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The Guns of Navarro: Reality Bites

Alex sifts through the rubble of Aliens: Colonial Marines' disastrous launch to try and piece together just what the hell happened.

"Where did Gearbox go wrong?"

Aliens: Colonial Marines was, at least in theory, supposed to look something like this.

This has been the prevailing question of the week. As many undoubtedly already are aware, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Gearbox's long-delayed homage to all things Alien, released this week to reviews that largely ranged from tepid to outright savagery, including one from yours truly. The occasional baffling outlier not withstanding, people hated Aliens: Colonial Marines, and they did so with good reason.

Despite having purportedly been in at least pre-production stages all the way back in 2006, Colonial Marines is a staggering mess of a game. In rare moments, you can see a glimmer of a good Aliens game, one built on tension, dread, and the overwhelming sense of impending doom every character in the film series has felt since 1979. But those moments are fleeting, too often caked in dingy visuals, broken artificial intelligence, and plotting that recalls some of the dumbest Alien fan fiction one might find when stumbling into a particularly dark and nerdy corner of the Internet. It's the worst, and when games this big are this bad, the immediate reaction is to try to understand how and why this came to be.

Answers, interestingly enough, have seemingly come fast and furious since the game's launch. Granted, much of the talking has been done via anonymity. The juiciest tidbits came by way of this reddit posting from an alleged Gearbox employee. His story was a fascinating one, telling of numerous starts and stops, content dumps, as well as wholesale outsourcing of the game's abysmal single-player campaign to Houston developer TimeGate Studios. His claims echo those of another alleged former Gearbox staffer, dug up by noted video game internet sleuth Superannuation. That poster offered up back in late 2012 a warning regarding the game's development that proved prophetic.

A TimeGate employee (again, anonymously) did reply to that first reddit posting claiming that all of the game's oversight snafus were expressly under the purview of Gearbox. Thus far, however, that's the closest we've come to a proper refutation of the current rumors. Sega as an entity has yet to respond to any of this, though one Sega producer did deny the notion that any major chunks of the game had been outsourced. As for Gearbox, its only acknowledgment of any of this came from studio head Randy Pitchford. He told IGN shortly before release that TimeGate's contribution amounted to maybe 25% of the total game, while also citing other outside collaborators like Demiurge, who worked on the game's network code and is (or had been) reportedly working on the Wii U version. I suppose you could also count Pitchford's recent tweeting regarding people's assertions that Gearbox may have willfully deceived people when making promises it couldn't, or wouldn't, keep.

While no side of the story is likely to be completely accurate, the combination of statements from all sides paints at least a somewhat clear picture of a game badly mishandled. It shows a game announced too early, started and stopped too often, and finished too late. Unfortunately, it also paints a rather ugly picture of Gearbox itself, a studio that definitely spent a lot of time talking up the love and reverence it had for the source material, and allegedly a considerable amount more time putting the project off in favor of others.

In the time since Aliens: Colonial Marines was announced, Gearbox has released two games in the very successful Borderlands franchise, as well as the misguided rescue project that was Duke Nukem Forever. In between all of that, varying numbers of Gearbox staffers and other outsourcing studios were presumably plugging away at inconsistent intervals on Aliens, a game that had been talked up at no less than four E3s, several PAXes, and god only knows how many other various press events. For a game that seemed to be a long way off from completion, it sure did spend a lot of time promoting it.

Instead, we got something that looked like this...

I sat in on at least four separate Aliens demos over the years. In no less than three of them, I watched as Pitchford introduced us to what was supposed to be his team's game by explaining in bountiful detail about how much he, and those around him at Gearbox, loved Aliens. To hear him tell it, it was akin to a childhood dream being realized when the project became his. He giddily told of the time he was able to meet with Ridley Scott in his office, and Ridley did him the pleasure of showing him his many saved concept art sketches from the original film. The first time I heard that story, I was enraptured. The second time, still interested. By the third, I was starting to wonder if that meeting had been the only truly fruitful moment of that game's development.

