Next to Duke Nukem Forever, Aliens: Colonial Marines has had probably the longest development cycle of any game that's actually come to market. It was announced for the first time in 2006, when the gaming industry was much different from how it is today. Since then there have been plenty of ups and downs, new reveals and delayed release dates. Yet coming to market it is—tomorrow, in fact.
We relished the chance to pick the brain of John Mulkey, design director on Aliens: Colonial Marines, who said he's been thrilled to be able to add to the expansive universe of the Alien fiction—the game is canon along with the rest of the series, after all.
But how exactly does it fit in? Are there any connections with the mysterious Prometheus, the prequel-that's-not-a-prequel? Is Gearbox worried about a game that's been in development for seven years feeling dated? That pretty much sums up Duke Nukem, which, strangely, was ultimately completed by Gearbox as well. We had to ask, so now we've got answers below.
Complex: So are you a fan of the Alien franchise?
Mulkey: Oh, god, yeah. Quite a fan.
How does Aliens: Colonial Marines fit in with the whole universe of lore?
Aliens: Colonial Marines is the canonical sequel to Aliens. So we're going to take up with that storyline. In the timeline, it actually takes place after the events of Alien 3. We go back and we revisit LV-426 and we find some unexpected things going on there.
So it's set after the third movie but really it's the sequel to the second movie.
Yeah. Myself, and being included just as a fan, it's like, the thing that you wanted to see continued was the James Cameron vision of Aliens. It was, you know—Alien 3 has some interesting things going on, but it's definitely a departure from what James had set up. And we were excited about that idea, you know—taking those kinds of elements, all the weaponry and the gear and the whole attitude, you know, and all that—becoming a Colonial Marine—that was what we were really excited about. So we wanted to return to that presentation and that period and continue onward from that. We felt that that would be the most exciting thing, and the thing that the fans would want most.
So what kind of things from the films did you draw from and include in Colonial Marines?
From the franchise, the recognizable characters that are making a return are Bishop, Hudson, Hicks, Drake, and Apone, are all coming back from the original. Most of those characters are going to be playable in the multiplayer presentation (the competitive multiplayer) but we—specifically, we got Lance Henriksen to come back in and voice Bishop in the campaign narrative, which is pretty amazing. Pretty exciting.
Is it weird not focusing on Ripley?
Well, I mean, the game takes place after Alien 3, so at this point Ripley's dead.
Yeah, but is it weird making something in the spirit of that particular film, Aliens, without her?
Not really. I mean, we're looking at focusing on the idea of the Xenomorphs themselves as the, you know, kind of the ultimate antagonist. And the idea of that fantasy for someone, of being able to step into the shoes of the Colonial Marines and be one of those marines and experience that, you know—be that guy, use that gear, and go to those places—we're really pushing on that.
Were you excited about being able to add to the fiction of the Alien universe?
Yeah, it's pretty cool that you get to add new characters to the canon of Aliens. That's pretty darn exciting. Yeah, we took the approach of looking at it from both the idea of what would be cool from a gameplay experience—you know, what would we want to do to add variety and to be fun as an experience—an interactive experience—but then we also looked at it from just the fictional side, you know? What would be the form of new aliens that would be added to the canon, and why? We really looked at the idea of the whole hive presentation and hive mentality, you know? The aliens that we created and the new aliens that we added to the franchise, they all have roles that they play in this sort of hive ecosystem. And then it just, you know, just so happens that those particular roles and the characteristics of those roles make them formidable enemies, you know? So we approached it both from the fiction standpoint, to make it really compelling within the story and the narrative, but then also, you know, ensuring that it's going to be a cool character that adds to the experience.
Can you talk about those?
Sure. One of the characters is the Crusher. We've got this giant, huge Xeno that's like the size of a rhinoceros, and you know, just a giant pile of muscle. He has this huge head, this huge crown on his head, that's essentially impervious to bullets, you know? His role in the hive is he's a digger. He's the one that digs a lot of the tunnels and caves for the hive. And he's just a bulldozer, you know? You get out of his way. He's a very difficult enemy because of the idea of the bulletproof nature of his face. So you have to really try to get into flanking positions, use distractions, that kind of stuff to defeat him. It's pretty cool.
