Colonial Marines and the state of the Aliens franchise

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.

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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.

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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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