Colonial Marines and the state of the Aliens franchise

Feature Ryan Lambie 27 Feb 2013 - 06:27

What went wrong with Aliens: Colonial Marines, and what, Ryan wonders, does its critical failure mean for the franchise's future?

It's not easy being a devotee of the Alien franchise. Having suffered through the depressing Alien Vs Predator movies, we eagerly anticipated Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and got all excited over the suggestions that it would take the franchise in a fresh new direction. Sadly, the resulting film wasn't quite the triumphant return to sci-fi we'd hoped from the Alien director, even if it did have some effective moments amid the bickering and deep space kitsch.

Then there was the glimmer of promise offered by Aliens: Colonial Marines. After Sega acquired the license in late 2006, anticipation gradually built over what many gamers had quietly awaiting for a long time: a shooter set on the planet LV-426. As its development wound on, a sparse yet steady stream of images and footage kept interest alive in Colonial Marines, while the news that its story would be official Alien canon, as endorsed by 20th Century Fox, provided further optimism that what we'd end up with would be something more than a half-baked movie tie-in.

As time (and reviews) proved, Colonial Marines was far from the interactive Aliens sequel many of us had hoped. Its stock first-person shooter gameplay and sporadically involving atmosphere was punctuated by some disappointingly amateurish glitches (xenomorphs stranding themselves amid chunks of scenery, or running straight through closed doors did much to deflate the sense of tension), while long periods of gunning down Weyland Yutani soldiers felt suspiciously like padding. 

Critics widely rounded on the game, and as word of Colonial Marines' sub-par gameplay began to circulate, all sorts of dark stories began to emerge. Journalists began to wonder aloud why the finished game looked nothing like the rolling demos put out by Gearbox 12 months earlier. There were rumours that Gearbox had handed off the game's development to another studio, TimeGate, to give themselves more time to work on Borderlands 2.

Yesterday, Kotaku's report appeared to confirm this, with unnamed sources stating that, although numerous assets were produced by Gearbox itself, the bulk of the work was carried out by TimeGate, a developer best known for the shooter Section 8. Having spent almost four years on the backburner, work only really began in earnest in 2010, and even then, the game's production was chaotic; there was no clear plan as to what the game should be about, and the final script still wasn't in place one year later, by which time Sega was growing impatient.

It's also said that those mysterious Weyland Yutani soldiers were an idea handed down by Sega, who'd decided that a Call Of Duty-like atmosphere was something worth pursuing. Other ideas were also introduced and then ditched, including an entire story strand that involved the protection of a scientist. But as the deadline approached, TimeGate - and later Gearbox, who apparently took back the unfinished code to finish it off - shed much of this in order to get the thing out of the door.

As for those fancy-looking demos, which looked so different from the finished product, the story behind those is simple: they were from a build of the game running on a top-end PC, which was capable of producing lighting and particle effects the ageing Xbox 360 and PS3 couldn't hope to replicate. Much like the campaign, these fancy effects and textures had to be pared back just to get the game finished.

"The game feels like it was made in nine months," one of Kotaku's sources said, "and that's because it was." 

Frustratingly, there are certain aspects of Colonial Marines that really don't feel botched at all. The sounds of the guns, and the carefully-replicated locations, from Hadley's Hope to the interior of a certain iconic spacecraft, all hint at a group of people who truly appreciated the Alien franchise, and wanted to create a decent game based on it. Efforts were even made to secure the voice talents of Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen - which isn't necessarily something you'd necessarily expect from a cynical bunch of cash grabbers.

At any rate, the scrappy, apparently unfinished end product still sold remarkably well. In the UK, the game went straight to number one in the retail charts to become the biggest launch of the year up to that point. Remarkably, Colonial Marines even managed to keep from the top spot its sci-fi horror rival, Dead Space 3, which had the benefit of far better reviews.

Colonial Marines fared less impressively in its second week, and dropped to fifth place as the clamour built around the release of Crysis 3 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. That Colonial Marines wasn't utterly sunk by its negative reception is testament, surely, to the enduring power of the Aliens name. Its initial surge of sales suggests that a certain chunk of the gaming community either never pay attention to reviews, or loved the notion of an Aliens-themed game so much that they decided to buy the game regardless.

Certainly, there's still enough nostalgia to be gleaned from roaming Acheron to gloss over some of Colonial Marines' shortcomings - something we pointed out in our own review. But at the same time, it's inarguable that fans of the franchise deserved so much better - and one can only imagine what Obsidian's cancelled Aliens RPG might have been like. 

