You can’t polish a turd (unless you’re from Mythbusters…).
Aliens: Colonial Marines. Impire. SimCity.
One game was an elaborate “con” that many are bitter about. One is a game standing on the shoulders of giants without any understanding of the power beneath its feet. And one is a deeply flawed classic updated to a modern infrastructure that simply hasn’t been able to handle the load being placed upon it. We’re not even a week in March and the sad reality is some of this years worst game nominations are already being seeded, much to the bemusement of many a gamer.
The thing here is, I want to make it clear – there’s nothing wrong with a bad game. Bad games can be fun in their own right. Poorly designed games, poorly crafted titles and ones with a bugs and glitches list as long as the average Brazilian supermodels leg are terrible. When I do a “Worst games” list each year I make the distinction between the technically inept and the painfully disappointing. For last year, NeverDead was not a good game. It was bad. And yet, in its terrible state, there was a lot to like. There was something to connect to. You have to take into consideration sometimes that even in the darkest of caverns, there are glints of light reflecting from the depths. Twinkling eyes that spark character. You’re not angry at a game – you’re just bitterly disappointed by it. It could – nay, should – be better than it is. And it just isn’t. So you get caught in a quandary.
Of course, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a terrible game and there’s nothing redeeming about it at all. Gearbox really should be ashamed of what they turned out, because frankly if I turned out anything of such a sub-standard quality in my life, I’d never be able to live it down. It’s a terrible, truly awful game and there’s nothing to like about it. It’s a game which is bad because there’s nothing in it really that screams that it could have been better. Every single element of the game just reeks of sloppy workmanship and rushed, cut corners. You got the sense that Gearbox might have resented being pinned down to an Aliens game, been deeply unhappy at it, and this is when you can never make a game work. If the people making it aren’t deeply impassioned by the project, then you’re never going to get anything out of it. Even aside the technical limitations of Colonial Marines, the AI is woeful and the story is retrograde fan-fiction at its most heinous.
But, here’s the thing; we’re officially at the tail end of this generational cycle. Usually this is when we see the true shining gems come out – and this year we have The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, Dark Souls 2 and more to really send out the old generation with a bit of a bang. Unfortunately we also have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct – a game that, like Aliens: Colonial Marines, looks like it has been pooped out in a few months by bunch of amateurs being paid way above their paygrade. No-one is expecting it to rock their world. If anything, we’re all expecting something terrible so we can savage it to pieces like a pack of hungry zombies. But when you hear that this has taken longer than the fantastic TellTale episodic series of The Walking Dead, you just have to look at it and ask… how is this possible?
What is going wrong? Well, for a start, my first guess would be time constraints.
Again, this is the end of the current generational cycle. Some of these projects have been two or three years in the pipeline and some are a year or two overdue. You need only look at Tomb Raider for evidence of this; not that Tomb Raider is bad, because it is not. But on quick-time events, depth of content and glitches and bugs, you get the impression this was very quickly rushed out the door so the team could be assigned to a new, possibly next-generation, project. Tomb Raider just isn’t polished enough and it’s that lack of polish on the little details that makes it appear sloppy and carelessly rushed out. There is a concerted effort right now to get some of these studios working on next-gen products and projects in order to keep up with the Joneses. Eventually, publishers will just expect a release as is, whatever the end result, purely because they need it to generate some income and get the studio busy beavering away on a sequel or new IP.
That’s unfortunately business – funds and manpower are sadly not infinite, and as much as the likes of FROM Software seem to employ ancient Voodoo rites in order to somehow exist and thrive, not everyone has access to such primal forces.
Also remember that people are not perfect.
Look, I will say this and mean it – I cannot believe that anyone would willingly put out a product as bad as Impire or Aliens: Colonial Marines on purpose. You might be phoning it in a little but you’re not going out of your way to make a terrible game – it’s just not sensible or logical to do so unless you’re somehow trapped in a real-life remake of The Producers. But people are flawed. And if their hearts aren’t in it, then they can get sloppy and careless – moreso than usual, and this is when things tend to go wrong. Without due care and attention phoning it in can be a real disaster; you can make something so bland and dull that it literally has nothing in it that can be considered entertainment. Or it can be so deeply flawed and technically riddled with problems that you just can’t save it. The point is – as much as these professionals shouldn’t be this careless, they’re still employees of a big company and if they don’t have a great work ethic, why would you be surprised to find photocopied images of the lead programmers bottom in picture frames in a game? There’s a point where you just feel the resentment. They didn’t mean to make a bad game. It’s just… that’s how it turns out.
