For Gearbox Software, the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines will be bittersweet. Bitter because the critical and commercial success of Borderlands 2 made the studio one of the winners of 2012. Sweet because the critical and commercial success of Borderlands 2 will be more than enough to steel its defences against the barrage of negative criticism aimed at Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I intended to open this article by positing that no studio in history has gone from adulation to desolation so quickly, but this morning I learned that the bulk of the game was probably built by TimeGate Studios. At least, that's the claim of a former Gearbox developer thought to be one of the founders of the Texas-based start-up, Armature Studios. In a post on the TexasAG forum, reported by Eurogamer, the anonymous developer stated that Gearbox had only worked on the multiplayer, directly contradicting Randy Pitchford's prior claim that his studio was responsible for 80 per cent of the entire game.
"A well-decorated shell, and nothing underneath suggests an understanding of why the films are so effective"
Now, this report hasn't been officially confirmed but, frankly, the warning signs that Colonial Marines would be somewhat less than the canonical sequel to James Cameron's Aliens that Gearbox promised have been clearly visible for years. To recap: Sega announced the game in 2006 with an eye on a late 2008 release. As you may have noticed, it is now 2013, and most critics agree that you wouldn't think so from playing the game.
Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead starts his 3 out of 10 review as he means to go on, defining Colonial Marines as, "a game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish, but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago. That's why artist Syd Mead was brought back to expand on his original designs. That's why the music borrows from James Horner's score, by turns eerie and full of martial urgency. That's why the plot - such as it is - is sure to revisit every location, every encounter, that fans will want to relive."
Pandering to fan expectations is one of Colonial Marines' few strengths, but the impact is fleeting - about 30 minutes, by Whitehead's watch. This is a game almost entirely bereft of new ideas, in both its familiar story and characters, and the by-the-numbers shooter lurking underneath the façade. The 11 campaign missions, "involve little more than jogging from point A to point B, grabbing ammo, picking up armour and pressing buttons to open doors along the way.
"There's momentary pleasure in the way the creatures twitch under the sputtering fire of your pulse rifle, but that fleeting throwback to the movie is exhausted before the end of the first level. You may be playing as a Colonial Marine rather than just a space marine, and the monsters might be capital letter Aliens instead of mere aliens, but the framework is not so much set in stone as downright fossilised."
The complaint that Colonial Marines is all surface and precious little substance is found in almost every available review. However, Edge is quite clear that we shouldn't look past the skill evident in making the surface so very, very shiny. In a 5 out of 10 review, the Edge hive-mind concedes that if Colonial Marines is indeed a facsimile of Aliens' look and feel, it is at least a good one.
"A game that understands that its success rests not on innovation or polish, but on how often it can remind us of a movie made 27 years ago"
Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer
"The Aliens aesthetic - still striking after all these years - is reproduced faithfully, going far beyond the improvised battlefield industrialism of the marines, with their rigged shoulder lights and harnessed smart-guns. The deserted Sulaco, now infested with aliens and soon investigated by our new squad of bluff badasses, is just as Cameron left it, lit like a woozy disco of spinning orange hazard lights and echoing with deep, distant alarms. Piercing this anxious bass line is a set of occasional but distinctive noises - the reluctant hum of opening doors, the stutter of pulse rifles, and the whine of motion trackers.
"Sadly, this is just a well-decorated shell, and nothing underneath suggests an understanding of why the films are so effective."
According to Edge, Colonial Marines' "most damaging failure" is its mishandling of the Xenomorphs. Despite what your memories may tell you, James Cameron's Aliens is a film about running away. The marines are on the back-foot from the moment they land, never quite understanding how to get the drop on their enemies. Indeed, that's kind of the point, but Colonial Marines reduces the Xenomorphs to a pack of dimwitted dogs running headlong into ceaseless waves of bullets. In part, this is due to poor animations and AI. In part, it is down to a basic failure to understand the subject matter. "There is no respect for the creature," Edge laments.
Destructoid's Jim Sterling makes a similar point in his typically emphatic style. In a 2.5 out of 10 review, Sterling rages that Gearbox's has the temerity to include its "bumbling fan fiction" in the same conversation as James Cameron's classic film. "It barely deserves a comparison with Battlefield Earth," Sterling says, though he concedes that the campaign makes a strong start, patiently building up to the "impressive" first encounter with a Xenomorph. That first fight is intimidating and satisfying, but in Sterling's view it is also the, "first and last time Colonial Marines ever successfully attempts such a thing."
"After this, the game settles into a formulaic and utterly brainless shooter that tosses out Xenomorphs haphazardly and encourages nothing more involving than the most basic of run-and-gun tactics. Battles are pitifully easy, and the motion tracker is never really needed, since the thin corridors and wide open spaces negate the need to ever locate attackers. The aliens themselves are content to run directly into your bullets, with the occasional random, silly-looking jump manoeuvre to give you the impression they're conscious of danger. In some levels, they'll even stand frozen in place, completely static character models just waiting to be shot."
And static character models aren't the only technical problem to plague Colonial Marines. Sterling, like most critics, highlights a range of bugs and glitches, from jerky, incomplete animations and spasmodic clipping to disappearing character models and the persistent failure of the marines and the Xenopmorphs to find each other in battle. Sterling calls it a "total failure of execution," and that's just the PC version, which is apparently far superior in this regard to its console counterpart.
But there is a light in the darkness, one shining so brightly that it will no doubt raise a few eyebrows among those who doubt the objectivity of game critics. While the vast majority of reviews range from average to unforgivably poor, EGM's Brandon Justice awarded Colonial Marines a 9 out of 10 - one point shy of the highest possible accolade. Indeed, for Justice, Colonial Marines is, "easily the best gaming representation of the franchise to date." Now, the competition isn't exactly fierce, but still.
"From gunplay to co-op-friendly design, the core mechanics are largely spot-on, but more importantly, the various objectives do an incredible job of mixing it up"
Brandon Justice, EGM
"From gunplay to co-op-friendly design, the core mechanics are largely spot-on, but more importantly, the various objectives do an incredible job of mixing it up. You'll run-and-gun, make daring stands against waves of Xenomorphs, rescue your fellow Marines, find yourself forced to run away like a little weenie, and much more. While the action falls a bit short of the blend of first-person shooter and survival-horror I was hoping for, it's all fairly well paced-thanks largely to some excellent level design and solid alien AI."
Reading EGM's review in the context of others, it's impossible to avoid the occasional double-take. Where most critics saw black, Justice saw white, and that sort of blatant contradiction among professional reviewers is difficult to dismiss on the grounds of subjective opinion alone. One thing is certain: Justice doesn't hold back on detailing Colonial Marines' flaws, even as he ladles out the praise.
"The visuals are sub-par in places, but the overall aesthetic makes creeping through the shadowy, blood-soaked wreckage with a group of Marines a real nail-biter. While the core Soldier Xenos should probably figure out that ramming bullets with their face isn't the best strategy, Gearbox's other baddies offer up a great deal of variety. This sets up some dreadful moments of anticipation, fearsome firefights, and even a few harrowing escapes, making Colonial Marines' campaign an intense experience that's sure to appeal to franchise buffs and shooter fans alike.
"Sure, you've got some definite dents in the hull here-such as the occasionally oblivious squad-mate AI, the training-wheel cover system, and the woefully heinous cinematics-but the hits far outweigh the misfires."
Woeful. Heinous. Subpar. Dents in the hull. Hits outweighing misfires. 9 out of 10. Obviously