How Did Aliens: Colonial Marines Go So Horribly Wrong?

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I've never attempted to dissect a video game before. Yes, I'm an avid gamer and on more than one occasion I've jumped neck-deep into the hype for an upcoming title that I'm excited about. (Beginning on September 17th of this year, don't even bother trying to contact me for at least a month, seeing as how I'll be immersed in Grand Theft Auto V to the point where my fingernails will likely grow into my XBox controller.) But I generally just play and don't really think about the ins and outs of how a game was created, what succeeded, what failed, what behind-the-scenes machinations may have played a role in what ultimately became the final product.

Given that the video game industry, now grandiloquently referred to as "interactive entertainment," is a $70 billion-a-year business and is expected to climb to around $90 billion-a-year by 2017, though, I don't think it's too inside baseball these days to wonder aloud what happened when something goes horribly wrong. When a highly anticipated and oft-delayed game fails on such a spectacular level that it actually leaves not just the fans but the industry itself trying to figure out what the hell happened. When rabid gamers and even the makers of the title itself hint at looking to the legal system for the satisfaction they absolutely didn't get from the game. When it threatens to ruin an entire software company. When it creates an actual, honest-to-God scandal.

Such is the case with Aliens: Colonial Marines.

The Sega and Gearbox Software title dropped on February 12th and since then has been the subject of so much debate,confusion,outrage and downright hostility that it sometimes feels like the fallout over the thing is threatening to break the video game wing of the internet. At issue isn't simply the fact that the game that was delivered to the public is underwhelming at best, it's that the game delivered wasn't what it was supposed to be. It wasn't what the fans were promised during the long lead-up to its release. Put in a way non-gamers can understand: What happened with Aliens: Colonial Marines is what would happen if a year's worth of movie trailers, in theaters and online, hyped something as being directed by J.J. Abrams and when the film was finally released, it was directed by Uwe Boll -- and it looked and felt like it.

To get it out of the way right off the bat: A:CM isn't a terrible game. It's a standard, by-the-numbers first-person-shooter that likely would've been hailed as a real adrenaline rush and possibly even a minor leap forward in the evolution of games of its kind had it been released maybe eight years years ago. The problem, unfortunately, is Moore's Law, which dictates that digital technology increases at an exponential rate -- meaning that a game that looks like it was made eight years ago may as well be Space Invaders when it comes to being a satisfying experience. A:CM has flashes of real imagination and excitement, but they're only flashes -- and the worst part about those flashes is that they provide a brief glimpse at what the game could have been, and there's nothing more frustrating for a video game junkie than that.

Admittedly, the game came into the word with very high expectations because the film it's licensed from isn't simply beloved in the nerd world, it's almost single-handedly the inspiration for the entire first-person-shooter genre. If you can't make a hell of a game out of Aliens -- if you can't make people positively thrilled from start-to-finish at the notion and act of lighting up a room full of aliens with a pulse rifle while trying to keep yourself and your fellow marines from becoming human incubators -- you don't deserve to be part of the industry. Well, guess what? Gearbox didn't make a hell of a game out of Aliens; it made a barely adequate one. Worse, it sent a product that cost millions and was delayed over and over again to market with significant bugs that still needed to be ironed out and an overall look that's, in a word, ugly.

And this wasn't the way it was supposed to be.

At the center of the controversy, fairly or unfairly, is Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software. Pitchford gets to take the considerable heat for the disappointment over the final product because he was the almost giddy voice featured in an 11 minute preview released a year-and-a-half ago that walked the public through a sample of the kind of gameplay they could presumably expect from Aliens: Colonial Marines. At the time, what Gearbox displayed was positively gorgeous. All the eeriness of the film's shadowy environments were rendered in rich detail, the motion onscreen was all flawlessly fluid and the action was thrilling. It was everything a fan of the movie that inspired it or an avid first-person-shooter enthusiast could want, and it seemed to give Gearbox a little leeway in justifying the many delays that had plagued the production, the implication being that, sure the thing was taking a long time, but that's only so they could make it perfect. But considering the look of the game upon its actual release, Pitchford has some explaining to do and he's been inundated with demands for just that. So far, the only thing he's said is that there's a lot to discuss about what happened to A:CM and he has to be very careful what he says for the moment, which could indicate that legal options are being weighed.

Early on, there was debate about how much of a role Gearbox actually played in the development of the game given that there are three other studios listed in the production notes. People who understand the industry inside-out have speculated that Gearbox outsourced production of the game at some point to the second developer credited, Timegate Studios, but the resumes of at least two Timegate developers say that they worked on the game initially and then handed it off to Gearbox. Time will tell who did what and when, although we may never know the full details of how one of the most anticipated video game titles of the last few years turned into a universally panned debacle.

The only possible consolation for disappointed gamers and fans of a potential Aliens shooter franchise is the knowledge that, lousy game or not, their love of the source material has made Aliens: Colonial Marinesa decent success financially for Gearbox and Sega, at least right off the bat. Maybe somebody will get it right for the sequel.

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