Most annoyingly of all, Colonial Marines could have represented a new strand for the Alien franchise - one that branched off from the cinematic universe, and followed a group of grunts as they flew around the galaxy on further adventures. With Prometheus taking Alien into new, space adventure territory (Fox having decided that the titular xenomorphs were a spent force), it was Colonial Marines that could have kept alive the ideas introduced in James Cameron's Aliens. But with the game - and, by association, the brand - tainted by critical reaction and stories of its muddled development, Sega may be reluctant to pursue a sequel in the same vein as Colonial Marines

What Sega will do with the Aliens licence next, only time will tell. But with Colonial Marines representing such a missed opportunity, it may take the release of Prometheus 2 - assuming such a film does eventually get the greenlight from Fox - before we see another videogame based on the Alien franchise. And given just how rich and full of possibility its universe is, that's a truly sorry state of affairs.

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Don't forget, The Creative Assembly (makers of the Total War series) are reportedly working on a new game using the Alien IP. There's not been a lot of news about it, other than the developers confirming that they do have a team working on an Alien project, and that it won't be a Total War title, but I think it's likely we'll see it come out regardless of any 'Prometheus II'.

I have completed this game and enjoyed it. If you take it as a single player shooter it is passable and in places quite good fun. But it does feel rushed and somewhat like a poor console port (I played on the PC). A:CM is simply not a patch on 2010's AVP game which had far superior graphics, atmosphere and gameplay.

A:CM's apparent devotion to the Aliens movie with guest actors from the film and accurate locations in the game, is all wasted because the game flies in the face of events of the movies Aliens and Alien 3. Namely that the entire site was NUKED at the end of Aliens and yet appears intact in the movie. Plus one character who left the planet and DIED is now back on the planet and ALIVE in the game with NO real explanation.

All they had to do was leave the dead people DEAD, and make the site radioactive or something and it would have fixed the biggest plotholes. The storyline of the game was for me its biggest weakness, with so many loose ends and unanswered questions. Parts of the story made no sense at all.

I was also annoyed by the lack of progression - with a couple of notable exceptions there wasn't much new here, no new aliens, no further depth into the mythology. If you look at the Aliens canon material (and the comics) there are dozens of different subspecies of the Alien creature (including swimming aliens, flying aliens, king aliens), there's an Alien homeworld, and all kinds of lovely stuff we never got to see in game form. They should have at least TRIED to do some of this.

Primarily this game was strangled by its writers, not its developers. The shoddy graphics would be forgivable if the writers had done a good job with the story and characters. But they didn't.

The ending of the single player mission is deeply unsatisfying. But it does beg for a proper sequel to tidy up the mess and right the wrongs of this game.

I have seldom heard a voice actor so bored and wooden as Michael Biehn in this game. Maybe he knew a little about what was going on behind the scenes.

Doesn't look like it will be the end anytime soon. VGchartz just release the video game sales for the week ending 16th February and they are as followed approx:

xbox 360: 354k
PS3 :100K
PC: 72k

pretty strong sales overall, much higher than Dead Space at the same point.

mistake above, PS3 is actually 199k sales.

I was so excited for this being an Alien fan, and devastated that it got poor reviews (luckily I learnt not to preorder a long time ago!). I really hope something comes along to reinvigorate the franchise as the lore and artwork for the IP is fantastic.

I will probably get this anyway once the price comes down just because I am such a fan of the movies (I actually liked Prometheus) and to be able to fire weapon that sounds just like those in the movie and walk around LV-426 is too good an opportunity to miss :)

unfortunately, i feel it's people like you and me who will go back to watch Prometheus (which fell short of the glory it should have reached), AVP and game tie ins because we love the Alien - despite how inferior the produc tis. shame :(

I dont understand what the problem with this game is. It is a console based shooter, set in the Alien universe. Its made for consoles = no where near as good as top end Pc. Its made for the console market = kids with limited attention spans, running around in corridors shooting things. Thats it.

It was never going to be Half life 2. Even when the new Ps 4 Xbox 720 or whatever comes out, the new systems are still not going to be as good as a top end pc, with the ability to swap your graphics card for a better one as needed, and increase your ram etc as you want.

