Under an NDA, no one can hear a developer scream – and until an official announcement is made regarding the yet-to-be-confirmed Alien: Isolation by maybe-developer Creative Assembly and perhaps-publisher Sega, Alien fans can do nothing but speculate. But after the abominable Aliens: Colonial Marines and the uninspired Aliens vs. Predator, gamers are naturally beginning to conclude that videogames based on the popular franchise are best avoided altogether.
How can it be that truly authentic Alien PC game experiences are so few and far between? What is it about the Alien licence in particular the spells failure for developers? And what does Alien: Isolation have to set itself apart from previous Alien game blunders?
The Alien franchise is no stranger to the PC gaming timeline, with the first officially licenced title – simply named Alien – appearing on home computers in 1984 on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Aliens – The Computer Game followed two years later to coincide with the release of the Aliens film, again on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, with Amstrad CPC and Apple IIe soon after.
Square – known now for its Final Fantasy series – also released a game titled Aliens, but their colourful side-scrolling shooter was available exclusively on the MSX and was only released in Japan. The movie tie-ins continued into the early nineties, with variations of the same Alien 3 game appearing on every console, handheld and home computer under the sun.
It wasn't until 1995 that the first original Alien game for PC appeared in the form of the obscure point-and-click adventure Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure. The trend of Alien spin off games continued with the likes of Alien Trilogy in 1996, Aliens Online in 1998, and Aliens versus Predator in 1999.
Aliens versus Predator in particular stands out in the Alien PC game timeline as developer Rebellion managed to implement the right balance of action and atmosphere over the game's three, inter-species campaigns. The sequel, titled Aliens versus Predator 2 and developed by Monolith Productions, also made a splash when it released in 2001 for much the same reasons, except this time with a graphical upgrade and robust, engaging multiplayer modes; an expansion pack, Aliens versus Predator2: Primal Hunt, followed a year later.
And then – nothing.
Sega, Gearbox and the Aliens: Colonial Marines Kerfuffle
News on the development of Aliens: Colonial Marines in its various forms dwindled throughout the 2000's following the game's initial announcement by Electronic Arts in 2001 and then by Sega in 2006. This lead many Alien fans to shift their focus onto 2010's Aliens vs. Predator. With Sega at the helm and Rebellion brought back as developer, another high quality game like Aliens versus Predator was just what the Alien franchise needed and was exactly what fans expected – but it's not what they got.
Aliens vs. Predator was a mediocre mess of uninspired gameplay, predictable story elements, awkwardly scripted melee attacks, a quick and easy single player campaign and unbalanced, throwaway multiplayer.
It was a similar case with Aliens: Colonial Marines, which launched amidst great controversy at the start of this year. Yes, the game was poorly designed, developed and coded, but even once the most offensive bugs were patched, Aliens: Colonial Marines, like Aliens vs. Predator before it, was unable to offer a true Alien “experience” – although the reasons aren't objectively quantifiable.
Finding the Perfect Alien Experience
It's easy to point at the likes of Aliens vs. Predator and Aliens: Colonial Marines and state that they're not truly Alien games, but the issues at play that prevented both titles from becoming truly Alien-esque experiences are difficult to define.
Some of these issues seem relatively obvious – such as Aliens: Colonial Marines developmental duties being split between multiple studios (the true number remains to be confirmed), and the game having to be coded for a range of different console platforms. Other possible reasons for these sub-par Alien games, however, require a bit more imagination and speculation.
For example, it's entirely possible that Rebellion and the various Aliens: Colonial Marines developers were under immense pressure from Sega to fulfil particular requirements and to meet targets – such as the ridiculously distended release window. Fox likely exerted further pressures onto Sega to make a financially successful use of the Alien license, which would have been felt further down the developmental hierarchy.
Both of the aforementioned, modern Alien games were released in an ongoing era of first person shooter homogeneity in which developers and publishers desperately attempt to emulate the success of the Call of Duty series.
