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 it? Huh? 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 Dark, Grid 2, Scarlet 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.