop. And this is a different Bishop than the one seen in the film. But even with the celebrity talent, the voice acting is not very good and Michael Biehn sounds like he’s phoning it in. I thought he did a much better job in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Although, I recently read that he felt the development team lacked passion for the game so maybe that had something to with it if that information is accurate. The storylines try to include dramatic moments but fail to develop any characters to the point of at least interesting so most of the drama falls flat and lacks any emotional impact.

The campaigns play out in missions and there’s four difficulty modes to choose from. When you install the ACM mod, you have the option to install one of several difficulty addons which I believe all affect how the enemies behave. All characters you play as can perform the same functions. They can walk, run, sprint, crouch, jump, aim down sights, perform a melee attack, use a welding torch to cut through metal doors, and activate a shoulder lamp to see in dark areas and the shoulder lamp brightness was increased in the ACM mod. They can also bring up a motion tracker which detects nearby enemies. When you take damage you’ll lose armor if you have any equipped and once your armor is gone, you start losing health. You have three health bars and when one is drained, another starts draining. Health bars that aren’t completely drained will regenerate if you can remain safe for a few seconds. Throughout the environments are medpacks which will restore your health and armor pieces to acquire extra protection. Ammo and some weapons can also be found throughout the environments and sometimes health, armor, and ammo will be dropped by fallen enemies, specifically the Mercenaries. You can technically hold most of the weapons in the game but only switch between three at any given time – your primary weapon, secondary weapon, and sidearm. You can swap them out with others from the weapon radial menu. You also have access to tactical equipment like frag grenades, firebombs, claymore mines, and Sonic Electronic Ball Breakers which can stun enemies. Several weapons need to be unlocked by finding them before they can be used like the Legendary Weapons, which are weapons seen in the film and also count as collectibles. These include Hicks’s Shotgun and Gorman’s and Vasquez’s Pistols among others. Some weapons were only available as DLC or pre-order bonuses like Ripley’s Pulse Rifle, the Plasma Pulse Rifle, sawed-off double barrel shotgun, and S.H.A.R.P. rifle which fires timed explosive projectiles. The standard arsenal includes the iconic pulse rifle, an assault rifle, battle rifle, a submachine gun, pump shotgun, tactical shotgun, and a couple of pistols. There are what I’ll call heavy weapons that can only be used after picking them up and must be dropped if you switch to other weapons. These include the smart gun which tracks and locks onto nearby enemies, the incinerator unit which is a flamethrower, the RPG launcher, and the Remote Sentry which can be picked up and deployed in specific areas throughout the campaigns. The ACM Mod indicates a choice had to be made between the incinerator unit and smart gun and the creator chose the smart gun. This means that wherever the incinerator is normally acquired, it’s replaced with the smart gun. There’s only one incinerator unit in the campaign with the mod installed.

Whether you’re playing through the campaigns or multiplayer, you gain experience by killing enemies, acquiring collectibles, and completing challenges. When you earn enough experience, you’ll rank up. Challenges include minor objectives like killing enemies in a specific way, getting a certain amount of headshots, killing a certain amount of specific enemies, and things like that. Completing challenges rewards you with different customization options for your multiplayer characters. You can customize your Marine’s appearance and the unlockable stuff includes things like tattoos, decals, armor pieces, and even different traits. Traits improve different aspects of your character like being able to sprint without stopping, moving faster while aiming down sights, swap between weapons faster, and several others. If you acquired the Collector’s Edition of the game, you can not only customize your character’s appearance but even choose to play as specific characters from the film like Private Hudson, Private Drake, and Sergeant Apone. You can play as a Xenomorph but only in multiplayer and can customize your Xeno’s appearance as well. Xeno’s come with their own traits like regaining health based on damage dealt, increased Marine detection radius, faster movement speed, and more. I want to make it clear that the only multiplayer mode I was able to play was Bug Hunt and I played it solo so I didn’t dig too deep into the multiplayer portion of the game. Once you reach a new rank, you earn a commendation and commendations can be used to upgrade weapons but some upgrades can only be unlocked after reaching certain ranks. Upgrades include things like sights and scopes, skins, fire modes, attachments, and magazines, and every weapon has varying stats in accuracy, firepower, and rate of fire. Weapon upgrades can only be applied to standard weapons and not DLC or legendary weapons. I should also mention that you can set up multiple weapon loadouts for multiplayer. Unfortunately, whether you upgrade your arsenal or not, the actual gunplay is as generic as it comes. However, I do think the gunplay here is better than what we saw in Duke Nukem Forever but it’s still very generic. You just point and shoot and if you’ve played any other shooter out at the time like any of the Call of Duty games for example, you should feel right at home. The problem is that the vanilla gunplay feels like a copy and paste from every other shooter out at the time. That and none of the weapons seem to have a sense of weight. Outside of the attachments like a grenade, firebomb, or shotgun under-barrels, the rest of the upgrades don’t really seem to matter all that much for the campaigns in my experience, at least not on the Soldier or Hardened difficulty modes. You can definitely get through the campaigns with just the basics. In fact, I played through the original campaign with just the pulse rifle, tactical shotgun, and heavy weapon pickups because I actually forgot you could switch between all the standard weapons at any time. Still, I didn’t have much trouble getting through the campaign. The pistols have infinite ammo but I never felt the need to fall back on them since there’s plenty of ammo lying around the environments. The ACM mod improves the weapon mechanics and ballistics significantly. This in combination with the changes to the enemy AI equates to some weapons actually being better suited for specific situations. Changes were made to damage outputs, recoil, accuracy, and the mod even changes ammo counts. The only real change I didn’t care for was the recoil adjustment for Ripley’s Pulse Rifle. When firing, you may quickly find yourself aiming straight up in the air. It just seems to be a little much. According to the mod’s changelog, many of the mods aspects are still works in progress including the weapon and ballistic rebalancing but what’s here is already pretty great.