I think a final reason can also be attributed to the business as well.
We all know that many studios are paid on a milestone basis – that means they get certain things done in time and they receive the money they are being promised. But of course, you do have to consider that sometimes the people who run the finances are not trained in the dark arts of programming like some of us are. They don’t understand that sometimes, you can design an entire three-stage map and then you test it, run it and it just… doesn’t work. Not in a literal sense, but you wouldn’t be happy knowing it went out in that state. Or maybe the literal sense can work – or in such a case, not work. Either way, things happen. Sometimes people need to redesign stages, or go through the code they have in order to try and pick out the bugs within it and clean it all up. But this takes time – time, which we know, isn’t always afforded to them. Starve a studio of money and things suffer – someone either works less hours fixing problems, or money and staff are diverted from other projects in order to take the strain. Something, somewhere is going to be affected by it.
Considering the year we had in gaming last year – from The Walking Dead to Dishonoured and Journey – kicking off 2013 with arguably two proper stinkers and a third storm of brown brewing in the guise of SimCity does feel to many like we’ve taken a step backwards. But that said, by this point last year we had Amy and NeverDead. Okay, two disappointingly flawed games but we’re still at early days in the year, and with Remember Me and Watch Dogs and more coming before the next-generational jump as well as two enormous titles due in weeks (Dragon Quest X and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate), we might yet be able to rinse out that bad taste in our mouths. Just consider it the worms trying to crawl out of the apple before the birds arrive.
Bad games do happen. They always will. If anyone in the industry believes genuinely the next-generation will solve the problem of bad games, then they probably should question their role in the industry. Whatever the reasons, the motivations, the tantrums and lies and scandal that often lay deep within, we should always be careful to keep an eye out for a stinker. They can sometimes just be spotted a mile off, and some games cleverly creep up on you and rob you blind like Aliens: Colonial Marines, before they scuttles off laughing maniacally at how they got away with such an audacious crime. And sometimes, something simply doesn’t work. We can get so attached that we don’t see how in need of care our creative baby is. We convince ourselves that we can fix it. We can rescue it. But we never can, and were never going to either. It’s painful in such cases because people did get attached before it bombed, but that’s the world we live in. It’s often all or nothing. And we can only give what we have.
So when you swear and shout at the likes of SimCity this weekend because it isn’t working, remember that behind the scenes is a real person, probably working overtime, on server infrastructure who would probably prefer being at home with their family. That most of the people working on Aliens: Colonial Marines were simply assigned a role and they did their small part. It’s okay to blame EA and Gearbox as a whole, because they should know better. But a studio is not one face, one identity. There are dozens – sometimes hundreds – of people busy beavering away under the surface. Like a duck, sometimes the public face of Randy Pitchford belies the reality and the ungainly flailing of limbs happening beneath the surface of the water. Randy Pitchford cannot escape because he kind of went out there, marketed it and liked about it and therefore he largely does deserve the ire (but nothing more than ire!). But wishing the entire team ill? No. Someone should have played the final version and just binned it, in the same way the Aliens RPG from Obsidian was binned last-minute. Sometimes you just cut your losses and run, rather than subject the world to the artistic equivalent of a finger-painting of a daisy.
And guess what? If people are saying it’s really that bad, sometimes they might be right. I won’t say it just to be popular – a spade is a spade in my book, and the fact so few pointed out the issues in Tomb Raider makes me despondent. If a game is truly bad, I will say it. If a game is disappointing but has some merit, I’ll say it. We can make a distinction. We can define the lines in which we manoeuvre.
We ultimately choose to buy the games. Mostly, at least. Perhaps reviewing games gives me less choice but more variety, who can say? Point is, if people buy trash, guess what they get more of?
This isn’t a mystery, my dear Watson.