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Colonial Marines’ failure: why it may be impossible to recreate James Cameron’s masterpiece in games

Colonial Marines’ failure: why it may be impossible to recreate James Cameron’s masterpiece in games

Aliens: Colonial Marines is terrible. It's hard to make much of an argument for what the game does well, as it fails at everything it attempts with a finality that is almost admirable. It's a game that failed hard, failed well, and didn't come close to delivering what was promised to gamers. The Aliens property still has legions of fans, though, and it's easy to be disappointed by the ultimate result of Gearbox's attempt to create a sequel to James Cameron's masterpiece. Colonial Marines was a technical as well as artistic failure, but is it possible to really do the sort of game that would make fans happy? Can a good first-person shooter be made out of the Aliens franchise, without bringing in any outside characters? I have my doubts. The reason is simple: What makes the Xenomorphs such great movie bad guys makes them very troublesome game bad guys.

When good properties are treated well, and why that's hard with Aliens

There have been good games based on the Alien series of films, and in fact one of the better games was released on the Super Nintendo. Alien 3 featured Ripley with a pulse rifle, among other weapons, and the game almost felt like a Metroid-style release. You were tasked with exploring a large environment, taking missions and avoiding the Xenomorphs to survive. The game did a great job of putting the player in a hostile environment where survival was next to impossible. It was hard, but it was you against a building filled with Xenomorphs. That shouldn’t be a situation you can easily win.This tension is what made James Cameron’s Aliens so compelling. The humans throw their best-trained soldiers and a metric crap-pile of technology at an opponent that fights using guerrilla tactics, and they lose badly. It’s a character study in what happens when bravado meets a clever, brutal enemy. Cameron has said that Aliens was his attempt to film a critique of the Vietnam war, and put through that lens you can understand why those action scenes could only take place in a movie. The movie is seen through the eyes of Ellen Ripley, allowing almost every other character to be expendable. Those making video games will never be able to suppress the temptation to give us direct control of a Marine. Once they feel safe, the game has lost almost all of the impact of the film. Cameron only had the budget for a limited number of the special effects suits to bring the Xenos to life, and they knew that if the camera lingered on that suit for too long it would be clear that each one was a man encased in rubber. This worked in the production's favor, as the suit is usually shown in shadow, and the creatures move with a sort of reptilian grace. It's hard to get a sense of what they look like, their size, or how many of them there are in any scene. The unknown made them scarier. There were six suits made for the entirety of the movie, and there are rarely more than one or two Xenomorphs in a scene at one time; the idea that they were swarming the Marines was mostly due to clever editing and camerawork. Go back and re-watch the movie; the Xenomorphs are more than a match for the Marine force even in small numbers. The only time they're described as being “wall-to-wall” is in the sentry gun scene, and that happens off-camera. You only see the guns, not the aliens being cut down. The Xeno is a formidable foe, and the fact they're rarely seen in detail only adds to the sense of danger. By the time the movie showed us the Queen, an alien character that took many mechanical effects to bring to life, we were ready to see one of the Xenomorphs in long, clear takes, and the effect was brilliant. Here was an alien, insectile, menacing presence. She was protective, pissed off, and ready to fight to save herself and her eggs, and the final battle was more of a duel than a brawl. Cameron did a wonderful job of selling the Xeno threat, and then paying off with the final confrontation. This is hard to do in a first-person video game, where you can’t control where the camera goes or how it sees each scene. Based on Aliens, the Xenomorphs would simply mop the floor with any human force in an armed conflict. That makes for a good movie, especially when we get to experience the bloodshed through the eyes of Ripley, who stays far away from the large conflicts for most of the film, but this approach makes for a shitty video game. So what does one do? If you suck, you decide to simply make the enemy weaker. When you decide to do so, however, you turn the setting we all love into window dressing. You lose what makes the world of Aliens so powerful. It's a poor response to a complex problem.