Throughout much of the campaigns, you’ll be accompanied by other Marines and the friendly AI ranges from poor to decent. I’ve seen them refuse to shoot at nearby enemies and even run past them. Furthermore, they’ll never actually die unless the story calls for it so they can get swarmed by a bunch of Aliens and then get right back up after you wipe them all out. That’s just one of the reasons as to why the game fails to capture the same sense of tension as the film. On the plus side, they will actually kill enemies every now and again. The ACM mod improves the friendly AI which does help to improve the immersion, if only slightly. They’re better at utilizing cover and are more useful with weapons. They’re weapon damage output was increased but that is balanced out by the changes made to the enemy AI. Obviously the enemies are the Xenomorphs and there are different variations. You’ll primarily fend off Xenomorph Warriors. Eventually you’ll encounter Lurkers which move faster and can leap on you. You’ll also encounter Spitters that can spit acid making them dangerous at long range. These three enemy types can crawl along walls and ceilings, but the Warriors and Lurkers will rush you and slash away at you with their claws if they get close enough. All Aliens leak acid blood when they take damage which only seems to hurt you if you get up close and personal with one. You can walk over a dead one without issue. At one point in the main campaign, you’re stripped of your weapons and have to watch out for Boilers. Most of them are dead, I think, or are just hibernating, but the ones that are alive will wake up if they detect noise. And I think they’re blind because you need to stop moving if you see them walking around and they’ll walk right past you. But if you make noise and they identify the source, they’ll come running to you and explode, dealing heavy damage, usually killing you. This entire segment is a forced stealth sequence that just feels very out of place and the Boilers themselves are not very interesting enemy types. This segment isn’t even challenging, it’s just a test in patience. Every now and then you’ll come across Alien eggs which will hatch Facehuggers and you’ll want to make sure they don’t latch onto your face. The problem with all of these Alien enemy types is that they don’t feel dangerous. Most of them just rush you and never do anything super intelligent. I only seemed to die if I got overwhelmed but most of the time, you should be able to exterminate all Aliens in most encounters without too much trouble. The game likes to alert you when enemies are nearby by making a beeping noise which means you should pull out your motion tracker to see exactly where the enemies are. But this is never really necessary since you can easily predict or see where they’re coming from. And just like Aliens vs. Predator 2010, another game published by Sega, you can once again fend off Aliens that get close to you by using your melee attack and even kill them via melee. Yeah, that’s not good. Humans should not be able to do this. One does not simply smack around a Xenomorph unless you’re in a Power Loader maybe. Depending on the difficulty addon you install, the ACM mod will increase the Alien’s speed and strength and the mod also improves their AI. I installed the Fast Soldiers difficulty addon which is the default and with it installed, they quickly move around the environments, making it more challenging to actually shoot them, and they can get to you and swarm you much faster now. They expose themselves less which I guess you could say means they utilize cover. Their melee damage was increased so they can kill you much quicker and they can move around the environments more freely for more dynamic approaches. Other enemy types you encounter are the Weyland-Yutani mercenaries which seem to come in two forms – the standard mercs that run around and shoot at you and the heavily armored types that wield heavy weapons like smart guns and incinerator units. The encounters with the mercs are much less interesting than the encounters with the Aliens. With mercs, it’s just your typical first-person shooter stuff. Their AI behavior is what you would expect and not very impressive. They’ll run around, take cover, shoot at you, throw grenades, and are just more or less cannon fodder. The ACM mod makes them weaker in general and less bullet-spongey. I’m fine with this since the Aliens should be the real highlight anyway. Now there are a few boss-type enemies, two of which are new Xenomorph types or species. The Raven is one of them and the actual fight against it is the only real cool thing about it. You get in a Power Loader and smack it around like when Ripley fought the Queen in the film. Another new type introduced is the Crusher and I’m conflicted about its design in general. It just runs around and charges at you with its massive head that’s apparently bulletproof. It can take quite a bit of damage before going down and to me, it just doesn’t seem like a very threatening creature. Why is an Alien charging at me like a bull? Is this supposed to be frightening? What creature did a Facehugger impregnate to create this? Is it the result of a Xenomorph evolving over time? It is a variation of the Praetorian? What is its place in the Xenomorph hierarchy? None of this is answered in-game. It just appears without any context. So does the Raven for that matter. Another boss is the Alien Queen. In both campaigns you’ll need to avoid her since you can’t bring her down using regular firepower. In the main campaign, you literally just have to stay out of her way until it’s time to proceed to your next objective. You can just hide in one of the massive containers in the environment and the campaign ends with you launching her out of a ship but you don’t actually get to fight her. The Queen representation is very underwhelming here.