Looking at key design choices throughout Aliens vs. Predator and Aliens: Colonial Marines development, it would seem as though the same push for homogeneity was adopted by Sega – players take control control of macho, white men wielding futuristic military hardware capable of wiping out all enemy life in their paths in single player, and of destroying their fellow man in muliplayer. It's a formula that aims to make players feel powerful – a formula that most certainly works for the likes of Call of Duty – but isn't befitting of an Alien game.
To make matters worse, this homogeneous development mindset was combined with a writing team too cautious to make a substantial mark on the Alien series. The resultant story lines of both Aliens vs. Predator and Aliens: Colonial Marines were wafer thin adventures that boiled down to “I'm a Colonial Marines – Get me out of here!”. Aliens: Colonial Marines attempted to permanently alter the Alien canon through their bold revival of Corporal Hicks, but the narrative choices surrounding his resurrection lacked conviction – as if it were written by a group of nervous children poking a dead frog with a stick, only to run off once its legs moved.
This being said, most discussions on the state of recent Alien games raise the same point: atmosphere, or a lack thereof.
Alien: Isolation – Creative Assembly's End to the Cycle?
The original Alien film found success in doing what no one else had done – creating a dark, hostile vision of future space travel filled with greedy, unethical corporations and unpredictable extraterrestrial terrors. Aliens broke the mould once more by adding an action-orientated spin to the original film; this time showing how even the might of the technologically advanced, gun-totting Colonial Marines were no match for the relentless, Xenomorph horde.
But, as mentioned earlier, the developers of modern Alien games have fallen into the trap of overpowering human players, compromising the threat posed by Xenomorphs, and destroying any chance at building atmospheric tension in the process.
Of course, the problems with Aliens: Colonial Marines', and to a lesser extent Aliens vs. Predator's inability to generate fear and tension in their single player campaigns is widely recognised. This therefore gives Sega and developer Creative Assembly a golden opportunity to address these problems in their next extraterrestrial outing, Alien: Isolation.
It's important to note that Alien: Isolation doesn't officially exist, aside from Fox's trademarking of the title and Creative Assembly's cryptic "Now Hiring" campaign, but a couple of information leaks have provided some interesting details. If these leaks are to be believed then Creative Assembly are aiming for Alien: Isolation to be a horror themed FPS experience which draws from stealthy, single player classics Dishonored and BioShock, as well as the original Alien film.
Alien: Isolation will also take place on one space station, containing one Xenomorph, and explored by Ellen Ripley's non-combatant daughter. It all sounds very promising, with Creative Assembly trying to steer the Alien game series away from the action depicted in the Aliens film, and towards the claustrophobic thrill of the original movie.
But further Alien: Isolation details describe battles with clones and soldiers, bringing forth images of similar, uninspired battles in Aliens: Colonial Marines in the minds of many gamers – gamers who will not be so quick to forgive Sega for their previous blunders.
Furthermore, while Creative Assembly are the proud parents of the critically acclaimed Total War series, their recent non-RTS offerings – namely Viking: Battle for Asgard and Stormrise – have been far from ground breaking. In fact, Alien: Isolation will be the Sussex-based developer's very first first person shooter. So even if the studio's heart is in the right place, their raw ability to make Alien: Isolation the game it deserves to be – and without Sega sticking their foot in it – is questionable.
There's no doubt that a fantastic videogame lurks within the coveted Alien licence. All that's really needed is a passionate developer who understands and respects what the Alien franchise can offer, without crumbling under the weight of the iconic licence or unimaginative, box-ticking publishers.
Creative Assembly is a good developer, but is a first person shooter really their forté? Will Sega be able to make amends for the disappointing Aliens vs. Predator and Aliens: Colonial Marines? Will Alien: Isolation be the much needed magnum opus of the Alien videogame timeline? It's be nice to say “Yes!”, but if the last few years have shown us anything, it's that Alien videogame history has a tendency to repeat itself.
The Curse of the Alien Licence
10 December 2013 | By Michael_Westgarth