Aliens: Colonial Marines is an Uwe Boll film in reverse

…and it will probably kill Gearbox as a result.

Aliens: Colonial Marines. Six years in the making. The studio-approved canonical sequel to Aliens, a chunk of pure, uncut, nerd-bait of unrivalled potency. Hyped by some impressive preview footage, some interviews with the developers telling us how much they loved the source material, everything looked promising.

Gamers, informed on the Steam page that pre-ordering the game would get them a discount from £39.99 to £29.99 took their chances and opened their wallets, based on preview footage alone, and for a time the game was bobbling around near the top of the Steam’s sale chart. Console sales followed suit and the game hit the charts at number one for a week. It is interesting to note that Aliens: Colonial Marines, on Steam, has still not yet retailed for the full £39.99 even some time after launch.

In truth, my expectations were not stellar. Built up by the preview footage and the promise of cooperative gameplay, something that the developers, Gearbox, have a reasonably good pedigree for, I was expecting something akin to Borderlands with Pulse rifles. There was noise way back in the games development that the writers of the outstanding Battlestar Galactica reboot might be working on the story so a stroll through the old movie locations, shooting some baddies and getting spooked by scary monsters seemed like the order of the day.

But even shielded by my trusty armour of low expectations the game was something of a shock. I played it through in one sitting with two friends on the hardest difficulty and it was actually entertaining a lot of the time. I can’t lie and say it wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t the game’s fault that it was fun. Most of the fun was derived from pointing out just how bad the game was, like taking a ride on the world’s worst ghost train. Missing textures, enemies spawning out of thin air in full view of the player and broken game mechanics set the tone but it was the story that lowered proceedings to a new level.

The xenomorph, one of the most terrifying monsters in cinematic history.

The story to Aliens: Colonial Marines is a sincere contender for being the worst story ever conceived for use within a storytelling medium. It is not just a ridiculous story with ridiculous characters and ridiculous dialogue: it also almost studiously avoids contact with the very monsters people bought the game to shoot at. The game contains only three levels where the action is comparable to the movie Aliens, for games other seven or so levels you’re shooting either men with guns or a combination of men with guns and the odd alien.

The game's many, many, many catastrophic failings aside however, there is perhaps a greater malignancy within, that being the almost total cynicism of how it was marketed. The fact that the preview footage is so much better than the actual game footage is the first thing that really ought to be addressed. It is standard for game developers to attach a disclaimer to footage of beta or alpha footage of their games, the usual blurb that the graphics may not reflect the final product. This is because usually a game looks a little ropey in the final phases of development before it is polished up for release. However in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines you’ve got the reverse, a game that was either clubbed into a coma with the ugly stick before crawling out of development, or that was promoted with faked preview footage.

There seems to have been more effort put into marketing Aliens: Colonial Marines than making it. A deep feeling of laziness permeates every aspect of the game, which barely passes muster as functional and exhibits all the creative flair of a cowpat. Boxes will have been ticked off; multiplayer, check, character customisation, check, locales from the movie feature in the game, check, but nothing feels like any ambition was directed towards it beyond getting to the level where it can be described as "present". Gamers might have seen something similar not so long ago; a game that spent years in development but ultimately arrived unfinished and unpolished; Duke Nukem Forever, also from Gearbox.

One wonders from looking at these two shameless efforts if Gearbox are looking to borrow the tried and tested Uwe Boll business formula. Uwe Boll is a somewhat infamous director who went through a phase of buying up recognisable intellectual properties from video games and then making barely related movies on a shoe string budget in order to benefit from the recognition attached to those games. Postal, Alone In The Dark, Bloodrayne and Far Cry all have an Uwe Boll film attached to them. People have decried Boll for this shameless exploitation of brand recognition, but in his defence games have been doing it too and for a lot longer.

There is in fact a proud tradition of absolutely rotten games being made off the back of successful movies, dating back to the classic ET on the Atari 2600. Well I say classic. ET was a game made in a few weeks for the Atari 2600 in order to make it out the door in time for Christmas of 1982. It was and perhaps still is one of the worst games ever made not just for the obvious reason that it is completely awful, but also for the cynicism of it. Buy the rights, rush out something that broadly fits the definition of a game, profit and screw the consequences. The consequences in this case being the games industry crash of 1983. This crash may not have been caused by the relentless stink off that one game, but the bad feeling generated by such disregard for the customers certainly could not have helped.

Video games are a wildly popular and eminently sellable product but the companies that produce them are very fragile things. They rely on sales, they rely on repeat customers and as such they rely on the loyalty and satisfaction of those customers. It benefits nobody to have games companies making the whole industry look bad by not just releasing abject games, but by dishonestly trying to bill them as something they are not. It’s easy to argue that the buyer should beware and that the developers have to do all they can to get their money back, but that argument only works if you are not planning to make another game. Every time the customer gets burned by a producer it gets a little harder to make that next sale.

Gearbox might have already killed itself with Aliens: Colonial Marines; attaching toxicity to its name that it will not easily shake. It’s a safe bet that Aliens: Colonial Marines will be, for nearly all those that bought it, the last Gearbox game they ever buy. One can only wonder, as developers and publishers struggle through increasingly difficult times for the industry, just what will it take for these lessons to stick.

An, *ahem*, "polished" screenshot of the game. Photograph: Getty Images

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism