Why Aliens: Colonial Marines didn’t make me particularly angry
Promotional materials are a pet hate of mine. In fact, I hate the way that publishers market video games so much that I made this video on the subject; a brief albeit vacuum packed exploration into the marketing of games like Men of War and Far Cry 3, the latter of which marketed itself about as honestly as a teenager in centimeters of cheap foundation. What’s behind all that powdery bullshit is often vapid and deeply underwhelming. I don’t say that with any sense of unwarranted speculation – I mean, we looked into this with a razor sharp attention to detail and revolutionary attitude. Stop lying to us, marketers, we all know your products are mediocre. Take that with a pinch of salt, readers. We love gaming – we just don’t love marketing.
The problem with getting excited about anything based on the information provided by those trying to sell it, is that at that moment you’re being sold a concept. What you think you’re seeing is the game – or, an accurate representation of it – but it’s actually just the best possible information about whatever concept they’ve envisioned. It’s a little bit like an oil painter showing you a photograph of what he hopes to paint. The final product won’t have the realism of the photo, and it’ll lack many of the features. It won’t be as sharp, vivid, or richly detailed – and it won’t be as defined. In short, concept images and publisher/developer screenshots will always lack the ‘character’ of the final product, ultimately rendering them useless from a consumer point of view.
That is, unless you keep a clear head about it. Let’s have a quick case and point example. We all know what the PS3 is capable of producing this late into the generation cycle, but The Last of Us just seems so blisteringly beautiful. I mean, look at this concept art:
If you asked, the publisher would of course say “this isn’t indicative of the actual game-play, it’s just a concept art depicting what we’re ultimately trying to achieve with atmosphere, environment, detail, etc,.” The problem is, no one usually asks, and consumers are left to their own devices. The trailer, too, showed an impossibly beautiful, perfectly sharp “in game” animation sequence that, in HD resolutions, seemed too good to be true. They seem too good to be true because they are too good to be true.
Here’s the screenshot of that scene:
Not quite as fancy, is it? The nice thing here is that Naughty Dog have begun to roll out images that actually are indicative of the games final product. We can see the age of the system, and we can see what they’ve done to make the best of it (high facial poly-count, low body poly-count - blurry, watery textures, etc,.) Gearbox - particularly Randy Pitchford – did not.
Neither did Ubisoft with Far Cry 3, though, but nobody seemed to care because, ostensibly, the game made up for it. I won’t go into my problems with the visuals of Far Cry 3 in too much detail, since we’ve already explored it in our video review, but here’s an example. You remember that Panther area in the Far Cry 3 promotional images? No? This one:
The arrows are pointing towards lighting effects that flat out don’t exist in the game. Is this a screenshot, or a concept? It’s definitely not from in the game itself. Look at the detail on the bow, and the gradient softness of the lighting – how pronounced, sharp, and richly detailed everything is. Well, here’s how it looked on our demo rig with two Nvidia GTX680′s on Ultra. There’s also this and this. I don’t mean to say that Far Cry 3 is a bad looking game, only that it was marketed dishonestly – just as almost every AAA title is.
Now, we can see from these two cases varying degrees of sneaky marketing prowess; whilst both show vague but inaccurate depictions of the game, one releases more honest screenshots (instead of these, and this, and this), whilst the other gets away with pretending it’s something it’s not right up to launch. In fact, Far Cry 3 is a game that, professionally, differed so astonishingly from concept to retail that Eurogamer’s written review doesn’t actually include a single original screenshot of the product.
To put that in perspective, not only do you have a false impression of the games graphical fidelity from the publisher, but you also have it from those who are supposed to analytically dissect the game for the consumer. The problem is therefore perpetuated by the press, to some degree.
