We write novels. Or rather, the writer of this review – who for various reasons must refer to himself in the plural – is still, after two years, in the quite unfathomably long-winded process of writing one. Why are ‘we’ telling you this? Well, because there’s a parallel between writing a first book and developing a game in that, as time passes, the work deteriorates compared to everything else.
In essence, if you’re writing a novel for the first time, by the time you get to chapter 50, you’re going to be magnitudes better at it than when you wrote chapter one. Likewise, Aliens: Colonial Marines, having been in development over a lot of years, put on hold, supposedly cancelled, rescued, shifted developer, and generally passed about like a hot, spiky potato, has had each person or company to get its creative hands on it dedicate themselves optimistically to its rescue.
In a novel you can polish that all up a bit, tweak the words. You could do that. But what you should do is throw the whole lot away and rewrite it from scratch; better, stronger, richer. Games move on, get better, overtake and surpass anything stood still in development hell. To turn Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game whose development began almost a decade ago, into a satisfying proposition for 2013, you’re just going to have to start again.
But starting again costs a lot of money. Like Duke Nukem, Gearbox’s other attempt to save a title past its prime, this is an old game with fusty old values. Spat on, polished, bits of it changed out, but there’s just no getting around it: to produce anything worthy of either the licence or of a 2013 release date, a more destructive, more expensive approach needed to be taken. As it is, it stands testament the lowlights of 2003-2006 game design.
Stuff a condom full of chicken heads and you’ll have a sense of how ugly Aliens: Colonial Marines is. Far away things look almost okay… almost, but close up, textures are of a resolution so low, so muddy, it’s difficult to fathom how the whole thing isn’t running at 90 bajillion frames per second. We don’t expect every game to be a technical marvel, but for a near-premium-priced, triple-A contender we draw a line labelled ‘minimum standard’ and lay it somewhere near Halo: ODST’s jagged, lo-fi feet. This fails to reach that line.
In Aliens: Colonial Marines fit-for-purpose programming is left wanting. NPCs clip through walls, get stuck on bits of scenery or just kind of judder for a while like stuck VHS tapes. Good programming might also have ensured that you can’t be shot by a guy whose bullets can magically travel through walls. There’s just no love here, no due care. As if each person involved has done the bare minumum before ticking each task completed.
Hit the button to bring up your motion tracker and it scrolls up rigidly like that paperclip used in old versions of Microsoft Word. “You look like you’re killing Xenomorphs. Do you need any help?” No thanks. The game’s easy enough already. Even on its absolute hardest difficulty level – a place we later turned to in search of some kind of challenge – we were still treated to that telltale beep every time an enemy was near, whether the motion tracker was ‘on’ or not. Anyone who’s ever had a little brother knows that being boo!’d sends heart to throat. If he said, “I’m hiding behind this corner and I’m about to jump out,” first? No.
The advance warning of enemies not only diminishes, but utterly destroys the tension. You hope that the narrow corridors will eventually give way to something more open and interesting once you’re off the big, industrial spaceships whose repetitive interiors constitute a dull trudge and little more. But they don’t.
There were, in fact, only a few rare occasions, when the shooting was particularly frenetic, when the shotgun was well-loaded and the enemy close, that we were able to forget about Aliens: Colonial Marines’ many shortcomings and enjoy it, leaving us thereafter to lament at its wasted chances.
It’s not all bad. Through the slow-boil of falling standards, sometimes we found ourselves not hating it as much we probably should have and, occasionally, there were glimpses of what Aliens: Colonial Marines could have been, should have been. It’s best at being an intense shooter, but sadly that intensity is all too rare.
As creatives of a sort ourselves, we do have some sympathy for those who had to pick the peanuts from the poo, but that, we’re afraid to say, hasn’t made them any more appetising.