I say that because each time I watched Aliens being demoed, I saw the same basic chunks of footage. Early scenes in the game set aboard the Sulaco and another colonial marine ship were played out in front of me with only small variances each time. Sure, they were different level sections, but the key jumps, scares, and moments of cinematic drama were all pretty much the same thing. It all looked very polished; maybe too polished, really.

This seems to be the biggest sticking point people have with Aliens. Namely, the notion that what Gearbox demoed over the years didn't come close to lining up with the finished product. Scenes that moved with a smooth efficiency in the demos were haggard messes in reality, filled with glitchy enemies and visuals that looked like they hadn't been updated since the game's initial development cycle. Any number of YouTube videos have documented this with ample bluntness, though on some level, I can't help but wonder if we should even be surprised by this.

After all, it's not as if unrealistic tech demonstrations haven't become the de rigeur method of early promotion during this generation. I don't imagine I need to take you all back to 2005, when Sony unveiled the PlayStation 3, and along with it, the now infamous Killzone 2 tech demo that proved, well, perhaps somewhat dubious in comparison with the product that made it to shelves. For a more recent example, one need only look to BioShock Infinite. That demo that took every E3 award in 2011 was a masterwork of pacing, action, and tension, a sequence of events so seemingly effortless in its flow, that of course it proved to be anything but. As numerous previewers have noted since actually sitting down to play the BioShock Infinite demo late last year--and I will do in my own write-up of the game later this week--that sequence no longer quite resembles itself in the final game. The action is more mechanical, not as pristinely paced as we saw when it was shown to us just a year and a half prior. In its place was a segment of gameplay that was still breathtaking and exciting, but in a way that felt much more traditional to the mechanics of gameplay we generally know and understand, versus something overtly revolutionary.

In this regard, BioShock is perhaps the best case scenario for such marketing tactics, and Aliens is perhaps the worst. BioShock at least still looked tremendously good, and still played like a game that had been the sole focus of its developers for quite some time. Aliens, on the other hand, played like cast-off licensed junk, the worst kind of cynical cash-in that Randy Pitchford had spent years swearing up and down he'd been actively working to avoid when making his stamp on the Aliens franchise. In effect, Gearbox made literally the opposite game that it had intended to. I don't know if I can recall many instances of that happening in the 25 years or so that I have been playing and following video games.

Someone, I expect, will write a very fascinating long-form feature about Aliens' protracted and tragic development history. This will, of course, be years from now, long past the sting of the biting criticism and social media mockery of this week, and whatever worst-of lists Colonial Marines is sure to make come this holiday season. It will come when Gearbox has gone comfortably past the point of having to worry about Aliens and those who despised it. And that time will come. After all, Borderlands continues to be a major cash cow for the studio, and should spawn many more sequels over the course of the next generation. Plus, it's not as though the team is devoid of talent. Its Brothers in Arms series has, when active, been generally praised by the media and players alike, and while Duke Nukem makes for a particularly ugly blemish on its record, Gearbox can at least pretend it just finished someone else's mess, as opposed to making one themselves.

This blemish is solely the property of Gearbox and its direct collaborators. Aliens' disastrous launch and subsequent response is directly the result of the words said and the images shown by Gearbox, which proved to be anything but accurate. The game industry has a short memory for average failures, but the big ones? The ones that really resonate? They never go away. They cling to your name and your brand in a way that might not always be totally fair or appropriate, but nonetheless tends to smother out whatever else it is you might be looking to promote. Randy Pitchford is going to get a lot of Aliens questions over the next year or so, and rightfully so. How he handles those questions, and frankly how he and his team choose to promote their products from here on out will go a long way toward determining how people view them in the long-run. People are going to scrutinize every demo Gearbox delivers, every trailer it chooses to put out, every statement made about their future games looking for discrepancies, embellishments, or outright bullshit. Put out a bunch of great games, and people will generally take you at your word. Make a bunch of big promises and fail to deliver on them? It only takes one of those situations for your credibility to fly right out the window.