The press dilemma isn’t about an inability to properly report – it’s about their inability to report quickly if they want to do it right. Review embargo’s are a long and complicated legal sort-of bureaucracy, where what can be said is crippled by whether or not you want to say it, and when. If a reviewer – and his magazine – wants to report on, or review, a title before it hits the shelves (access to review code), then he needs to follow the terms and conditions set by the publisher. This often means that if you don’t think a title deserves more than X rating, then you can’t publish your work on it. Reviewers therefore have a choice between getting their work out first, or honestly. That’s not to say reviewers or journalists are habitually dishonest, so much as that occasionally ‘compromises’ have to be made, since big releases pay the bills. Because of this, what a product is won’t actually become apparent before you sit down in front of your PC or console, and actually play the thing.
There’s a plague in the industry at the moment, and it goes something like this: “Hey, let us fly you in for a weekend to play X game with Y team – fully comped. Here’s the press-kit with all the screenshots you need, and the sales-sheet with the information you need for your review.” If you’re kind to publishers, publishers will be kind to you. Magazines will of course not send someone who outright hates a product, or publisher, to review it. They will select the most fitting candidate, and that candidate will be massaged into submission – with everything he needs to perpetuate the myth of what makes product X so special, compared to products Y and Z.
This briefly outlines the problems with the consumers ability to get accurate information, but Aliens: Colonial Marines was blasted by reviewers? Surely that’s honest? Yes, it is – but those reviews did not exist prior to the release of the game, because of reviewer embargo’s (or Sega flat out refusing to offer anyone review code). They tried to hide the state of the game before it was launched, I suspect, which should have had you – as it did me – slightly concerned.
It’s not all about visuals
We all know about Sergei Titov and the War Z Steam fiasco. War Z had listed several features that weren’t in the game post-launch, and their screenshots evenly matched The Last of Us and Far Cry 3 in their deceptive polish. Of course, since the game was bad, people cared a lot more. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, and Hammerpoint Interactive weren’t exactly accommodating with complaints, allegedly out-right banning people from payment gateways for requesting refunds, but the point remains: every publisher to some degree is trying to get away with painting a picture of their product that promotes interest, and maximizes sales. But how far can you talk about prospective features, and at what point is there a tacit agreement to actually include them in release?
Colonial Marines differs to War Z in that it doesn’t list any feature on Steam, post-launch, that isn’t in the game. It has committed a lesser crime. The Colonial Marines problem stems from one simple thing: Gearbox, Sega, and whoever else controlled the project decided to cut the budget, but retain the same price. This, unarguably, is bad consumer ethics.
Back in E3 2012, a demo of Aliens Colonial Marines was released to the press. This was demo footage, not actually hands-on game-play (which is where the lines between accurate and inaccurate become blurry). Watch this excellent comparison between the 2012 demo and the final product from CVG:
This video has had many journalists in #outrage (I’ve given it a hashtag because internet out-rage is sort of trivial). How can scenes work differently in a concept demo released a year earlier? It doesn’t play out the same. It doesn’t look the same. This is outrageous! There seems to be a correlation of sorts between the quality of the market material – as with screenshots talked about above – and the quality of the released product. In this case, however, it’s a video, and not a series of screenshots. Still, regardless of the fact it’s motion and not still imagery, we’re still looking at a concept. An idea to be sold. It’s hype. They want us excited. They want to be able to produce the finished product by ensuring the developmental process can exist at all. If no one is interested in your title, there’s a good change it’ll be canned.
Now, I’m not excusing the vastly visually-inferior product we eventually were lumbered with, but there’s absolutely no logical reason to think that a game – delayed by almost two years – will look the same as a concept tech demo a year earlier, when the gaming climate was different. So why does it look a lot worse?
This late into the generation cycle, no one really cares about an Aliens franchise game. When I say ‘no one cares’ I mean that mass-market demographics aren’t going to go ape shit for a video-game based on an 80′s movie. Yes, I personally love Aliens – and Ridley Scott, for that matter – but not everyone is me. Because of this, and the late development, Sega ostensibly had to harden itself for an expected blow. The hype was burnt out, and all that remained was a long and arduous release window, and a series of TBD’s.
