We're just a week out from the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines and I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical about the prospects. Gearbox is a fantastic studio, but almost everything that we've seen up to this point has led me to believe the Colonial Marines experience may fall far short of the tension-filled, atmospher driven experience an Aliens game should be. In fact, I think it may be a disaster.
At this point the blame could just as easily be put on the marketing than anything having to do singularly with Gearbox. But I'm seeing a lot of smoke, and I'm hoping the fire is just part of my imagination. So what are my issues? Here they are, and they seem to go far deeper than anything that can be solved with an 9 foot Alien Prop.
Look, I love Aliens vs. Predator as much as the next guy. This seminal work of 1999 captured the hearts of sci-fi enthusiasts and charged them into a newly emerging mutliplayer experience the same year that Team Fortress Classic turned servers around the world on fire. But that was 1999, and we've already had that experience. Multiplayer is also not the niche market with that air of new-car smell that it once was either. By today's standards, unless a multiplayer is cosmically exceptional -or done in an out-of-the-box way like Dark/Demon Souls- it is easily forgotten after a short time, leaving a single player experience to take the reigns on writing the history of what that game has achieved.
How will Colonial Marines single player stack up? We hardly know because we've hardly seen it. Convention after convention, trailer after trailer, have focused primarily on the multiplayer experience. There may have been one or two single player trailers -some of them made up of the same re-edited footage- but they are nothing compared to the deluge of MP info we've gotten. And it's not like there isn't any source material to work from. The Aliens franchise is bubbling with scenario's and conventions that would serve as a hearty single player experience...even work better as a single player experience, but for some reason this cooperative/MP element has gotten undo attention.
Let's be honest, Gearbox is good at making fun and interesting worlds. Comic characters and stylized graphics are undoubtedly their forte. Sound however has never stood out as being something Gearbox has shown a prowess in. Don't believe me? Pop in Borderlands 2 and tell me how the guns sound. Do they sound beefy? Huge? Do they envelop the ears and the world around you each time they fire? No. Simply put, the sound in Gearbox games is minimal at best, which puts a game like Aliens -which should be drenched in atmosphere and audio horror- in a precarious situation when it comes to creating those tense moments when you're walking down a darkened tunnel and listening intently for the sound of scurrying claws to begin finding their way to you.
Gearbox can certainly excel in this department just as they have excelled in most other areas of game creation. I just hope they have taken the necessary steps.
I do keep harping on things like atmpshere and tension in Alien games, but I don't think I can really understate the imporance they play. In an Alien game the amount of time where nothing happens should exceed the amount of time where it does. Those extended areas of 'nothing' are actually filled with everything. Tension, horror, atmosphere. The dichotomy of Aliens is that the Aliens-formula begins to disintegrate as soon as they begin to show up. And to make this work at all -to supplement the disintegration- a hearty amount of tension must be induced to carry the player over the hump of 'shooting things' like you do in every other game.
It's a delicate balance and something that is completely uncharted territory for Gearbox, a developer who's last game taking place away from a comical, heavily-stylized world was 2005's Brothers in Arms. A game, though in more serious tone than anything since then, was not about atmosphere but instead about squad tactics in a WW2 Call of Duty atmosphere.
Again, Gearbox is a capable developer who most probably has the ability to turn on this particular dime. But the track-record worries me.
Alien movies have gotten a little out of hand over the years. Dog Aliens, underground prisons (I kind of liked that one) Predator-alien hybrids. The canon seems to be so open-ended that almost anyone with a good imagination can get in there and do something special. And if not special...at least something different. So why then is Gearbox relying on every basic Alien trope they can find and pushing that to the forefront? It's like they had a big meeting and said “OK...ALIENS! What do people think about when they think about ALIENS?” *Person raises their hand* “POWER LOADERS SIR! Wasn't that in the second one?” *Another person raises their hand* “PULSE RIFLES! They make that cooool sound!” *person three* “That girl who flies the transporter! She wore those hipster glasses...that's a whole new demographic!!”
I'm sure you see what I mean, and I don't remember reading anywhere they were specifically re-making Aliens (the second movie) in any of the press releases. But this appears to be what's happening. Just without Riply, or Lance Henriksen. It seems to be either very lazy, or very fearful, to be reproducing these elemental bits. Being the latter is certainly no excuse, and if it's the former....hell, you're Gearbox, use that imagination and add to the canon rather than reciting it.
Truly, maybe I just want a different type of game. Maybe my nostalgia is too far down the rabbit hole of the original Alien while other people have fonder memories of, and think they might make a better game of, the more action-esque sequences that, although fun, I probably glossed over for the more serene moments in the movie. And I'm not even thinking beyond film here. The Aliens franchise is bigger than the first few movies and much bigger than the movies at all. They span comic books, novels, and multiple video games. Should I be forgetting all of that? But again...is Gearbox? It may just be that the Alien franchise is too big to make anyone 100% happy with any final product. There are just too many different tendrils to that beast for any soup to hold all the ingredients.
I can't help but believe, however, there are some central spices that must be included. Fear, horror, tension, darkness, solitude...to name a few. Without these Aliens: Colonial Marines will be just another first-person shooter with the enemy supplemented for the flavor of the week. And once again we'll find ourselves doing nothing more than shooting our way out another mess we've found ourselves in.