I'm still a fan of Gearbox and what it does, and I still look forward to whatever it has cooked up next. I guess all I'm saying is that now, whatever that turns out to be, I'll be a bit more careful when considering the things it tells me about it. No matter how cool what it shows next may be, Aliens will be sitting there in the back of my mind, reminding me that this studio is just as capable of dropping the ball as any other.


Alex Navarro on Google+
163 Comments Refresh
Posted by HarkinNecro

No one is infalible espeically game companies

Posted by paparoach

what a fuckfest

Posted by Buckydude

After Duke Nukem Forever, you'd think Gearbox would be less excited to pickup a troubled project like A:CM. Of course the success of Sleeping Dogs is just going to encourage more studios to try saving projects that can't be salvaged.

Posted by Cretaceous_Bob

It is hard to not have your pre-Aliens impression of Randy Pitchford shattered by this game.

I've been a fan of Gearbox since Road to Hill 30, but after Hell's Highway, Duke Nukem, and this fiasco, Gearbox doesn't seem to be a big fan of doing right by me.

I will be cautious when they put their name on something.

Edited by RudeCubes

I'm betting Sega sues for that sweet, sweet Borderlands money.

Posted by Kamikaze_Tutor

Time to watch Spaceballs again.

Edited by MildMolasses

I think my favourite part of all this is the way people have turned on Randy Pitchford for being a snake oil salesman. I remember a few months ago on Quoted for Truth when Tom McShea referred to him as a blowhard that will "lie to your face for one more sale," and people jumped all over him for it. Now everyone is saying that

Posted by DaMisterChief

This was the Duke Nukem Forever of our generation

Posted by abdo

Posted by Mister_V

Randy Pitchford Comes across to me sometimes as Peter Molyneux without the charm.

Posted by Brutakas

Game companies have a bad habit of never learning from their past mistakes or from the mistakes of other companies.

Edited by joshthebear

Great article Alex. This whole situation is one giant clusterfuck, and I'll be weary of Gearbox from here on out.

Posted by FreedomTown

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

Edited by Paindamnation

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

Did we really need another comment about it? Probably not.

Posted by Cincaid

As the huge fan of Borderlands I am, I found myself swallowing whatever Randy was selling to me. Guess I learned a bitter lesson from all of this.

Posted by zoozilla

Nice article.

It does really seem like there was no way A:CM was going to turn out well. Such a shame - I don't doubt that if Gearbox devoted all of their time and energy into it, the game could have been really cool.

Posted by paparoach

This game is not as bad as they say. merely average.

I hope Sega will stop working with GBX, though and finally make that Aliens survival-horror first person RPG. Get on it, fools!

Edited by Spoonman671

I used to really enjoy Pitchford's enthusiasm when talking about his projects, and games in general, but I'm afraid that whenever I hear him talk now it will just remind me of this mess. Unfortunate.

Edited by csl316

Pitchford always seemed like a silver tongued salesmen to me. I've been weary of Gearbox since Duke Nukem, and I'm so glad I didn't preorder this (being a huge fan of the series). Sadly, this is now one of those developers where I'll have to wait for reviews. The demo-to-retail comparison video I saw was a god damn travesty.

Posted by MooseyMcMan

That video with the dancing Xenomorph is hilarious.

Posted by JRock3x8

like many things that happen when the internet gets its drawers in a twist, I fail to see the exact problem. They made a game that game reviewers think is average at best and broken at worst.

But the way it's being discussed makes it sounds like the game won't even make it past the menu stage or that your game playing device will start smoking when you put the disc in.

I don't get it.

Edited by Max_Cherry

@Alex Don't associate "Alien" with "Aliens". You know why.

Posted by Incapability

I had not been privy to the development of that game in any way. When it came out, I thought about the last time I heard about a game involving the Alien name, and remembered it being garbage, so I just assumed this was some sort of shovelware.