Now even though the gameplay is generic as shit, one of the best aspects of Colonial Marines is the environments. Ranging from the detail to the actual locations, the environments are on point and are a good representation of what’s shown in the film, and even the first film, Alien. You’ll traverse through the Sulaco, LV-426, the Derelict Spacecraft, and facilities set up by Weyland-Yutani. There’s a lot of little nods to the films that are actually accurate in their representation. You can find Bishop’s legs lying on the ground in the Sulaco from when the Queen ripped him in half. When you first arrive on LV-426, the atmosphere of the planet and rock formations on the surface resemble what was seen in the film. Hadley’s Hope contains the lab of Facehuggers and the sentry guns left behind by the Marines and Ripley in the film, including the one with only ten rounds left. You can find Hudson’s dead cocooned body with a hole in his chest in the sewers below Hadley’s Hope. And the Space Jockey can be seen in all its glory within the Derelict Spacecraft. In addition to the Legendary Weapons, which are just weapons used by the characters in the film, are other collectibles like Audio Logs, some of which contain recordings from characters in the film like Newt for example. You can even collect Dog Tags lying around. The environments are well represented and are linear for the most part. Most objectives have you going from point A to B and sometimes you’ll have to defend an area before you can proceed. Outdoor areas usually offer plenty of room to navigate, there may be explosive barrels or objects scattered around which can be blown up to kill nearby enemies, and the game as a whole is pretty action packed. If you know people willing to play this, you can complete the campaigns cooperatively which is pretty cool.

In addition to the campaigns is the Firing Range and multiplayer. The Firing Range was initially available only in the Collector’s Edition and allows players to test fire their weapons aboard the Sephora. You can participate in several modes which include Accuracy, Overwhelm, Speed, and Gallery to test your shooting skills and set high scores. The only multiplayer mode I was able to try was Bug Hunt which is really designed for cooperative play but it can be enjoyed solo. You choose your difficulty, one of a handful of maps, and then you’re thrown in where you can choose from one of your custom loadouts. The idea here is to survive thirty waves of enemies which include Aliens and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. You acquire money by killing enemies and you’ll need the money to access more of the map and even buy resources like ammo, health, and armor. Everything costs money. Whether it’s opening doors, activating sentry guns, or closing windows, there’s a fee to do everything. With each new wave of enemies comes an increased enemy threat and you can reduce the threat level by arming suppressors which, of course, cost money to even activate. If you die, you can buy back in if you have enough money. You normally start in a small area with doors blocking your access to others but when you earn enough money to open these doors, the maps open up significantly. You can set up sentry guns to defend areas but you’ll never be completely safe, at least not in the early waves and the sentry guns will eventually need their ammo refilled and/or they may need to be repaired, both of which cost money. I never did complete all thirty waves by myself but the mode is decent for what it is and it’s apparent from the get-go that it’s designed for cooperative play so it’s probably more enjoyable if you have some buddies to play with. And by enjoyable, I mean enjoyable within the limits of the game because the gameplay is exactly like it is in the campaigns except this time you’re just contending with waves of enemies.

