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

Show Hide image

The Good Lieutenant is a haunting novel by a former war reporter

Whitney Terrell's third novel is a powerful, and sometimes heartbreaking, war story.

Most war stories are about battle plans that don’t survive contact with the enemy. The third novel by the former journalist Whitney Terrell offers a new spin on this gloomy maxim, employing a reverse narrative that pulls back, chapter by chapter, from a military disaster to show the plans and intentions – optimistic, cynical, self-deluding, pragmatic – that led its participants there. As in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible, the backwards chronology has a weird and dizzying effect. The book starts with a bang, and then begins its slow free fall back to boot camp.

The good lieutenant of the title is Emma Fowler, nicknamed “Family Values” by her all-male infantry platoon in a half-grateful, half-exasperated recognition of her desire to play by the rules. Fowler isn’t above using her reputation to her advantage: “Eggleston thinks it’s too dangerous,” she shouts at an uncertain soldier as they embark on a difficult rescue mission, “and I want you to explain to Eggleston that if Family Values Fowler is in on this thing, then there’s no fucking way it could be dangerous.” But the nickname provides a fair description of her doggedly selfless character. “If you’re strong, you help the weak,” she explains bluntly when challenged by a fellow officer.

Moralising place names litter the military landscape of occupied Iraq, with its Camp Tolerances and Patrol Base Fortitudes, but ethics such as Fowler’s are in short ­supply. “Have some fun,” a superior tells her in disgust. “Dislike someone. Find an enemy. All this happy talk about helping the Iraqis stand up and saving them for democracy? Not happening.” Instead, an infantry captain fakes affidavits from Iraqis which allow him to arrest and torture whomever he likes. Fowler’s commander makes her pick out dresses for his wife and disinvites her from an all-male regimental party. Platoon commanders blackmail each other.

In the deepening pit of a dubious war, the military depends less on the chain of command than on the battle for a persuasive argument. “We don’t need any fucking intel, ma’am,” says one soldier. “What I’m saying is we deserve a story that makes sense.”

Making sense of the story is also a task for the reader of Terrell’s narrative, which constructs its mysteries of character and event in reverse order. As the book opens, Fowler and her platoon are combing a field behind a house in search of the body of their platoon sergeant, kidnapped on an earlier engagement. Assisting them is a signals officer, Dixon Pulowski, who presides over a network of surveillance cameras, and an infantry commander Captain Masterson, who we learn has pulled a lot of “illegal crap” to find the location of this property. The mission soon goes wrong: Fowler shoots the house owner, the field turns out to be mined and Pulowski and another soldier are killed.

The subsequent chapters flow backwards to reveal the personalities behind this fatal engagement and their relationships with one another. Pulowski is hiding the truth about the circumstances of the sergeant’s kidnapping. He and Fowler have been having an on-off affair since they met at boot camp in Kansas. Masterson is not the helpful professional he appears to be. Fowler’s nickname twists the knife in her sense of guilt about her own family. The book steadily infuses its characters with depth and humanity and lays out the dubious intelligence and errors that led them to catastrophe.

Moving backwards from Iraq also allows the book to cover a lot of ground. Many novels and films have examined the aftermath of battle and the difficulties of reintegration at home; many more have begun by evoking an American innocence that their war sequences intend to destroy. Terrell’s approach allows him to have much of both cakes and eat them. After 160 pages of The Good Lieutenant, the reader is back with Fowler and Pulowski at Fort Riley in Kansas, but the barbecues and pre-deployment disputes are now tinged with the knowledge of the horrors that await their participants.

The effect is powerful and sometimes heartbreaking. Fowler and Pulowski grow ever closer as time spools backwards, and other characters rise from the dead and cycle through phases of diminishing entanglement with one another.

In the book’s final third, we encounter Fowler’s brother, a small-town slicker who sells sub-prime mortgages to those he calls “our triumvirate of morons”: blacks, Latinos and soldiers. The irony is thick as he mocks his sister – “Hey, I’m going off to war to save my country. Aren’t I awesome? Don’t I deserve to be thanked? No! You volunteered to get screwed” – and is laughed off.

Terrell was an embedded reporter in Iraq, an experience that could make anyone cynical. His achievement here is to keep his faith in those moments when it was still at least possible to imagine a different outcome.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times