When Sega announced (way back) in 2006 that it was partnering with independent developer Gearbox Software to make a quality "Aliens" game that would serve as a canon sequel to James Cameron's sci-fi masterpiece, it was seen as a brilliant move and immediately jumped to the most wanted games list of so many players.
Flash forward nearly seven years and the game has -- finally -- arrived on store shelves. It's not what gamers expected at all. Sitting at an unflattering 49 on Metacritic, it begs the question: how could this game be so bad? Gearbox is a talented studio, and always has been. They released two extremely well-made and successful "Half-Life" expansions, three well-made "Brothers in Arms" games, the critically underrated "Samba de Amigo" for the Wii and two extremely tremendously popular "Borderlands" titles. Aside from the journeyman port jobs, like the PC versions of "James Bond: Nightfire" and "Halo: Combat Evolved," and the salvaging of "Duke Nukem Forever," Gearbox has put out quality work title after title. So what happened here?
For any number of reasons, no developer, aside from Monolith Productions and a lone Capcom team, has ever been able to tackle the 20th Century Fox franchise and make a quality game out of it. It shouldn't be that difficult to conceive. Cameron's 1986 title literally set the groundwork for so many modern Hollywood and video game science-fiction tropes. Everything from the aesthetics to the iconic gun sounds to the space marines themselves have been copied time and time again. "Halo: Combat Evolved" owes so much of its bravado and identity to this franchise. "Aliens" is the granddaddy of modern science-fiction, and it would make sense that any developer worth its salt could tackle the property and come up with a game that's at least serviceable, if not tremendously enjoyable.
Capcom was the first publisher to really put out a quality "Aliens" game, even though the Xenomorph shared the scene with another alien baddy, the Predator. The 1994 "Alien vs. Predator" brawler was a tremendous success, and a lot of fun to boot. With the rise of the first-person shooter, it wasn't until, arguably, 2001 when Monolith Productions released "Alien vs. Predator 2" that players finally got that tense feeling of a claustrophobic space marine fighting the wall-crawling Xenomorph in the dark with only a flashlight, pulse rifle and motion tracker. Rebellion developed the original "Alien vs. Predator" shooter in 1999, but it wasn't nearly as good as its sequel.
What did Monolith's game do right that everyone else -- including Gearbox -- do wrong? It treated the universe as its own entity with a basic set of rules. Xenomorphs are dangerous enemies with unique abilities that make them difficult to fight. It focused on an intense crawl through tight corridors and confined spaces where an alien could pop out at any time and kill the player. The motion tracker was not only used as a tool to track the enemies, but also as a constant reminder that death could be just around the corner. The constant pulse sound -- lifted directly from the movie -- only added to the embellished atmosphere.
Gearbox, or whichever studio developed the single-player portion of the game, seemed to completely abandon that premise. Instead, it was replaced by a gung-ho shoot 'em up "Call of Duty" style action fest with some horrifically bad fan-fiction style story contrivances. Even ignoring the bugs and glitches, the downright amateurish feel of the guns, the bad A.I. and awful level design -- things that usually make or break a game -- this is just a bad idea from the start because it missed what the "Alien" franchise is all about.
As mentioned earlier, the Xenomorph is an alien species and enemy unlike any other. Between its unique movements, its animalistic intensity tempered with primal knowledge and its basic anatomy, there's not another video game enemy like it. Xenomorphs are not cannon fodder. Yet players can mow them down in "Colonial Marines" like any basic enemy. The gameplay didn't account for their acid blood, which should add some interesting combat encounters, especially focusing on the need for long-range combat as opposed to close-quarters combat. Even if "Colonial Marines" was a polished game, it would still be nothing more than an average first-person shooter with an "Aliens" skin.
Randy Pitchford made comments that the game underwent several changes before the final product was conceived and ultimately shipped. Perhaps one of those was a more deliberately-paced, slow moving corridor crawler. An "Aliens" FPS should be a somewhat action oriented version of "Dead Space." The original EA horror title was actually the best "Aliens" game that's been released. Gearbox should have played that title, studied it and learned how to combine horror atmosphere with dread and that feeling of hopelessness as aliens crawl all around you, waiting to jump out and strike.
Instead, players are left with not only an unpolished, sub-par, extremely short and downright bad shooter in "Colonial Marines," but quite possibly a game that tarnishes the reputation of the "Alien" franchise even more than both "Alien vs. Predator" movies.