Imagine my surprise when I found out this game had a rich and refined history, and a distinct aroma of bullshit. Since I had absolutely no investment in it, it hasn't really bothered me, but I certainly feel for the people who now feel ripped off.

Studied at arms length, though, it's interesting to see just how damaging shit like this is to a company. Overpromising and underdelivering is not easy to get away with - I like to think that there must have been some way of softening the blow, with some well-applied PR disaster management before and after, but the way they've handled all that, certainly hasn't helped them.

Then again, they probably have this strategized to some extent. I mean, people thought Duke Nukem: Forever was hot bullshit, right? That didn't stop them from throwing money at this game, or even putting another Duke Nukem game in development. I mean, at some point we should probably take responsibility ourselves, for enabling them to pull this shit off by buying their product.

Posted by Rolyatkcinmai

Loving this series. Keep em comin', Alex.

Finished Aliens on PC last night. Ugh.

Posted by m3ds334

@damisterchief: Wasn't Duke Nukem Forever the Duke Nukem Forever of our generation?

Posted by Laini

As someone who hadn't really followed the development I wasn't quite sure why it was reviewing so badly. Don't get me wrong, it's not a good game. Average perhaps but certainly not as terrible as everyone seems to think.

But when you look at those supposed gameplay demos I can see why people have turned on. That game looked great. The one I'm playing doesn't :/

I'm not gonna say I'll be boycotting Gearbox but I'll certainly be doing a lot more research on anything I purchase by (LOL like A:CM was MADE by Gearbox) them in the future.

Posted by seannao

Thanks for the article! I finished up the campaign recently and while it wasn't the complete horror story of a game everybody made it out to be, it was definitely a game that was very... perfunctory and plain and I do regret purchasing it.

Yes, it'll be interesting seeing the news coming out of this since it can stand as a business/social study to look back on and try to divine better guesses in the future when looking at previews.

One thing seems consistent enough though that games that were cancelled and change studios were probably cancelled for a fairly good reason.

Posted by Deusx

Great article Alex. It's a sad story that will leave a big mark on Gearbox, let's just hope it doesn't bring the to an end.

Posted by pbhawks45

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

It's a pretty big flop, dude. If you honestly think that...I would just hate living life with that much cynicism.

Edited by Laiv162560asse

I'm glad you didn't over-emphasise the difference between the preview demos and the final product, Alex. Certainly, the game appears to have gotten slightly worse-looking and some sections are completely absent from the final game. However, as you say, many games do this. As an example, everyone seems to be creaming their pants over Watch Dogs, even though the traffic lights hacking sequence, which was the most impressive part of that E3 presentation, was almost certainly scripted. Press demos are never truly representative.

Furthermore, those early demos of Aliens still looked bad. Okay, the environmental design looked nice and it's mysterious how the lighting looks superior to the final product, but if those were the only things wrong with the final product then there wouldn't be this big fuss. So many other parts of the early previews still looked bad: stilted animation, awkward models, stiff-looking combat, rubbish-looking acid, obnoxious fan-service moments everywhere and a nonsensical story premise were all clearly on display even back then. Not to mention the fact that so many of the decent-looking gameplay passages were, again, clearly scripted, so they were never going to be representative of anything at all.

Okay, this game was dishonestly marketed and due to insider stories there are serious questions to be asked about Gearbox's dev practices. I still think this whole thing of 'Randy lied to us' is a bit of a red herring. We get lied to by marketing all the time, but the difference is people tend to let the lies slide when the final product turns out to be at least average. If we make more of an effort not to get caught up in pre-release hype, then all the BS of the kind that Pitchford spouted becomes nothing more than one hand clapping.

Edited by huss

Great article Alex. The stark contrast between what was shown and said about this game by Gearbox, and by Pitchford in particular, is the craziest part of all this in my opinion. They seemed to really know what to say and what to show to make people excited and hopeful for this game. Although it's possible the marketing was done with the best intentions, many people probably pre-ordered based on the deceptive demos and carefully constructed statements from Pitchford and Gearbox.