BUT thats the market that sells, switch on the console, drop the disk in, and start shooting. Thats what people want, and thats what they get. You only have to look at Gears of War, Halo etc to know that.
Dead Space 3 was just more of the same of Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 1.
I have played through and completed Aliens Colonial Marines on my top end Pc. It ran like a nutter, had no bugs that I saw, no problems with frozen Aliens etc. And it was exactly what I expected, a fun shooter, in the dark with Aliens and I enjoyed it for time I played it.
I am currently playing Crysis 3, which is just JAW DROPPING in Direct X 11 with everything maxed out. It looks incredible, but its still a shooter, even if it has stealth included. In March the new Sim City is coming out and so on, so if you want deep games, buy them. If you want shooters, buy them and enjoy them. But there was nothing wrong with this Aliens game, it was as it appeared....after all what else could you do with it anyway??? Since its based on the film Aliens, and running around shooting ALIENS, what else could they put in there?
I dont know....

Don't insult people just because they prefer consoles to PC's. Just because you game on a PC doesn't make you superior to anyone. I do agree with you on Aliens though I brought and completed it on Xbox 360 and found no bugs either. The problem with the game is that is was a little boring mostly due to the lack of music or background noise in some areas making it feel just bland. It's not the worst game in the world nor is it anywhere near the best it was just average. when it drops in price I would recommend playing it but only when it drops to £10-£15

Your sole argument seems to be based on graphics.
I am going to assume you are not an Aliens fan, otherwise you would have a bigger problem with this game than you let on.
The Alien story is now butchered because of this. The game is canon. Video games get the chance to be official canon alongside one of the biggest movie franchises and it blows it.
From a gaming perspective, setting graphics aside, the game is mediocre anyway. Little to no story, unlikable characters, bad A.I., unbalanced multiplayer, etc. There's plenty wrong with this game and if you do not want to seem to acknowledge it.
I don't understand your point about shooters when we know shooters can be more than mindless run-and-gun gameplay.
The statistics lead to believe that the average game player and consumer are an older crowd, even above 25. With that said, society needs to not associate video games solely with children. It indirectly allows video games to be marketed toward children. That's a crutch because it lets slide games that are too easy and repetitive.
This game could have been different, yes. The game could have been better, yes. This game would not have sold had it not been for the Aliens name slapped on it, fact.

Sales have dropped significantly from its release. It will end very soon.

I agree with you on the awful story. I am not sure how I would have fared in the game though if it felt like a chore to get to the next part of the story. Good story + bad gameplay = me just trying to get through it. Bad story + good gameplay = more enjoyable.
However, A:CM falls between these two and has the pleasure of being Bad story + Bad gameplay. Not only was I bored playing this game, but I was also slightly insulted by Gearbox's apparent "devotion and care" of the Alien IP.

Speaking of PC games, the AVP game of 2010 was far superior to A:CM. The earlier game had DX11 support too. I would have thought its more an issue of laziness and eagerness to meet a postponed release date, rather than an eagerness to please console kids.

Ok fair play...I was not really insulting people, not intending to anyway...its just the market / age range its aimed at. The whole Aliens game was going to be slightly predictable whatever they did, because everyone has seen the film Aliens. So its set in the same area, with the same things, doing what was in the films, it was hardly going to be new and fresh.

Besides which the whole thing has been done before two or three times, Aliens vs Predators on Pc etc from a few years back. It was not a bad game. Just not very deep. But then neither was Space Invaders. It was a useful diversion until Crysis 3 came out. You really need to get that and have a look , if you dont have it yet....It takes a lot to impress me these days games wise, but C3 is just fantastic....The level with you wandering through canyons in a half flooded New York, climbing down waterfalls and watching the sun reflect on the water and the ripple light effects etc...play it!

I only heard about this game some months ago and I found the previews intriguing enough that I would have bought this for the PC some day, if word-of-mouth had been promising enough. It's a pity because on paper this seemed like it could have been much fun.

Not intending to be insulting but ignorant nether-less. Many games are targeted towards adults and have appropriate adult ratings.

Very generally speaking, you are correct that the general premise has been done before in 3 other AvP games. However, there are new stories to be told and initial press released stated some of the writers were experienced (Ronald Moore who had worked on BSG reboot and STTNG).

Consoles can be cost effective. The PS2 had games produced for it for many many years and the PS3 is meant to have games produced for it for 10. It's great to have a gaming machine that doesn't need to be updated every few years to cope with increasing memory and graphic card capabilities. That's cost effectiveness for adults and children.

> Its made for the console market = kids with limited attention spans

Is there any actual evidence that a person who is just a pc owner is likely to be older than a console owner or that the attention spans between the two are different.

Or are you simply trying to claim that you are superior due to the fact that you merely own a certain gaming medium?

