30 Days Later: Aliens: Colonial Marines
MARINES. We are LEAVING.
by Seth Macy
March 12, 2013
Randy Pitchford once said that there are only two reasons why Gearbox would take on a project: When a game just wouldn't exist without the studio's input, or when they could offer "something new for an existing brand, a unique perspective or a new start." One has to wonder which category Aliens: Colonial Marines falls under.
Nestled between the events at the end of Aliens and the beginning of Alien 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines explores the continuation of the conflict between the Weyland-Yutani corporation's profits-above-all-else quest to weaponize the xenomorphs and the Colonial Marines who are hope simply to survive the struggle. On paper, it seems like a slam-dunk. You control Corporal Winter, one of the Colonial Marines, as his small squad of fellow Marines embarks on a search-and-rescue mission on the U.S.S. Sulaco. After the ship is destroyed by the Weyland-Yutani corporation, the Marines evacuate to the planet LV-426. The game continues on the surface of the planet, with the Marines battling both xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries through the ruins of the Hadley's Hope, the colony that served as the primary setting for Aliens.
We heard rumblings leading up to the release date that perhaps A:CM wasn't the game that had been anticipated. In Daniel Krupa's December preview of the game, he hinted at some of the potential problems with the game, such as the failure to adapt the tension of the movies into the game, and liberties with the design of the xenomorphs. On the IGN boards, the A:CM thread wavers between excited optimism, cautious optimism, and unhappy reactions to the IGN Live Presents playthrough of the game and its revelation that the game was not all gamers expected it to be.
On the day before release, Twitter began to buzz with references to an unspecified game. No name was given, yet there was also no shortage of hints. Some reviewers reminded people that one day before release isn't too late to cancel a pre-order. It was an incredible thing to watch unfold, as it seemed every single game journalist on Twitter was determined to push the very limits of what an embargo allowed.
Being a professional games writer doesn't exclude a person from having high hopes for a game going into a review. IGN's own Tristan Ogilivie, who gave the game a score of 4.5 out of 10, said he was "a little concerned about how the end product would turn out due to the unusually lengthy development time," but that a demo at a preview event at the end of 2012 suggested that the game was on-track. As it turned out, that demo "was evidently not an accurate reflection of the finished game, which was clearly stripped of a substantial amount of the visual gloss apparent in the preview build." Ogilivie felt the game was "a really derivative and uninspired shooter," citing the end boss fight and the abrupt cut-scene/roll credits as the "real exclamation mark on the 'this game is irredeemably bad' verdict."
"The respect that Gearbox insisted they felt toward the movie wasn't apparent anywhere in the actual narrative or 'story,' such as it was," says former IGN editor and current Reviews Editor at Polygon, Arthur Gies, who gave the game a 3 out of 10. Going into the game, Gies said, "My hope going into Colonial Marines was for a functional shooter that showed some modicum of adherence and respect to the canon established in Aliens." Gies is self-described as "obsessed with the Alien franchise" since the first time he saw Aliens. Given that A:CM is a canonical continuation of the story after the end of Aliens, Gies "expected a logical reason to return to LV-426, but outside of that, I just figured they'd dance around whatever they couldn't change. Obviously, that's not what they did."
It wasn't long after the embargo lifted that salacious news began to spread regarding the game's development process. This article from the day of the game's release references forum posts from an alleged former-Gearbox employee warning people not to get their hopes up about the game. "Gearbox isn't even making the game," reported the anonymous poster, "except for the multiplayer. Primary development was outsourced to TimeGate Studios, which has a less than stellar past." The posts were made in May of 2012, nearly a year before the final game shipped. Then came the rumors that Gearbox used some of the money for A:CM to help fund Borderlands 2, as is suggested in this Destructoid piece from Jim Sterling.
The game received a not-unusual Day 1 patch, followed later by another patch on March 7th, fixing bugs that affected the Xbox 360 version of the game. In terms of popularity, the PC version of the game (according to Steam stats) doesn't even crack the top 100 list of games being played.
What does the future hold for Aliens: Colonial Marines? The Wii U version, touted as the "best-looking version" of the game by Pitchford, is said to be on hold indefinitely one minute, slated for release the next. But after the miserable showing by the game on all other platforms, would it even be worth anyone's time to try it on Wii U? Even if the graphics are vastly improved and the gamepad is somehow incorporated into the game in a logical and non-intrusive manner, the game still suffers from an illogical storyline, a disregard for continuity, a cliched story punctuated by terrible dialogue, and a short campaign. It appears that the four DLC add-ons are still on track, but can even a fantastically good add-on save such a troubled game?
TimeGate studios, who Pitchford told IGN worked "probably about 20 or 25 percent of the total time" on A:CM, was recently hit with a round of layoffs. While not an unusual occurrence following the shipping of a completed game, the stench of A:CM still lingers heavy in the air. Once the stigma associated with the game disappears, let's all hope we can get the Aliens game we really want on next-gen hardware.