Was it always the plan to be adding to the Alien canon or did that come in partway through development, where they saw what was being made and decided that it needed to be added to the lore officially?
It was from the beginning. That was one of the reasons everybody was really—you know, beyond being excited at the idea of being able to work within the Aliens franchise, the idea of being able to make it canon just made it that much more exciting. And that was always, from the beginning, the idea, that we would be adding to the canon. It would be something that was official. So that was really exciting.
Is it a tough balancing act trying to add your own flavor while paying tribute to the originals?
I think normally that could be the case within a franchise, but with the Aliens franchise, the franchise itself was so awesome of a game, you know? It's like, the film was just a really great game [laughing] so the notion that you get to continue with that and leverage it, you see it more as a benefit than a crutch, you know, something that you have to—a burden to bear. So being able to reach in and leverage those elements and stay true to the franchise and the elements of the franchise actually made it an easier game to make, you know? Because there was already a lot of really, really cool framework and a lot of really cool groundwork done that we could just run with and add on top of. It's a great, great franchise to work with from that perspective.
I read that you were given access to Prometheus and the script and Ridley Scott himself before that movie came out. Are there any connections between Colonial Marines and Prometheus?
There really isn't any connection with Prometheus. It's definitely hugely different time frames. But in our game, we do go to the derelict ship, you know, the one that we think we saw in Prometheus. Definitely the one that we saw in Alien and Aliens. And we get to go explore that. We get to go inside and see what's inside one of those things. So that's pretty exciting.
So even you guys aren't sure whether that was actually the same ship?
Right [laughing]. Yeah, we're not even privy to that knowledge.
Prometheus was sort of divisive, because in my opinion, parts of it didn't make a whole lot of sense, I think because it wanted to be its own thing while also playing on the nostalgia and mystery from the originals. How do you make sure that doesn't happen with the game?
For us, it was a matter of sticking to the tenets of what the original films were about, you know? And trying to continue onward with those kinds of elements. So if we could tell new stories, but in a familiar way. And one of the things you mentioned in Prometheus—when I saw Prometheus in the theaters, I thought it was—I was torn. I liked it, I thought it was pretty cool, but then there were some elements that I didn't quite get. This is so anecdotal—I don't know why I'm going into this—but I grabbed the four-disc Blu-ray when it came out, because I'm, you know, a nerd that way. And when you go through and you watch the deleted scenes on that thing, oh my god! [laughing] There's some cool stuff, and it actually makes that movie—some of the things that might be a little bit questionable make a little bit more sense.
So the game has been in development for seven years. Are you worried about it feeling dated? Like a seven-year-old game?
Um, not really. I mean, no [laughing]. I guess I'll just leave it there. No.
That was one of the complaints that some people leveled against another of Gearbox's titles, Duke Nukem Forever, was that while everyone was happy to be playing it, some of the remnants of older versions of the game were still present, and it showed. That's not a worry for you?
I don't think so. I mean, it definitely is a challenge that you run into with a project that has a long dev cycle. But we've done a lot to make sure that it's relevant and it's up to date and it is what we want it to be presented to the fans. So I think we're going to be okay.
Do you think maybe it just lends it an old school feel?
I think it's a balance, you know? I think there's a lot of features in it that people are going to really like and recognize as, you know, common elements to "modern shooters," if you will, if you want to phrase it that way.
Like the weapon upgrade system?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's some character growth and some unlocks and, you know, progression elements to it that are pretty cool. And then, you know, there's a strong backbone of straight-up first person shooter awesomeness [laughing], you know? You get to be a Colonial Marine. You get to go through the spaces from the films, you know, and you get to shoot Xenos. And that's pretty fun.
Thanks again John!