With the run-up to a new decade fast approaching, it’s time to start taking a long and hard look at the last nine and a half years and trying to work out where the hell everything went wrong in the games industry.
There’ll be a Worst Games of the Decade but, and I think this is important – we should be able to look back and reconsider some of the great gaming atrocities and disasters of the 2010’s and ponder if they were really all that bad, or whether we were in a curious bubble and with the benefit of hindsight, can come to an agreement that really they weren’t all that bad – or if they were, they certainly aren’t nearly as bad as some other things.
So in my “LOOKING BACK @” series, I’m going to turn on some of the higher-profile mishaps and try and explain why in the grand scheme of things – there was far worse, is far worse.
And where better to start than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I think with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to say now that Colonial Marines wasn’t THAT bad; it wasn’t even the worst game of 2013 by a long way, and unless there is a cataclysmic event in the next three months a certain game is all but assured to walk away with the crown of “Worst Game of the 2010’s”. It was a low-grade movie franchise spin-off that promised to reinvent the wheel but ultimately was swallowed whole by the inability to cash the cheques its mouth had been running off for years.
And we’ve had plenty of those this decade; hell, we’ve had plenty of those in the games industry since the 1980’s. Few of them though have left the kind of indelible mark that Colonial Marines has managed, and some of them were truly awful in every way. They are forgotten, buried in the ether, and you have to be reminded that they even existed before you start to remember how bad they really were.
Deep down at the core of this is that Colonial Marines hit a peculiar sweet spot, where outrage and anger finally met and mingled with social media and where what was otherwise private derision on forums and blogs was thrust into the limelight where no-one could really avoid it. The expectation of the then-darlings of the industry Gearbox, off the back of Borderlands, being given the chance to reinvent and redefine the Aliens license, the hefty pre-launch demos that impressed everyone and the betrayal that the finished product looked and felt nothing like what was promised.
So what the hell did go wrong?
Truth is – we’re never really likely to know. I have my own theories, that the game needed to be rebuilt from scratch in a short space of time and because Gearbox was knee-deep in Borderlands 2, had to bring in an inexperienced outside team to put together something – anything – in time for launch. I believe that more because today, with the benefit of that earlier hindsight I mentioned, the game code is full of glaring errors and spelling mistakes that broke elements of the game wholesale, making me wonder how quickly they put this together… and how overworked they must have been to make such sloppy errors.
We know that over the years, dedicated modders have fixed everything from the lighting and pathing to the Xenomorph AI, the latter of which was improved dramatically by fixing a one-letter typo inside the source code. What you can play today is a far cry from the launch game, and whilst it’s still not exactly great… it is much improved.
However – that’s just my theory. You’ll find dozens of them out there – from wholesale theft of money from Sega to over-ambition and overworked developers unable to function on two different and disparate franchises. No-one really agrees.
What we can say, however, is that there is one primary reason why a game which should have already been buried and forgotten continues to be one of the most sore points of the entire decade. There is one element that continuously continues to rub salt into the wound, to make sure that we cannot move on.
His name is Randy Pitchford.
In many ways, I do understand and even somewhat agree with Mr. Pitchford that looking back, Colonial Marines was not the complete failure that we all felt back then, the anger being more a case of betrayal of ideals, dishonest marketing and a slipshod piece of gaming beige.
However, I remain firm in my personal belief that the anger was justified. Reviewers slammed the game not just because it was a bit crap, but because they had spent months being shipped to Gearbox HQ, playing a “vertical slice” of gameplay that didn’t remotely resemble the finished product. YouTubers particularly were the most frustrated; I don’t exactly always agree let alone sympathise with the likes of Jim Sterling or Angry Joe, but they were promised, shown and given hands-on time with a game that they were hyping up for months only to find their professional credibility in tatters the moment the final product went live. They had every right to feel like Gearbox, and Randy Pitchford, had lied to each of their faces.
In the six years though since, Randy has never really apologised, defending the end product and pretending that he doesn’t even remember the many people who called him and Gearbox out, despite being personally invited to company HQ to play that ‘vertical slice’. Every marketing outing since, gamers and professionals alike hold out the hope that this time, maybe Randy Pitchford will apologise for it all, allow us all to move on somewhat, put the whole thing to bed.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. Randy just goes off on one, defending the game and saying that it should have been a 7/10 game (no Randy, just no on that one). It says something when Nintendo, who needed something for the Wii U, effectively dropped the game from that consoles library. When a game isn’t even good enough for the Wii U, you got problems.
Still, in fairness, Randy is obviously very close to the project and maybe he just doesn’t see the myriad issues we all saw. It’s improbable – the list of problems have been exhaustively itemised over the years – but it’s not outside the realm of reason that Randy genuinely believes that the game didn’t deserve any of the hate.
But to continue to antagonise the critics and the gamers is a move that has effectively taken Gearbox from the museum to the trashcan. Randy’s unpredictable behaviour and controversies continue to effectively mar the studio in ways we struggle to comprehend.
All that having been said – Colonial Marines is not the Worst Game of the Decade. Not by a long stretch.
It’s more that the PR fallout continues to thrive long after the game has ceased to be a thing; the spectre of the ‘vertical slice’ comment and falsified promotional screenshots alongside Randy’s inability to apologise overshadowing and even overwhelming what should have long ago been allowed to die in the mire of mediocrity. It exists more now as an idea than a thing; overblown and overworked, twisted out of all proportion from the original event.
Alien: Isolation helped sweeten that spanking, that’s for sure. And Sega and Gearbox have spent the rest of the decade trying frantically to distance themselves from what I do think was one of the biggest social media firestorms of the last couple console generations. Sega even settled a legal suit over it, effectively taking full responsibility for the mess.
It must also be pointed out that the backlash… actually did a lot of good. The whole concept of the ‘vertical slice’ and ‘bullshots’ today have been largely excised from the industry. Whilst this still happens on the Switch eShop, using PC screenshots in place of actual Switch version screens, on the whole what you see is what you will get and it is insane just six years removed that we have rejected that old ideal. (Remember, it wasn’t just Colonial Marines; even games like Dark Souls 2 had massive controversy over Bullshots!)
Such things help to soften the blow in hindsight, but it doesn’t really justify the original action. Colonial Marines was trash; but it was mediocre trash. Looking at it from 2019, it seems crazy that we got that worked up over a movie franchise license turning out to be a bit rubbish (like, really? That’s the hill we were prepared to die on?!).
And for what it’s worth, even if it was ‘that bad’… I’d almost refuse to call it Worst of the Decade on principle. We need to move on from this game. We’ve had worse games – SO MUCH WORSE. We can’t keep being pulled back to 2013 whenever Randy wants to ship a new game.
More than that, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. Colonial Marines is no longer worth expending any more effort on. The litmus test for me was – name 10 games worse than Colonial Marines this decade. I beat that with a total of 32.
And with that, I’m ready to let this game just rot in obscurity forever.