Where Colonial Marines failed

Colonial Marines tried to place humans against the Xenomorphs in wide open environments, and in those cases it’s almost comical how easy they are to kill. The game takes great pains to dial back the alien threat, to the point where they attack you once and then move backwards to give you time to shoot them. The game's main threat is proven to be a pushover in the opening scenes; the aliens are simply grunts to be killed en masse. It takes minutes for the game to turn the legendary predator into cannon fodder, and that's a shame. An “accurately” modeled Xeno soldier would have ripped through the Marines in the game in very short order. It was a question of making a game that was more horror than action, which worked very well for Ridley Scott’s Alien film, or nerfing the central enemy. So the central enemy was nerfed. The conflicts became comical; to the point where even the game’s boss characters seem to hold back their attacks to give you a chance to fight back. There is no sense of the quiet desperation of the film. Even the Alien 3 game, which threw Xenomorphs at the player, did a wonderful job of making you feel like your resources were being whittled down slowly. It was a war of attrition in that game, and you were losing. That's one way to handle a human vs. Xenomorph battle in a way that makes sense. The second one involves a third party…

Bring in the Predators!

This is one of the reasons it’s so tempting to bring in the Predator characters when you’re trying to show a war between humans and Xenomorphs, and in fact the first PC Aliens vs. Predator game released in 1999 did a wonderful job of showing what would happen if these three species were to fight. By adding a third group of warriors you level the playing field, and it begins to look like a battle between two superior fighting forces, and humanity is caught in the middle. All the figurative air is sucked out of the room when you add Predators; this makes it easier for humans to operate in the open with their guns and be competitive in the fight. The three species have unique powers and strengths, and they work very well together. It’s hard to imagine humans winning against a crowd of Xenomorphs in most circumstances, unless you create a game like Colonial Marines where the enemy is almost totally neutered, but when you add Predators it becomes an uneven, fun brawl. The game also featured large areas where you simply walked around and listened to the omnipresent noises of the motion tracker, which can drive the player crazy with stress. When a Xenomorph finally appeared, it was a big deal. The tension was handled expertly. One is reminded of the masterful way Epic introduced the first Skaarj warrior in the original Unreal title. By the time that guy showed up, you were ready for something amazing, and he proved to be a formidable opponent.Rebellion, the game’s developer, revisited the franchise in the 2010 Aliens vs. Predator, published by SEGA, and while it wasn’t as good as the original, it was still fun. Splitting the main campaign into three parts, with each species getting a section, also helps to negate the overwhelming power of the Xenomorphs, although it takes clever design to make each of three campaigns fun. Hell, even the Jaguar Alien vs. Predator game was more fun than many expected, and to this day it’s warmly remembered. You could argue that adding Predators into the mix to help balance humans vs. Xenomorphs was cheating, but to me it’s like mixing chocolate, peanut butter, and handjobs. You’re less worried about mixing the chocolate and peanut butter into a golden ratio when you have something else going on under the table, if you get what I’m saying. In this metaphor, the Predators are the handjobs. I may be getting slightly off-topic.

Aliens are hard to do well in games

If you go back and watch Alien and Aliens with an eye towards video games, you’ll see how difficult that enemy is to place into a good first-person shooter. They’re too fast, too reliant on their environment, and too powerful to portray in a way that does justice to the character while also making the game fun to play. It may be possible to do a straight-up Aliens game that’s enjoyable, but it’s much harder than many assume. The results of poor design, which we see with Colonial Marines, are comical. The Xenomorphs simply don’t attack, or they refuse to do so with any gusto. If the characters in that game acted like they do in the films, giving you the experience we think we want, the game would be over in 10 minutes. The humans wouldn’t win. I would love to see a really good game in this universe, and one that doesn’t use the Predators as a crutch to allow humans to operate in the chaos of two warring races, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Natural Selection 2 already does a great job with asymmetrical multiplayer between human soldiers and aliens, and the Dead Space series has nailed the horror of Alien while slowly shifting into the action of Aliens. The style of game we want from this series is being done in other places, and it’s being done well. Gaming has learned much from Cameron's film, even though it's proven difficult for gaming to give anything back to the series. But we want Giger’s designs, and we want our guns to sound like pulse rifles. We want strong female characters. We want Aliens, dammit, and it’s sad that Gearbox dropped the ball so thoroughly. This story contained an image from this article