Home Editorial Don’t get duped: How to tell a game’s gonna be bad

Well, it happened again. The internet fell for it.

Somehow, some way, millions of eager gamers had come to the unfortunate, misguided conclusion that Aliens: Colonial Marines was going to be a good game.*

Sure – I personally knew better – but I don’t blame people who got their hopes up. They’ve been dreaming of a proper Aliens-universe title since… well, since the last one fucked up. And in their desperation for xenomorph-fueled action, they bought into a lie: hook, line, and sucker.

But if everyone thought Aliens: Colonial Marines was gonna be so good, how could I have thought otherwise? It’s simple: the game showed all the tell-tale signs it’s going to be shovelware.

1. “Contains actual in-game footage…. somewhere.”

The biggest and most obvious sign that a game is going to be an unsalvageable pile of digital dung is that you can’t find a single ounce of solid gameplay footage. Sure, there will be trailers, and lots of them. But instead of showcasing live-captured footage and clearly demonstrated game mechanics, they’ll mainly be composed of CGI cinematics, in-game cut scenes, and sales-y, overly promotional hype like “THE WAIT… IS OVER!” or “VENGEANCE… IS SERVED!” or “THE NEXT INSTALLMENT IN A SERIES YOU USED TO CARE ABOUT!”

Yes, it’s true that almost all games debut with a hype-fueled reveal trailer – Starcraft 2’s incredibly masturbatory original teaser comes to mind. But the difference between a solid AAA title and the game you’ll be using as a coaster in two months is that every trailer for the latter game will be a vapid, seizure-inducing CGI-fest. I mean, just look at the launch trailer for Aliens: Colonial Marines.

  • 20% of the video is ALL CAPS TITLES.
  • 40% of the video is pre-rendered CGI cinematics
  • 30% of the video is scripted in-game cinematics
  • 8% of the video is possibly (?) gameplay
  • 2% of the video is literally a black screen

Even when gameplay is shown, it’s cut so quickly and framed so poorly that it’s almost impossible to tell it’s in-game footage. There’s no health, ammo meters, or any other indication that what you’re watching is what’s really in the game… and that’s the point. The videos are specifically edited so even if you do see something disappointing (and you will), your brain won’t instantly attribute it to bad gameplay, so you’ll remember the video as “pretty good overall.”

By contrast, games that end up actually being good do eventually release solid gameplay footage.

2. “The press is here! Quick, hide the smart people!”

Even when a big-name title is slated for the bargain bin, interviews with videogame journalists** still have to happen. Both exclusive features and on-the-fly media coverage at major gaming events are too big of a marketing opportunity to pass up. So when Joystiq, Top Tier Tactics, or Kotaku come knocking, who gets sent out to answer questions on-air?

Well, it sure as hell  isn’t gonna be game developers or designers for a simple reason: they’re not good at spewing bullshit. We’re talking about coders and software engineers here, people who make money by getting testable results, not lying their asses off (at least not usually). If you sent a code monkey out in front of a camera, who knows what he might say? The guy might tell a reporter that functional A.I. is still a long way out, or that hitboxes aren’t where they need to be. He could end up drooling on a booth babe or something. It would be a goddamn disaster.

So instead, companies in charge of a train wreck will entertain interviews with public relations reps, creative directors, and marginal stakeholders like voice actors and music composers. You know, people who make a living by lying directly to their coworkers every day. Instead of telling you about the fact that their game doesn’t have gravity implemented quite yet, they’ll wax on about how much it means to them to be working on this project. Or they’ll talk about concept art even though the game’s three weeks from launch. Or they’ll just lie right to the audience. After all, you won’t know it’s bullshit until after they have your sixty bucks.

3. “This game is great – you kill everything in one hit!”

I know that in the post-Wii, post-mobile gaming world, the median bar for competitive skill has been lowered. But even accounting for grandma’s occasional Xbox romp, solid videogames tend to have some kind of challenge to them. That’s because they’re so addictive, gamers will be playing them over and over for years… there has to be something to aim for, whether it’s high scores, hidden collectibles, or brutal hardcore difficulty settings.

It should come as no surprise that bad games are generally easy. The developers (the practical, nerdy types) know that nobody’s gonna be playing through the campaign twice, so why bother making it a challenge? Instead, their bosses have them focus on making the game seem fun by giving the player overpowered, easy-mode tools for mowing through the campaign’s otherwise lackluster content.

Case in point: Assassin’s Creed Revelations. It’s the sequel to the sequel to the sequel to Assassin’s Creed, a title that by most average gamer’s standards was kinda hard. Your original Assassin Altair wasn’t well equipped to fight multiple enemies, instead relying on timing and social stealth to win. But by Revelations, Ubisoft was out of single player campaign ideas. So they decided to give their title character Ezio the one thing nobody asked for: improvised explosive devices.

