Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game, by most accounts. Reviewers have almost all trashed it, fans don't seem to like it, and the final product looks nothing like the impressive demo that developer Gearbox showed last year.
So how did it happen? Although the full picture isn't quite clear yet, over the past few days we've heard that the six-year development process for Aliens: Colonial Marines was tumultuous and divisive, a product of multiple studios with conflicting visions. And it shows in the resulting game.
According to one person familiar with the project who spoke to Kotaku under condition of anonymity, Gearbox outsourced the bulk of Colonial Marines (codenamed Pecan) to a studio called TimeGate, most recently responsible for the shooter Section 8 and its sequel.
This comes on the heels of a massive Reddit post that's been making the rounds today from someone claiming to work at Gearbox. Although we can't confirm that the Reddit post is credible, everything we've heard from our source matches up.
The Redditor explains that TimeGate left the single-player campaign in "a pretty horrid state," and that last September after Borderlands 2 shipped, Gearbox was unhappy with what TimeGate had left them. Sega was already upset with Gearbox for asking for multiple extensions since the project launched in 2006, so Gearbox had to buckle down and release a game they knew wasn't going to be very good, the Redditor said.
The post on Reddit matches what our source has told us, but there's more. When TimeGate took over the project, our source said, they threw out most of what Gearbox had done beforehand. All of the art and design that Gearbox had produced during the previous four years was gone.
So from 2010 until late last year, while Gearbox was working on Borderlands 2 (internally codenamed "Willow 2"), TimeGate handled the bulk of development on Aliens. A small team at Gearbox helped out with multiplayer work, as explained by both our source and the Redditor, but TimeGate built the single-player campaign.
Late last year, when Gearbox saw what TimeGate had done, most of their developers weren't interested in taking the game back, our source said. Gearbox's team was upset that their work had been thrown out, and they didn't want this to be a repeat of Duke Nukem Forever, a game that took over a decade to develop until it was finally finished by Gearbox and released in mid-2011 to tepid response.
But Gearbox had to finish the game, and according to our source, they had to throw out much of TimeGate's work and start from scratch. This lines up with what the Redditor claims:
Campaign didn't make much sense, the boss fights weren't implemented, PS3 was way over memory, etcetcetc. GBX was pretty unhappy with TG's work, and some of Campaign maps were just completely redesigned from scratch. There were some last minute feature requests, most notably female marines, and the general consensus among GBX devs was that there was no way this game was going to be good by ship. There just wasn't enough time.
Considering that SEGA was pretty close to taking legal action against GBX, asking for an extension wasn't an option, and so Pecan crash-landed through certification and shipping. Features that were planned were oversimplified, or shoved in (a good example of this are challenges, which are in an incredibly illogical order). Issues that didn't cause 100% blockers were generally ignored, with the exception of absolutely horrible problems. This isn't because GBX didn't care, mind you. At a certain point, they couldn't risk changing ANYTHING that might cause them to fail certification or break some other system. And so, the product you see is what you get.
People at Gearbox knew the bad reviews were coming, our source said. They knew that the game wasn't good.
We've reached out to Gearbox, but they would not comment on the record. However, in a recent interview with IGN, Gearbox head Randy Pitchford said that TimeGate handled development "probably about 20 or 25 per cent of the total time," and that "if you take preproduction out of it, their effort's probably equivalent to ours. Now, it's not fair to take preproduction out of it, but that says a lot about how much horsepower those guys put into it."
Pitchford's statements also seem to match up with what we've heard.
We reached out to TimeGate this afternoon, but they have yet to get back to us. We'll continue to update as we hear more.