Aliens: Colonial Marines perfectly captures the Aliens aesthetic but in terms of raw graphics, it really doesn’t look all that impressive, at least compared to other games released at that time and even earlier. The texture work is good for the most part but when you first start a mission you may be exposed to a blurry mess since the textures may take a few seconds to load. In the outdoor areas, objects in the distance will frequently pop-in, I saw some texture flickering at one point, and character animations can be pretty stiff. Their facial animations during cut scenes are almost non-existant. In fact, some of the animations in this game are a little odd. Many times when a Xenomorph rushes you, it looks as if they’re trying to hug you which makes them appear more comical than frightening. If you install either of the Faster soldier difficulty addons with the ACM mod, the animations for the Aliens just appears as if they’re moving in fast-forward and doesn’t really look right. On the plus side, I think the lighting is good and there are some neat details in the game as a whole that are pretty cool. Aliens can easily blend in with their resin webbing covering areas. A character’s clothing and skin will show visible dirt, debris, and blood and Aliens will show visible acid on their bodies after taking damage. Aliens will sometimes explode from your gunfire or explosive depending on the weapon. You can blow the heads off mercenaries with a well-placed shot and seeing human enemies explode into gibs is awesome. The ACM mod enhances many of the visual effects including higher quality sharpening for distant textures, improvements to lighting models, and shooting Aliens results in better acid splashes. Although, some of the acid splashes look a little weird but you get used to it. The mod’s download page indicates a known issue with particle effects going crazy with too many particles so that may be the reason. In terms of the audio, the music is actually really good. The soundtrack has this orchestral cinematic-sounding score that works really well and I’m quite certain I heard some tunes that use similar motifs heard in the film’s score. Now the weapons fire sound effects could be better. Many of the weapons here that are also seen in the film sound accurate to their film counterparts but like every other weapon in this game, they could sound a bit louder. The weapons fire sound effects just lack a punch, making them all sound somewhat weak. The Aliens sound accurate to the film with their hisses, screeches, and squeals as does the motion tracker with its pings and beeps. Honestly, I would say the entire audiovisual presentation is a good reflection of the film. On the technical side, the game is a mess. The frame rate will often stutter and it seems to happen whenever the next objective becomes available or something has to load. The frame rate even dipped heavily in one area, forcing me to restart the game. The Steam version also has the annoying problem of launching itself immediately after exiting the game. During my time with the ACM mod, the game crashed quite often. In fact, some of these crashes were isolated to specific spots, forcing me to restart missions because I couldn’t progress. It was worse in Stasis Interrupted and it got to the point where it just became unplayable so, unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to experience the DLC campaign with the mod. In addition to these problems, Aliens would frequently get stuck in the environments.

I can say I had more fun with Aliens: Colonial Marines than I did with Duke Nukem Forever but this still could have been a lot better. It’s an action game but not an exciting one. I never felt a sense of tension or excitement at any point during my playthrough. I was just kind of going through the motions, killing Xenomorphs one by one, waiting for something interesting to happen. All attempts to “wow” the player are artificial and as a shooter, there’s really nothing about this game that makes it stand out. The Alien behavior feels like any other enemy in any other game. They just kind of rush you, they’re predictable, and more importantly, they don’t feel threatening. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a terrible representation of the film and it’s just a very average shooter at best. Besides the fact that the storyline is forgettable and the gameplay is lackluster, it could also have used some more time in the oven because some of the technical issues make it feel as if it was rushed out the door. I have no idea if it was but I wouldn’t be surprised. But, hey, it looks and sounds like the movie so I guess that was good enough for Gearbox.

In conclusion, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a very generic shooter and I think what makes this game as bad as it is, is the fact that it’s based on one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. It looks and sounds like Aliens but it doesn’t feel like Aliens. The Marine campaign in the Aliens versus Predator 1999 game feels more like an Aliens game than this does. I cannot recommend this to anyone unless you’re buying it for PC and that’s only because of mods. The ACM Overhaul mod does wonders to make the game more interesting, exciting, and tense. But even if you were to buy this for PC just for mods, I would still only recommend you get it when a sale comes along. The storylines are forgettable, the game is buggy, and the gameplay doesn’t do the Alien franchise justice. The ACM mod rectifies many of the game’s issues but it doesn’t salvage everything and I encountered some significant bugs with it. Nevertheless, it’s a great mod that’s worth checking out. Even if you strip away the Aliens coat of paint, this is just a very average shooter that fails to impress.

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