See how fun that looks? He just killed three guys with one bomb! LOL!

It’s the same exact thing in Aliens: Colonial Marines. What little gameplay footage there is shows the player gunning down xenomorphs like they’re made out of tissue paper. And even when one of the 500 pound, 8-foot tall monsters does manage to grab the player, he’s able to kick it off thanks to the infinite power of his military-issue combat boot. 

That doesn’t mean the game will actually be easy; sloppy controls or ridiculous A.I. might make certain areas a nightmare. And it doesn’t mean tough-looking game characters make for bad gameplay either: Marcus Fenix is a goddamn tank, but he’s still met with constant heavy resistance throughout Gears of War. It’s just that a focus on easy gameplay means the developing company doesn’t have any other way to sell you their shitty game.

4. “This game is so extreme, it will literally f&$% your mom!”

Sometimes instead of showcasing shallow, win-button mechanics, developers and publishers (and their PR firms) will try to convince you “mature content” = “worthwhile content.” After all, how bad could a game be if it’s got boobs in itHuh? Or if it’s full of words your mom won’t let you say?† Or if it’s like, really really goth?

The answer, if it isn’t already painfully obvious, is really bad. Don’t get me wrong… sex, gore, and profanity make great accents to a solid videogame. But they can’t be the entire friggin’ game. At some point, the player has to stop staring at virtual cleavage and actually, you know, accomplish things (other than triggering cut scenes).

Once again, Aliens: Colonial Marines had all the signs of being shit-tacular from the get-go. The launch trailer is punctuated with ingenious, character-anchoring lines like “GET SOME!” “MOW THEM DOWN!” and “HOLY SHIT!” because hey – if they didn’t say stuff like this, how would you know they were really marines, right? Then there’s this other inscrutably wince-inducing trailer, titled “Kickass Trailer.” If this doesn’t scream Mom, please let me play it please, I don’t know what does.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum (the end that isn’t painted will horse manure), is something like Bayonetta. Sure, the game stole a lot of initial spotlight with its impossibly  callipygian titular heroine. And yeah, she basically spends the entire time either wrapped in skin-tight, um, hair… or naked. But when you watch a major trailer from pre-release, you’ll notice the whole sexy witch thing makes up only about 20 seconds or so, with 400% more emphasis on the gorgeous, enthralling  gameplay that eventually led to big ol’ piles of Editor’s Choice awards.

5. “Crap Sequel 4’s release date? Never heard of it.”

The final, and most damning evidence that a game you’ve pinned your hopes on is actually godawful? It’s just not getting finished. The fact is that, for the most part, well-made games secure easy capital and get pushed along on a reasonable schedule. Bug-ridden titles with yawn-inducing beta gameplay and muddy N64-era textures? Nobody’s in a rush to get them into the hands of journalists or gamers in general.

This was certainly an early warning sign in the nearly-aborted gestation of Aliens: Colonial Marines. The much-anticipated space opera/FPS game saw numerous delays, ultimately getting pushed back more than a year over the course of its development. What was going on during that downtime? Probably a large amount of alcoholism, verbal abuse, and creative redesigns… wheel spinning that doesn’t typically result in a solid gameplay experience. Case in point: Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Of course, Gearbox’s latest meh-sterpiece isn’t alone; games like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 dropped off the radar for months before resurfacing, and there hasn’t been any plans for the next installment, ever. And who could forget the now legendary failure of the most delayed videogame of all time, Duke Nukem Forever? It is a rare title that can survive multiple budget-crushing redesigns (Team Fortress 2 comes to mind). In most cases, development delays means the project’s as good as dead.

Yes, foolish optimists, that also applies to Half-Life 2: Episode 3.

The moral? Fool me twice…

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Aliens: Colonial Marines is so disappointing.

  • The title’s middling graphics, laughable A.I., and shallow gameplay were all masked months in advance by vague press speak and distractions.
  • Interviews were sparse and unrevealing, detailing mood and nostalgia instead of design and mechanics.
  • Almost no real gameplay footage was ever shown and when it was, it was enveloped in flashy, hollow cinematic sequences.
  • There was never any real danger ever portrayed, with easy-to-kill enemies that basically walked into crosshairs.
  • The oh-so-tough characters convinced us all the game was “hard” and that we better “BRACE FOR IMPACT, MAGGOTS!”
  • The game took forever to release, and when it did…

Now that you know how to spot a bad game from a mile away, just hope you don’t get duped again. We’d hate to check in after a few months, only to find out you’ve been suckered into spending money on obvious stinkers like DarkGrid 2Scarlet Blade, and Playstation 4.


