Game Over, Man: Revisting the Fascinating Fumble of Aliens: Colonial Marines

In a world where we’ve had the best Alien game ever (Alien Isolation), and a decent squad shooter of Aliens (Aliens: Fireteam Elite) the notoriety of Aliens: Colonial Marines has almost been left to rot and fester. Fret ye not though, because I’m here with a shovel, and I’m ready to dig up what’s left from a decade of decay.

To put some perspective on why Aliens: Colonial Marines caused such ire, you have to go back to the promise it once showed. Make no mistake, Colonial Marines did show promise before launch, and not just because developer Gearbox had yet to soil its good (?) name.

Transport yourself back a decade or so. Before Colonial Marines showed its great unwashed behind to the world. Imagine hearing about all this…

It’s a co-op shooter based on Aliens? Made by the seemingly competent co-op shooter creators of Borderlands? That could be good! Hang on, they’ve reeled in futurist artist Syd Mead, who created the design of the Sulaco. To help make things for the game? Awesome news! It’s a canon sequel set after the events of Alien 3, and has writers from the modern Battlestar Galactica show? Whoah! Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn reprising their roles? Umm, not sure how that works, but okay, still pretty cool.

The reworked plot saw nefarious mercenaries employed by the equally nefarious Weyland Yutani sorts breeding xenomorphs abroad the Sulaco in the weeks and months after the events of James Cameron’s Aliens. A battalion of Colonial Marines is sent to investigate the situation, and the ensuing fracas sees the survivors end up trying to survive the ruins of Hadley’s Hope and the infestation of xenomorphs found within them.

Now can you see where the hype might come from? Pitch something like that now and it’d still make Alien fans froth at the mouth with unbridled ecstasy. So what went wrong? Well, a lot really. The key factor being it’d already been five years since the game and that pitch was first revealed, and its release had already been delayed for nearly four. Trouble was very much in paradise at a time when a game in open development for that amount of time would seem like utter madness. In the year leading up to its eventual release, Aliens: Colonial Marines would miss two release dates with the idea being that it needed to come out in the best shape possible, so why rush?

A fair and valid argument if what came out on February 11, 2013, hadn’t turned out to be the most atrocious dollop of horse droppings.

It turned out that Gearbox had got a bit bored of making the game, and decided to be a generous sort and let someone else take the job on while it perfected its other potential masterpieces Borderlands 2 and (double checks notes) Duke Nukem Forever. The finished product compared to the early talk was like that meme with the drawing of a horse where it starts off really good and finishes a scribbly mess. 

The game was a buggy, broken mess. Like, it set a new high bar for what constituted a ‘broken’ big-budget game. It was ‘players filed a lawsuit’ levels of rug-pulling badness. Was it the worst game of all time? Hardly. It’s not even the worst thing Gearbox has been involved in (that would be letting Randy Pitchford perform magic tricks in public), But it has layers and levels to its guff facade that really make it stink.

Just look at the pitch earlier in this article. It’s considered canon at the expense of what happened in Alien 3, which I get because people still haven’t come around to the majesty of that film, but it also fucks with the Aliens story in a really nonsensical way. Remember that Hadley’s Hope and much of LV-426 was smoked by a nuclear explosion? In the world of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the damage is apparently no worse than a few bangers getting chucked on a gas stove. The story that followed, even if you brush that aside, is nonsensical bollocks of such a level that it made Michael Biehn wish he’d left Corporal Hicks to get smashed to bits in the crash on Fury 161.

It’s been pointed out in criticism of the game before, and it applies to Fireteam Elite as well in fairness, but the message of Aliens is utterly lost on Colonial Marines. Cameron’s film features a swaggering slab of boys club hubris that ultimately falls apart when the squad has to tackle the terrifying unknown of the xenomorph threat. The game is a tad too Hoorah-Henry about the situation, and generally slots into that mindset throughout the story. How do fewer Marines mow down even more xenomorphs, including some new variants? No wonder Michael Biehn wished Hicks hadn’t survived that acid splash before the finale of Aliens.

On a technical level, Colonial Marines had so many problems, but the xenomorph AI was especially risible. There are infamous Gifs about it, so you know it’s a problem. What’s worse is that it could have been solved. One of the most galling errors discovered in the game was the discovery of a typographical error by a modder that actually fixed the AI big time. Development is a complex and expansive venture, but for something so small to have such a big impact on the performance of a high-profile game was genuinely shocking for the general gaming universe.

I don’t want all this to be about how terrible Aliens: Colonial Marines is, because it’s been done to death, and I am truly fascinated by the idea of finding its finer points, so I bloody well will. I’ve repeatedly mentioned in articles and podcasts across the web that even the worst game can be somewhat redeemed by a co-op mode because you get joy out of it even if things go horribly downhill for the game as a whole. Aliens: Colonial Marines manages to be a pretty decent co-op shooter if you excuse the lack of logic and finesse. The hilarity of the game’s wrongs is amplified with a friend, and honestly, a lot of the background noise of the game is filtered out this way, leaving a hokey, but playable xeno-shooting romp.

I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for the idea of an alternate retelling of the events of the Alien universe, and when that allows me to walk around a pretty good recreation of Hadley’s Hope and reunite with actual Hicks and Bishop again, it’s definitely better for it. Plus there were some pretty cool xeno variants in there.

Oh, and the power of modding means that if you revisit Aliens: Colonial Marines today (on PC), you might see it in a more favorable light. The Overhaul mod can’t fix everything, but it definitely makes it a lot more palatable. The stain of the game’s history can’t ever be scrubbed off, but it’s at least not as terrible as it once was.

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