Posted by Grimhild

I guess there's always Creative Assembly's take on the Alien IP. I'd cross my fingers but they're still sore from the years waiting for A:CM.

The unfortunate thing is that most of the mistakes with A:CM that detract from the game play could have been easily avoided. Purely AI-driven companions hardly ever turn out well, and the fact that they're simply utilitarian to spout terrible plot exposition makes them that much more annoying. That said, I think it's more the squandering of potential that everyone is upset about, not so much the fact that it's a sub-par shooter with a boatload of technical issues.

Isolate me and my co-op friends in the ruins of Hadley's Hope, and I'm good. You can keep your horrible plot and dialog. All that's left is to fix the terrible xeno AI, because people have already come up with ways to make it prettier by enabling modding in DX10 and .ini files for shaders. Release the SDK and we'll fix it.

(I would say "spoilers" for the attached video... but... really?)

Posted by Abendlaender

Okay, here is what I want and what I will never get: Sega! Make an Alien (not Aliens!) game with Frictional Games. Hell, they basically already made it, just in a boring old castle with boring monsters instead of an Alien......*sigh* this will never happen, right? Maybe shortly after Konami teams up with Telltale to make Silent Hill....which will also never happen

Posted by rmanthorp

That video.

Posted by Goopynose

Great read. Thanks, Alex!

Posted by Oldirtybearon

@freedomtown said:

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

Did we really need another comment about it? Probably not.

Freedomtown is right though. Alex isn't saying anything new nor has he dug up any info on what the hell happened to the game. It's just whinging for the sake of whinging.

I like Alex and I like this feature, but this article doesn't do anything but state the obvious.

Posted by FrostedMiniWheats

Maybe it says something good about our industry that it's such a big deal and such a surprise when a big AAA game comes out and sucks. I mean, if Lionsgate (or whoever your favorite movie studio may be) came out with a rotten movie would that be such a shocker? No, all movie studios release crummy movies. But here in video games where a "low" score for a big budget release is 3/5 stars or 7/10 critic points... suddenly everyone's flipping out when a single truly bad product comes out. I can't think of another medium (film, literature, music) where a single bad work would raise such a stink.

Well, except for Get Behind Me Satan but that's just because White Stripes fans were obsessive.

Edited by Slique

Everything about this situation (read as: debacle) just reminds me of Brother's in Arms: Hell's Highway, and how Gearbox pulled the same bait-and-switch manoeuvre with presentation materials. Does anyone else remember this video? It's even got Randy Pitchford talking up a storm again and promising scenes and features that just just didn't exist in the final product. Hopefully if any good does come from this situation it'll be that Gearbox now (finally) knows that hoodwinking the press and public doesn't make for a viable development strategy.

Edited by BlackLagoon

Reminds me of the early Dark Void gameplay demos, which showed a game full of polished Uncharted-like set pieces and a very stylish boss reveal. In the actual game the section didn't exist (you just flew past it with the jet pack), and the boss is just teleported in from nowhere.

Posted by nutter

A:CM is a profoundly flawed experience, though I had fun with my co-op playthrough, if not always for reasons Gearbox would like.

They will need to fight to gain back some lost trust. I thought Borderlands 2 was too safe and that Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 40 was the only really great BIA game. Duke was what we all expected, but Aliens...this game has moments where you could see what the developers (whoever they were) wanted to do, but just didn't have the time or chops make good on.

It's a sad experience, really. I enjoyed it in spite of some really awful core elements, but it's the PR vs product aspect that will haunt Gearbox without a string of games that outshine the hype.

Posted by Phatmac
Edited by The_Nubster

@jrock3x8 said:

like many things that happen when the internet gets its drawers in a twist, I fail to see the exact problem. They made a game that game reviewers think is average at best and broken at worst.