* It isn’t.
** Or, in most cases, the people pretending to be journalists.
† Full disclosure: I cannot stand this scene or most of the rest of Superbad.


10 replies to this post
  1. I feel Gearbox’s real employees were working on Borderlands 2 and Aliens must have been made by interns or something.

    I rarely buy games at release (save AC games lately); I usually just wait till T3 or some other reputable source gives a game a good review before I look into it.

    I have never heard of Scarlet Blade or seen the KICK ASS Aliens trailer, but both videos had me laughing in my cubicle. NOT SAFE FOR WIMPS!

  2. I resent the implication that Madness Returns is a bad game.

    Also, if delays are a warning sign of failure… Bioshock Infinite, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    • I should comment that none of these things by themselves means there’s a problem. It’s just that the more of them that accumulate, the more likely it is the game is DOA.

      • Well, duh. In Bioshock Infinite’s case, for instance, it seems the delay is more a result of the team being ambitious. (Although, honestly, the game could go either way for that very reason.)

        No one with any sense would take the list as anything more than rules-of-thumb.

  3. Now let’s take those points and apply them to an example I’m sure we all know well, especially its multiplayer.

    -Delayed for weeks yet againfor no other reason but to piss off paying customers and ward off pirates a few minutes longer.

    -Every press contact (which I’ve seen, anyhow) is blokes playing the game (admittedly, that’s one for showing gameplay) and repeating over and over phrases that are built as follows,
    “X is a great new game mechanic which…”
    “Y is a new thing…” (Those two often while talking about the literally copypasted game)
    “Z is a cool design…”

    -The main character (though I refuse to call someone who rivals Desbland Miles in a competition for least sentience traits a character) gets loaded with EVEN MORE killing devices, none of which were ever asked for or used because the almighty counter button never quite loses effectiveness. Also, Ezio’s gun was freakin’ semiautomatic as could be, why can he have all kind of Assassin stuff but not a gun or an improved version of it which was invented two-hundred years before him?

    -“We’re so complex, you’d need a strategy guide to get through the game!” Except that the 10% of items which would be in any way significant to gameplay (those being combat upgrades) are dirt cheap and entirely unnecessary since you never need anything but the Hidden Blade and even if you do, you can get the best weapons in the game for free and keep them until you quit!

    -The game horribly flops in trying to tell three stories at the same time, none of which were treated before, none of which feel like they have any kind of impact, and none of which are actually fulfillingly resolved.

    -Also, the game is easy enough for even a worse player than me to 100% everything on the first go, until it seems to feel underappreciated and tosses objectives at you which are plain unfair, like “Run five minutes over there, don’t get hit by the randomly generated projectiles for which there is no indication whatsoever, without checkpoints, of course, then kill an entire ship’s crew without being noticed even though whether or not you do literally depends on a coinflip if the AI will do as it’s supposed to or not, oh and you also have to kill this one guy whom you can’t kill last using the single most obvious way to kill somebody, without being detected.

    What do we conclude? AC3 is bad, ACRMP (which has just seen another round of DLC with a few engine changes) has been bad ever since, and Ubisoft are a bunch of douches.

    The funny thing is, I can think of a few games where those points apply only sparingly if at all, and at each, I think only, “Yeah, that game was pretty good.”

    Then again, it’s not as surprising considering that the author of this article is known for having sold his soul to the devil of journalism… Top Tier Tactics. *Dun dun duuun*

    (They’re evil. Believe me.)

    • and this is why I didn’t buy it.
      WiNG and you pretty much described the main reasons I tend not to buy games.
      In the case of AC3 it was also the disappointment I still felt from the previous titles. I don’t give 2 shits about Campaigns.
      Single Player games generally bore me to death (you know, unless it’s like Portal) but the one thing I loved, the Multiplayer, just as happend with the Splinter Cell Multiplayers, didn’t really get the attention from Ubisoft that they should have.

      After AC3 was out and on sale on Steam I was thinking about picking it up but then I though: I only have 1 friend who likes the game (in Multiplayer), I hardly ever find a game in under 10 mins, so I might as well run around GW2 cities – at least there’s something to see other than a rotating logo, and so I decided to let it go.

      My friend tells me (on PC) theres virtually noone playing (at least if you hold it against TF2, CS, Dota or the likes).
      So he’s basically fighting the same 20 guys over and over.

      With this A:CM ga… thing:
      It’s a movie license! That would be my first takeaway.
      Whenever it’s a movie license I hold it at arms length untill someone I trust (My friends, T3, GameStation) tells me it’s ok.
      And you’ve probably all seen this, but for the off chance you haven’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf5Uj4XIT1Y

  4. Great article! As I was reading through this, I just kept thinking “Brink….um Brink…oh yes, that’s definitely Brink”

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