I know some of the stuff that comes out now as a game is unreal. I dont pay a lot of attention to the consoles as I dont own one. I repair them for people but dont bother much otherwise. The Xbox is just a cut down pc etc. I have no idea what the Ps4 will end up being like, but it should force the technology along another few steps and the pc will up its game to keep pace, which is a good thing for everyone.

Last console I had was a Super Nintendo. How old am I getting? I sold it after a year because the carts were too expensive, and all their was to play on it were platform games, fighting games and driving games. It was not very deep. Some of the stuff was fun, like Super Starwars though. I was also sick of the sight of Mario. Mario Karts, Mario Donkey Kong etc etc. Everything was Mario, Mario, Mario in the promotion.

Fast forward to 2013 and Nintendo still keep churning out predictable Mario based games for the Wii or whatever else they are doing. People must like them because they sell. Xbox etc is heavly into promoting Call of Duty and so on. Nothing wrong with that either.

No I am not trying to claim I am superior. Just that a lot of the way people play games and games themselves is changing. A lot of it is going backwards and regressing, if you stop to think about it a lot.

For example, simple little fun games on the Ipad are just like old 8 bit games from the late 80s / early 90s. So people are going out, buying expensive Ipads and then playing games just like stuff I was playing 25 years ago. I am amazed no one has released stuff like Wizball or Uridium etc on the Ipad, or maybe they have?

So the technology has changed and evolved, but a good game is a good game no matter what its played on. Stuff on the Nintendo Wii is also primitive in look and play, but sells and does well because of the controler gimick.

As for the Pc owner being older...probably. I dont know any kids that have pcs. Its Xbox or Ps3 etc. They just want to drop the disk in and play the game. Its too hard for most people to get to grips with Pc problems if a game wont run. Graphics card issues, speed issues and so on because every pc is different. Twenty years ago Computers were king. Every game shop was full of Pc games, Amiga games etc. Now the pc is relegated to next to nothing in rack space in games shops, compared to Nintendo, Sony and Xbox etc.

Thing is I was guilty of this myself. Amigas...Remember those? I had one. All you had to do to get a game working was put the disk in the drive, let it load and then play it. Just like a console. And Amigas were a massive success. Just like the Xbox / Ps3 of today. Because they are easy to use. Slap a disk in and get playing, shooting etc. I just think a lot of people dont have the time or patience like they used to. You only have to look at todays Tv, or gaming to realise that. We all lead such busy lives.

Everyone I know , especially the younger ones get bored quickly with things and then go off to do something else, hence my limited attention span quote. But what do I know? I have only been gaming since 1982. On everything from a Spectrum, to C64, to Amiga, to Nintendo, to Pc etc.. I work in I.T. I spend all day with Pcs and the internet developing web pages. If you cut me in half I would have Pc written through the middle. I dont think a Pc is a superior gaming medium. Its a NIGHTMARE! But when it works, and works the best, is in deep involving epic games that sprawl and you can play for weeks and weeks. Stuff like Skyrim, Farcry 3 or the new upcoming SimCity game.

It all depends on what works for you, what you like and how dedicated you are to the system you are using. And how easy it is to use has a lot to do with that, hence Apples success with the Ipad. But I find them too limiting. You cant do anything on them without Apples say so, and everything is so locked down and limited. I like to tinker, I like to know how things work and so on. Anyway I have ranted enough...Peace!

Yep it was. The thing is when i heard about Aliens Colonial Marines, I just thought "Whats the Point???"

Its been done, and done a few times, do we need another Aliens game? Well yes if it was superb. Imagine if it had been written with the Cry Engine 3, or written from scratch in Direct X 11. And imagine if it had spanned ALL the Alien films. Each one. Imagine playing a survival Horror game of the first Alien film. Creeping around a vast ship looking for one Alien with crap weapons. Slow and creepy, with everyone from the first film. Like the old 8 bit Alien game from the 80s on Spectrum and C64 but with graphics like Far Cry 3. Then another section based on Aliens. Then something else based on Alien 3 etc etc...it could have been amazing. But it was done quickly for the money and thats pretty obvious now, looking at it.

I love Aliens, but I think it's finaly time to either put the franchise to bed or someone actually pays attention to what the fans want

this is the problem right here. The "fans" all want something different. Because of the massive age gap in the fan community, as well as the varied nature of the films (alien, aliens, alien 3, prometheus), there is really no way to give the fans what they want. Look at prometheus. Many loved the film (myself included), almost as many disliked the film (in some cases, loathed the film). There is no way to please the fanbase at this point (fanbase is very fractured). ACM, on the other hand, was an objective failure.

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