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Reviled by critics, mocked by gamers and the focus point of a class-action lawsuit against Gearbox Software and Sega, Aliens: Colonial Marines (A:CM) is a master class in what NOT to do in game development. There is a veritable pot of gold at the end of this tragic game – if you know where to look.
Allegedly seven years in development, A:CM looked like Halo-like blockbuster right up to launch, when early reviews told a very different story. They alluded to buggy gameplay, low rent graphics, laughable dialogue and a disjointed, uninspired plot. The only redeeming qualities? The music, atmosphere and production design.
The early reviews were right. Sega’s marketing – including “real” footage from a demo that didn’t really exist – was very wrong. Metacritic rates A:CM for PC at 44 percent, 48 percent on Xbox 360 and 43 percent on PlayStation 3.
Less is More
Gordon Ramsay is known for tormenting ambitious chefs if they go overboard with their cooking. That’s a lesson the (many) studios behind A:CM should have learned as well.
The campaign lasts from 5 to 8 hours, but it feels much longer. There simply is a ton of padding, repetition, and trickery. As if the developers KNEW they didn’t have enough, so decided to repeat missions, textures, entire levels in order to make the “minimum” 8-hour long campaign of modern first-person shooters.
The result is a boring game. There are exciting moments for sure (already eclipsed from my memory, unfortunately) but they are few and far between. The lasting memories are of endless repetition, going back to the same locations, fighting the same enemy soldiers. Just terrible.
“Less is more” also applies to pricing. Lower prices are equal to “more value.”
There is one very easy way Sega could have dealt with the storm before it even took shape. All they had to do was cut the price to $19.99. The messaging would be as follows: “We screwed up. We can’t in good conscience charge $60 for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Please accept our apologies and enjoy the game for a price we consider fair.”
Putting the two together we end with the following: a campaign that is 4 hours long for a fair price. Just imagine how the press and players alike would have reacted. In my opinion, the outcry would be almost non-existent and Sega would sell at least 4 million copies, not to mention secure better review scores (probably in the 65-70 percent range).
Play to Each Platform’s Strengths
The PC port of A:CM is regarded as the best way to play the game. After a couple massive patches, the lighting is now light years ahead of the aging PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. It’s less buggy, too. Finally, PCs can offer much higher resolution than consoles, which makes the game look considerably sharper.
I played the PS3 version. The frame rate is locked at 30 frames per second (v-sync enabled by default) and it can drop below 30 from time to time. Nothing major though. There are a couple patches out for the PS3 version, but they’re small (unlike the the 8 GB behemoth released for the PC). I didn’t have a lot of issues with the PS3 version, I just hoped it would run better (60 fps would be nice) and have higher-res textures.
Now, the Xbox 360 version is supposed to be terrible. It’s not locked at 30 fps so frame tearing is constant. Performance varies wildly as well, and textures are supposed to be even worse-looking than the PS3 version.
Gearbox and its minions really should have been more careful with the console ports. The game was clearly optimized for PCs and then shoehorned into 7 year-old hardware. If Halo 4 could look stunning on the Xbox 360, A:CM could have easily done the same. Now, if you consider that the Xbox 360 is the most popular SKU due to Xbox Live/online gameplay, Sega’s mistake is even more disheartening.
Screwing Xbox 360 owners was probably a costly mistake for Sega.
Under Promise and Over Deliver
I was taught this concept early in my PR career. A lot of agencies like to promise the world to prospective clients. The idea is to clinch the business first, then worry about delivering later. At Novy, we do the opposite. We don’t promise a thing. We try to be realistic, honest-to-a-fault, then go all-out to come up with the best possible results. We lost bids in the past by sticking to the facts but we’re much happier for it.
Hype has become a way of life for some. Indie or AAA, it’s too easy to succumb to temptation in order to “generate buzz.” Previews and teaser trailers are usually the culprits, with a famous example being Killzone 2’s “target render.” Marketing moguls take over, promise the world to players, then it all crashes down at launch. A:CM is now the poster child of misguided hype and what many see as outright lies before launch.
