As the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines drew near, rumors went around that maybe the game wasn’t everything I had hoped. Everyone was quick to point out that there were no advance reviews, that the launch trailers were a lot of editing with little in the way of gameplay and substance. But this was Gearbox! The guys who brought us Half Life: Blue Shift, Brothers in Arms, Borderlands 1 and 2. They were all great games – these guys know what they’re doing.
Well I forgot about one thing: Duke Nukem Forever.
For those who may not know the whole story of DNF, a quick primer: after the wildly popular Duke Nukem 3D came out back in 1996, it wasn’t long before rumors and then an official announcement of the next game in the series came along. It was going to be a true polygonal 3D game, like what Quake was to Doom. Years past; we saw so many different versions of this game, and every time a new screenshot or trailer surfaced it looked better than ever. But this went on for over a decade, DNF was vaporware: as far as anyone could tell nothing concrete existed, no one outside of developer 3D Realms had seen the game in action, and it seemed that we never would. Then in 2010, 14 years after Duke Nukem Forever was announced, came news that Gearbox had picked up the game and were finishing it up for release within a year. People were excited, as I was excited about Aliens: Colonial Marines.
This was a solid studio that seemed to have the chops needed to complete the game and ship what people had been waiting over a decade for. Randy Pitchford, CEO at Gearbox, claimed that Duke Nukem Forever was “intelligent” and a “worthy successor” to its predecessor. As you probably all know, the game was a huge flop - dated gameplay, dated graphics, at best it was worthy of the bargain bin.
It seemed that those 14 years far from giving the game any kind of polish or unique style had served only to make the game look and feel stale.
Keep reading for more on the downfall of Aliens: Colonial Marines.
With all that in mind, Aliens: Colonial Marines was a mixed bag. Here we had a game that was in development since 2006 allegedly and that remained in Gearbox’s hands the entire time. Or so we thought.
This was why I had hope – while the long development time boded poorly, at least the game hadn’t changed hands multiple times as in the case of DNF. But we were wrong - rumors and tell-all’s surfaced around the internet purporting that the game had been developed in large part by other studios, that it had been cut up and piece meal developed by multiple studios with minimal input from Gearbox. And it showed! Diehard fans, like myself, were disappointed in what we got. What had gone wrong after the excellent previews that had circulated around YouTube?
Quite a lot apparently, but setting aside any speculation on production and direction, there were two issues that were key.
First, there was the issue of the graphics: In all the videos we saw leading up to release, and the interactive demos shown off by the publisher, the game looked gorgeous and cinematic. Most of this was down to the awesome recreated movie sets, and the dark, shadowy environments with superb lighting and use of color.
If we are to believe that those previews we saw were actually real-time rendered gameplay, then it seems that at some point between those demo previews and the final release, Gearbox made the decision to eliminate the full dynamic lighting we all saw and loved and replaced it with something devoid of the cinematic quality seen in the previews.
Environments in the retail version look washed out, and they are missing the detailed lighting and shadows we expected after viewing the demo footage. In a franchise best known for dark visuals, where the Aliens and the sets are easily confused, it was frustrating to find such bland, uninspired visuals.
The second major problem, and the biggest slap in the face, was the game’s pacing. The fun of the previous games - the great sense of panic and fear felt when playing them or watching the movie - is gone from this game, save for a few tense moments early on aboard the Sulaco and later when you revisit Hadley’s Hope. By throwing unintelligent opponents at the player repeatedly, often without pause, the developers effectively eliminated one of the most thrilling aspects of the Aliens franchise.. So much of the Aliens experience is about the tension, the constant worry that something truly dangerous and terrifying could be anywhere. It’s not until that feeling is stripped away that you really notice and miss it.
I think there’s a lesson here for developers – a game can and often should be about more than just mindless shooting, and pushing through to the next level. Sometimes players are looking for more than just another skinner box. Sometimes we want to feel something when we play. Aliens movies and games have focused on more than just action with great success in the past. Part of having a great IP to work with means staying true to the source material, in terms of technical details, that’s a must. But the dramatic details are just as important.
Without the feeling of being helpless prey, how else can we be a part of Aliens’ world?