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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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