But the way it's being discussed makes it sounds like the game won't even make it past the menu stage or that your game playing device will start smoking when you put the disc in.

I don't get it.

Because people were promised, for 6 years, a game that was made by a super-fan of the Alien series; a game that would answer every lingering question, deliver the most intense, authentic Alien experience, and stand in league with Alien and Aliens as the best piece of canon that series had ever seen. And what they got was a glitchy mess filled with retcons, unintelligible story-telling, and gameplay and graphics that belonged back in 2006 when development started.

For an outsider, like myself, it just looks bland and ugly, but I can't really appreciate the minutia of the Alien franchise like some people can. I'd imagine that, if you have the eyes and ears for it, this game is something much, much worse than just bad-looking.

Posted by Grimhild

@slique said:

Everything about the A:CM situation reminds me of Brother's in Arms: Hell's Highway, specifically the way Gearbox has touted overly polished "playable demos" as representation for the final game. Does anyone else remember this video? I can still remember being unbelievably pumped after that presentation. And again, it even has Randy Pitchford talking up a storm. It's honestly a shame to see the studio up still considers hoodwinking the press and public a viable production strategy. If anything good does come from this mess, hopefully it will have taught them to be more honest about their development process.

Exactly. Although I don't regret buying A:CM because of some of the fun I've had with co-op and MP (which speaks more to the IP and my friends), I still think GBX deserves the flak it's getting, and hopefully learns from it.

Posted by Funkydupe

@grimhild: Absolutely. This situation alone has made me promise to myself never to pre-order again, ever. I've never understood why I couldn't just wait those extra days before getting a game. So, thanks Gearbox for that, at least.

Posted by Lyfeforce

Borderlands continues to be one of my favorite franchises of this generation, but after DNF and the radio silence on Furious 4, I've been weary of Gearbox's offerings outside of BL and it's DLC. After seeing the debacle that's been unleashed, I'm not sure what to expect. The company has laid some definite stinkers, but it's also the company that has been issuing mea culpas for broken PC ports of BL1, pouring out golden keys and the like. Maybe Gearbox could become a one-game company like Bungie/343? I dunno. I'm just happy I was able to get my pre-order money into something else.

Posted by fisk0

Gearbox have always been uneven, and up until the launch they seemed to take credit for everything about the game. Meanwhile Timegate has a decent track record, though their main focus seem to have been RTS'es and multiplayer FPS games, so maybe FPS single player campaigns isn't the stuff they're the best at. But, really, Gearbox' best stuff have been ports or expansion packs for other people's games. The Brothers in Arms series had some high points, as did Borderlands, but even Borderlands had some downright terrible sections, kinda poor shooting and some really bad DLC. And there was of course Duke Nukem Forever, which I'm not sure how much we can blame them for, as they were always open about it being a joint effort. They only started saying Colonial Marines was outsourced when the shit hit the fan.

Edited by Snail

@freedomtown said:

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

Alex isn't just dissing the game, he is writing about what went wrong in its development process. Having been all these years in the making, at a studio that is known to have talented staff, and with all the promising hype that this game at one point generated, it's surprising and frankly quite shitty that it turned out to be this bad.

I find these sorts of articles interesting. I once read a Kotaku article about what happened at Silicon Knights in order for X-Men Destiny to be so shitty. It was insightful stuff.

In fact, I think I might have dreamed about something related to that article recently. Maybe even last night. Before I had even clicked this article. Weird.

Edited by mnzy

@paindamnation said:

@freedomtown said:

Did you really think this game needed another negative article written about it? Geez, someone didn't pay off the media enough with this one.

Did we really need another comment about it? Probably not.

Freedomtown is right though. Alex isn't saying anything new nor has he dug up any info on what the hell happened to the game. It's just whinging for the sake of whinging.

I like Alex and I like this feature, but this article doesn't do anything but state the obvious.

Not everybody follows every site and every detail about certain events. He puts it together nicely for people like me who haven't heard of this.