A bad video game is kind of like an ugly baby. You spend months waiting for it, staring endlessly at blurry pictures and reading page after page of information on it, crafting this wonderful image of it in your head. You might even dream about it, picturing yourself watching the title cards flash by, your fingers tapping the mouse in excitement. Then, review embargos are lifted and, in a bloody torrent of viscera and day one patches, it’s released into the world.
And it looks nothing like what you thought it would be.
We learn to love babies though. A deep seated biological imperative tells us that, no matter how obscene that little mewling creature is, it’s our job to ensure its survival. We must love it.
Why can’t we do the same with videogames?
Like ugly babies, bad videogames are an inevitability, something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. We’ve all been there, whether it was as a fresh-faced teenager handing over his first paycheck for a copy of Final Fantasy X-2, or as an older person whose financial independence lessened (but did not remove) the sting of buying SimCity day one. No matter who you are, buying a crappy videogame sucks.
That doesn’t always stop us from playing them though. And sometimes, when a falling star streaks overhead or a child makes a wish on their birthday, you dig deep enough through the shit of whatever game you’ve been cursed with and find something halfway decent. It might be a character, or a song, or a certain sequence; whatever it is, the importance is that it’s something.
And sometimes, all it takes is that one thing to make us feel a little better about wasting our money on something everybody else hates.
Before we begin, I want to make one statement. Aliens: Colonial Marines is not a good game. To even call it an average game would be to stretch the truth a little. That said, it’s nowhere near the scourge that it’s been likened to. I’m hoping to assuage the fears of those who’ve already purchased it, or to encourage those who, like me, picked it up on sale thinking “How bad can it really be?” I want to pull back the layers of bugs and hilariously poor gameplay decisions to try and find the game that got the developers coming to work every day.
Somebody has to love it though. Like every ugly baby who goes out into an even uglier world, somebody has to look at Aliens: Colonial Marines and see something good in it. Every game has at least one fan, and I want to see what that person sees in a game so hated that most outlets had to resort to comedy in their reviews.
I’m going to make a case for giving Aliens: Colonial Marines a chance.
I’m not going to begrudge the anger of those who paid $50 or $60 for this game on release only to find a muddy and generic mess of a title in their hands. They have every right to be annoyed about the product they received (and hopefully will take Jim Sterling’s desperate entreaty to stop pre-ordering to heart in the future.) But as someone who came to the game late, grabbing it for a paltry $12 on sale, it’s a little bit easier to approach it with an open mind. I had, at most, a burrito from Chipotle on the line.
Going into something with low expectations always makes it easier to be pleasantly surprised, and while my experience with A:CM wasn’t exactly pleasant, it was surprisingly tolerable. At this point, having already received a massive patch, many of the more egregious bugs seem to have been sorted out. Only once did an Alien clip through a door to kill me during a scripted sequence. The shooting felt largely decent, bullets tending to go where I wanted them to go. Grenades lacked punch, but that’s something I’ve gotten used to over the course of this entire generation.
Sometimes, seemingly despite itself, A:CM actually manages to be somewhat engaging. With the eminently recognizable theme of the Marines thudding in the background, it’s hard to not allow yourself to fall into a comfortable pattern blasting away at writhing black forms in claustrophobic hallways. Even the occasional sequences that pit you against generic Weyland-Yutani troopers are largely inoffensive, slipping into the same patterns as countless shooters and serving as a decent way of breaking up the bug hunting that dominates the rest of the game. These levels, at worst, are simply as bland and tasteless as the vast majority of modern corridor FPSes.
Unfortunately the same could not be said for the graphics, which ranged from pathetic to actually painful at times. The time spent in Development Hell shows, as A:CM is only a few rungs above Doom 3 on the ladder of graphical quality. There’s a generous use of darkness that manages to hide most of the subpar textures, with the lighting engine picking up the slack when it’s not clipping shadows through walls. Despite this, there are a few pretty effective setpiece moments, especially the infamous scene in the sewers that’s been the target of countless animated gifs. Yes, it’s kind of stupid, but those first few minutes crawling around in the muck without a gun, sliding past the desiccated husks of aliens crouched down in what looks like prayer, are surprisingly tense if you let them be.
In many ways, that’s the mantra of A:CM: “It’s surprisingly fun if you let it be.” It’s a game that demands that you meet it halfway, ignoring the nonsensical (and downright offensive for fans of the franchise) plot and frankly irresponsible dialogue that seemed to be penned by a drunk fifteen-year-old who had just finished watching The Crow. There are plenty of shoe-horned sequences and plot points, obviously thrown in there because somebody at a meeting somewhere said “Dude, you can’t have an Aliens game without a Power Loader fight or something bursting out of somebody’s chest!”