Game PR needs to be almost journalistic prior to launch. Stick to the facts. Explain what influenced the devs, illustrate with untouched screenshots (no Photoshop allowed!), allow journalists to play beta builds early on. Don’t make checks you can’t cash before the game is even in beta. If you game is an innovative racer, don’t write “innovative racer” in the press release. That’s just an adjective. Explain what you’re trying to do in clear terms. Journalists will decide if it’s innovative or not.
Players appreciate candor. Things would be very different for Sega and Gearbox if the hype was kept in check.
Annoying Characters are Annoying. Get Rid of Them
O’Neal drove me nuts throughout the campaign. He wouldn’t shut up even during combat, enjoyed shooting at walls, and would stay back while I was mangled by Xenomorphs in the next room. Worse than useless: O’Neal was worthless.
An experienced screenwriter would have seen this coming. Sega could then choose to eliminate O’Neal altogether, or get him killed in the first mission. Imagine players’ reactions if that was the case. Instead, they let the story (and characters) fester. The result is a game with characters made out of cardboard – lifeless animatronics who deliver lines as if they’re reading a phonebook.
If you can’t make sure the story is going to be top-notch, have less of it. Use scrolling text, abolish cut-scenes, cut dialogue lines. Minimize your exposure so the damage can be contained. Another way to go is to double down on gameplay so story and dialogue are less of a factor.
Irritating players for 8 hours is NOT the way to go. A:CM makes this mistake way too often, which ruins the whole thing – at least for me.
Reviewers are Not 100 Percent Right All the Time
Some gave A:CM a 2 out of 10. Four out of 10 were very common. A reviewer that shall not be named must have played a different game, because he gave A:CM a 9 out of 10 (wut?)
Most of us are HUGE fans of the Alien IP. Sure, we might belong to different factions (“Alien is the only true Alien movie” / “Aliens kicked ass” / “Alien 3 Director’s Cut is an unsung masterpiece”) but we all love the universe created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. The disappointment with A:CM was massive. It sounds like a #firstworldproblem but reviewers are humans like you and me. They WERE saddened by the end result. So, in my opinion, some of them over-reacted.
A:CM is a 5 out of 10. Deeply flawed, buggy, with terrible character animation, plot, you name it. But it’s also fun from time to time. It oozes atmosphere. The Aliens soundtrack, taken from the movie, simply rocks. I think some of the low scores are more psychological than anything. They go beyond game criticism because of what the IP means to fans.
Boss Fights Should be Exciting, not Painful
The boss fight is the “big finish” of your level. It’s when expectations are re-calculated, when courage takes a hit and you wonder if you’re going to make it. Bosses demand creativity, cunning, and dexterity in order to be beaten.
Now, if your game is buggy… A boss fight can actually end it right then and there. Game over, back to GameFly/GameStop.
The Raven boss fight, when the player finally gets to use the legendary Power Loader to fight Xenomorphs, is broken on the PS3 version. I used to be a tester, so I know what I’m talking about. I was stuck for a solid 2 hours, replaying it over and over again. In my desperation, I decided to look for walkthrough videos on YouTube. Most of them were of the PC version and they certainly didn’t look that hard. It seemed to me that the player was not taking damage from Xenomorphs while operating the Power Loader…
On PS3, soldiers (the lowest class of Xenomorphs) would hit me constantly while I was trying to kill the Raven. Sometimes it would be a one-hit kill. What’s even worse, the boss fight was so buggy that, while dying, the game would prompt me to hit “R3” to melee one of the enemies. Wait a minute – what?? I’m DYING (already dead in fact, just watching my character's body hit the floor) and you want me to press R3? WTF?
And so I spent 2 hours trying to get past this excruciating, buggy, ridiculous boss fight. If it were not for my wife’s encouraging words, I would have quit. Rage quit.
Well, that's what I learned from Aliens: Colonial Marines. How about you?