A developer can’t seriously consider implementing groundbreaking new gaming technologies on the dawn of new console announcements. Perhaps two years ago, but it’s unlikely new AI technology – proposed by Pitchford – and enhanced HD graphics and effects, all of which very expensive to make, will really make much of a dent in the years scheduled releases. People are bored of modern military shooters, and people are merely chewing up the last batch of first person shooters before the next generating of gaming launches with new IP’s, and new technology. There quite simply isn’t any ‘new technology’ at this point, and Aliens Colonial Marines could no longer hype itself on features that would ultimately be made redundant by higher budget titles. It was never going to be the prettiest game of the year, and it was never going to be the best. After almost 2 years of delays, the project ran out of steam.
The project was split between Gearbox and Demiurge Studios, and development plodded along, altered to suit its budget. If you don’t know who Demiurge Studios are, they rather underwhelmingly “helped ship over twenty retail titles for PC”. They’re a company who, on their front page, pride themselves on merely allowing games to exist.
I know what you’re thinking right now – Aliens Colonial Marines was the top-seller on Steam for its release week, but that’s not unusual for a long awaited AAA release. What were purchasing decisions made on? The 2012 concept demo? Because, you know, there were trailers - and whilst they’re suspiciously lacking in any coherent game-play, they’re certainly more honest than this, or this.
Why I wasn’t underwhelmed
I went into Aliens Colonial Marines blind. I always go in blind. I hate marketing; I genuinely hate something being sold to me. Give me the information, show me the materials as honestly as you can, and I’ll decide for myself whether or not something is for me. I don’t need £5 packaging on a £6 bottle of wine, and I don’t need some enthusiastic idiot breathing down my neck, massaging me into submission. If you want to secure yourself from disappointment, then wait until something has launched. Only read post-release reviews, and ignore anyone who was invited to play by the publisher or the developer (assuming he wants to be invited back). YouTube is your friend, and whilst professional reviews always come first, they come first at a price. That price is honesty, and we can’t afford to pay it this late into the generation cycle.
In my review, I said that Colonial Marines was a bare-bones, old-school, back-to-basics shooter with satisfying shooting and enjoyable coop. That’s the analysis I’m sticking with. Visually, it’s dated, ‘cubey’, and clunky. The animations feel a little janky, and the FMV cut-scenes are horrible. That said, it felt authentic, enjoyable, and dynamic. It seemed independent of its hype. To me, it didn’t seem to fall-short of being what it was in 2012, so much as it didn’t event want to try. It was just doing its own thing.
Whilst our let’s play gives you a sizable chuck of what you can expect in the cooperative campaign, I can’t for the life of me understand why someone would want to brush it off as a “Left 4 Dead clone” – which is something someone I won’t name actually did – in a world of unending iterative gaming experiences. Everything is always a clone of X or a rip-off of Y. The sensation of being underwhelmed or having our minds blown seems to interchangeable; one week, what would bore us last week is reported as incredible, and what’s incredible next week is this week ignored, or slammed.
The whole point of this write up is to try to convince you of only one point: Aliens Colonial Marines isn’t necessarily bad because of its aggressive marketing, and it’s not necessarily bad just because the majority of publishers say it is. Knee-jerk reactions aside, I’ve been lied to my entire gaming career, and I’m lied to into my journalistic career. If I got pissed off every time someone in gaming sold me a lie, I’d be an emotional wreck. I’d not be able to play anything at all. Mass media has a tendency to pick and choose its fights. I am no exception. This week I’m defending Aliens: Colonial Marines. I once before defended Medal of Honor: Warfighter. Last week I attacked Dead Space 3 for being a shoddy port, and I’ll probably take issue with some titles in 2013.
In a way, Aliens: Colonial Marines is a victim. It’s an underachiever that, by no means, should you be inclined to love – but it’s not bad just because PR and marketers were being their usual, sneaky, disingenuous selves. I don’t care if you buy it, play it, or bury it – I’m just saying that jumping on the hype band-wagon too enthusiastically, or too naïvely, seems to necessarily take you to hate band-wagon.
Everyone is lying to you – you’re a demographic.