But then there are some almost inspired moments in the game, like when you’re holed up in a hanger and fighting off a seemingly endless horde of Aliens who quite literally come out of everywhere. Or when you disable the security gates around a research compound and have to watch as a team of “innocent” scientists are overrun by Xenos. It’s not Spec Ops, but there’s a slight sense of culpability present, enough that you might feel a twinge of guilt as they beg for death while stuck to the wall, a nearby dead facehugger a clear sign of their fate.
And while it’s nothing new to the franchise, infiltrating the Weyland-Yutani facility and witnessing their larger scheme first hand gives an unsettling edge to the relentless armies of faceless troopers you’re fighting.
These moments are few and far between though, wedged between long and bland shooting sections, a product of the game’s militaristic focus. It’s no surprise that A:CM wears out its welcome pretty quickly for such a short game, it’s been the fate of the vast majority of the Aliens franchise since it’s early days. There’s a good reason why the best games to use Cameron’s hamfisted critique of military culture have relegated the Colonial Marine sections to only one campaign: shooting Aliens gets boring fast.
You see, to understand A:CM, you really need to understand the storied history of playing Colonial Marines in the Aliens franchise. What seems like ideal fodder for an amazing action videogame (soldiers kill lots of aliens) has been everything but over the years. Early titles played up on the tension of the first film, which was rather quickly thrown out the window in the 90s with titles like Alien 3: THE GUN and Capcom’s hilariously bizarre Aliens vs. Predator 2D brawler.
It was Rebellion’s 1999 release, Aliens versus Predator, that breathed life into the waning franchise. Harkening back to the original Aliens total conversion mod for Doom, it thrust you into the shoes of three different characters: a Colonial Marine, a wall-running Alien, and an enigmatic Predator. While it was lauded for having interesting, yet frustrating, movement mechanics for the Alien and a relatively strong multiplayer mode, the Marine gameplay tended towards the traditional run and gun that we were already getting tired of.
Where it was successful was in creating a sublime sense of tension, the feeling that the pitiful little human marine was actually being hunted by creatures far better suited for it. Monolith’s better received sequel, Aliens versus Predator 2, played out almost exactly the same, with the Marine segments leaning heavily on the ominous beep of the motion tracker and the shadowy hiss of something in the dark. It’s no surprise that Rebellion’s 2010 reboot of Aliens vs. Predator ended up re-treading over much of the same ground.
It’s in this world weary of slowly creeping through poorly maintained hallways that A:CM was being developed, hot on the heels of three games that just…couldn’t….seem to escape the inertia of the first person shooter. Put a gun in the hand of a Colonial Marine and it seemed like the only option was to run through darkened medical bays firing in short controlled bursts. Way Forward and Gearbox attempted to break the mold with the interesting and enjoyable Aliens: Infestation, a 2D Metroidvania style game for the DS that echoed the challenging Alien 3 title for the SNES that was intended as a “prequel tie-in” to A:CM, but it has yet to break 150,000 sales globally, relegating it to unimportance.
Even without the seemingly endless drama of TimeGate, Gearbox, and all other parties involved, it seemed like the development of A:CM was cursed from inception. Despite multiple attempts, it looked like we’d never get a truly good shooter using the Aliens franchise, especially if it doggedly held onto the idea that it needed to emulate the chest-thumping bravado of the first twenty minutes of the film.
I have a hard time blaming A:CM for falling into the traps set by its progenitors. I mean shit, even Ken Levine couldn’t resist the temptation of the “bro” market with Bioshock Infinite, watering down his tightly packed story with pointlessly overwrought shooting segments so that frat boys could high five while exploding faces. If the father of pretentious mainstream videogames couldn’t escape it, what chance did a title whose opening placard features no less than FOUR different studios? The tension and helplessness of the colonists, transplanted onto the marines after their initial contact with the Xenos in the film, doesn’t make for blockbuster AAA sales numbers.
None of this makes what happened with A:CM okay — not by a long shot. The story behind the game’s development is an example of some of the worst aspects of videogame development, the same kind of mismanagement that ruined Duke Nukem Forever. It’s sad and should serve as a warning about how easily a company can obfuscate their development woes with heavily altered demo reels and PR magic. I don’t want to make excuses for those involved, but I do believe that the sense of disappointment and betrayal surrounding A:CM left such a bad taste in people’s mouths that it became hard to separate the game itself from the circumstances of its creation. A baby born of adultery doesn’t deserve your scorn, it’s parents do.
After my six hours with Aliens: Colonial Marines I was left wondering what I was really supposed to hate about it. Sure, it wasn’t much of a looker, nor was it all that revolutionary in any regard, but like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, it was just dancing its little heart out, oblivious to the fucked up family dynamics that put it there.