There are bad games, bad game launches, and then, there’s Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s reviewing like cancer (no fun, and you want to avoid it), no-one seems to want to own up to it, and it’s already received a pretty hefty bug fix days after launch.
Something’s been on my mind about this heap of a game, and it’s the fact that two years ago, at E3, the footage we were shown in a demo – enthusiastically lead by Randy Pitchford – looked nothing like the pile of drek that has been thrust on gamers in the last week.
Aliens: Colonial Marines, back then, looked sharp, hi-res, and like it was running on a completely different engine. Trailers, too – even gameplay ones – have all looked far sharper than the final product. If you think it’s baffling how a game can get worse over time... well, that’s a fair thing to be baffled about.
But it’s also one of those interesting symptoms of a game that’s gone horribly wrong somewhere way back in the development cycle.
As Polygon reports in its excellent article on the wreck that was THQ’s Homefront, developers sometimes make entire game-builds just for a big show, or a trailer. It happened with Homefront, and it took so much effort to polish and make fantastic looking that it impacted on the development of the game the demo was meant to be promoting. It’s a bizarre case of putting the horse before the cart, and it’s something I suspect has happened in this instance. If you want some visual proof, check it this comparison put together by Video Gamer.
The story-telling in Aliens: Colonial Marines certainly isn’t great (and it certainly should not be considered canon, no matter what Gearbox says), but it would be bearable were the game anywhere near as good looking as it was back in 2011.
Back then, Randy was getting puffed running between his duties on the SEGA booth at E3, and then dashing over to the 2K booth to spruik for the as yet unreleased Duke Nukem Forever, another tragically under-cooked game, and another title that he went to the wall to try and promote as a top tier title. But it must have been a challenge behind the scenes. Gearbox was working not only on those two games, but also Borderlands 2, for two different publishers.
Randy’s a great promoter, and a really fascinating guy to talk to, but I’m beginning to get the idea that he’s possessed of disastrously poor impulse control. He – and therefore Gearbox – just cannot help from trying to do fun things with IPs they think are cool. Duke’s a case in point, and if someone said to you ‘Would you like to work on an Aliens game?’ it sure would be hard to say no.
Yet, on the evidence we’ve seen, Gearbox simply had no business working on more than one or two games at once. It shipped a fantastically polished game in Borderlands 2, so we know the company has the chops.
And yet it also has two ripe stinkers on its hands. Or do they?
It’s hard to tell just who is responsible for A:CM. Randy, only a few days ago, has bravely said it’s nearly all Gearbox work. SEGA, when presented with claims from last year that the game was massively outsourced to developer TimeGate, has denied the rumours. And now, a giant Reddit post uncovered by Rock Paper Shotgun has shifted things back in favour of this game being mostly outsourced, and poorly at that. Long story short, TimeGate is apparently wholly responsible for the campaign, and Gearbox had little choice but to ship the mess delivered to them. Sometimes you just have to take your licks.
A lot of this is un-verified, of course, and at this stage Gearbox seems bravely willing to lay down on the grenade.
It’s interesting to have a peer at the box art for the game, though. There’s no mention at all of any studio other than Gearbox, yet the game opens with the usual credit crawl that announces an alarming swathe of developers. Generally, even if you’ve just worked on a port, you get your name on the box; but not in this case.
Then there’s the little disclaimer at the bottom of the list of bugfixes in the latest patch (which has some hilarious fixes, by the way, like “Spitter's "Acid Spray" now originates from the mouth.” – I do not want to know where it was coming from) that states ‘Support for Aliens: Colonial Marines is handled primarily by SEGA Support’ followed by links to SEGA knowledge bases.
Other Gearbox titles, like Borderlands 2 – which it is rightly proud of – have Gearbox-hosted KBs. If that doesn’t come across like a cry of “It’s not our fault!” I don’t know what does.
You might think that all of this is just the death throes of a game that’s destined to fade into deserved obscurity (or ignominious celebrity, like Daikatana), but wait – there’s more! Velocity Gamer is now talking of a rumoured 8GB patch to fix the game. Fix? That’s pretty much a whole new game! In fact, it could be big enough to include the hi-res content missing from the final version, but which obviously exists for a demo build somewhere.
Whether anything can fix this mess, though, remains to be seen. For now... as we’ve said before, save your wallet, your sanity, and your memory of a couple of great films and existing games, and leave Aliens: Colonial Marines well alone.