2013's Aliens: Colonial Marines is one of the most memorable gaming disappointments we've ever seen. After witnessing a gorgeous, atmospheric engine showcase back in 2011, fans of the series were hungrily awaiting a true sequel to the iconic 1986 film. But then, in February 2013, Aliens Colonial Marines came out and the horror of its truth became reality. Gearbox's first-person shooter was an infestation worthy of being nuked from orbit. The AI was broken, the gunplay was unreliable, and the "perfect organism" - the Aliens themselves - couldn't even run at the player properly.
Meanwhile, down under, Australian modder James 'TemplarGFX' Dickinson wasn't playing Colonial Marines. He bought it, downloaded it and installed it, but he wasn't playing it. In James' eyes, playing comes second to modding. As he tells me numerous times over the course of our conversations, he doesn't play games, he mods them.
So, James set about tinkering with Aliens Colonial Marines' secrets while others, such as myself, were busy being angry. James was content with doing what he loved most - tweaking, fixing and improving - and, over five years later, he's still doing it to Gearbox's failed FPS.
"I had already modded the ini file for the game before I played it," James says. "It didn't change the gameplay, but it looked better than what most people would have been playing."
James displays a primordial need to add, to tinker, to improve. This is not, it seems, a recent behaviour; ever since discovering the 3D modelling program Imagine in a 90s PC Format magazine demo disc, James has viewed games as sandboxes for his own playful ideas. His first sandbox was Doom 2, a popular modder's target. Combining his newfound graphical skills and his childish adoration for the Knights Templar, James' online moniker was born. TemplarGFX started with sprite swaps and maps, but he steadily delivered more advanced efforts. One of James' earliest mods is still one of his fondest: a total conversion from the demon-infested world of the UAC facilities to a dreaded warship of Warhammer 40,000.
"I worked hard on that," James recalls. "Using Imagine, I created 3D models of a Terminator from Space Hulk and I replaced all of the weapons with Terminator ones. It didn't have a name, it was just something I put on one of the very big illegal gaming Bulletin Boards. In four-player co-op, it was four Terminators in the Doom world. That was pretty cool."
Over time, as gaming and the internet evolved, TemplarGFX would leave the restrictive world of bulletin boards behind. Small engine demos like Space Hulk would be made and then shut down, but modding was always there. TemplarGFX's crusade marched towards other games - Oblivion, Call of Duty 2 and Stalker - but one of his most beloved would tackle military sim Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising.
TemplarGFX's Island War mod acted as an overhaul of every in-game system: graphics, content, AI and even engine performance. Island War rewarded him with a large amount of recognition; a mention in PC Gamer magazine brought with it a job offer from Codemasters. If the developer had guaranteed more than six months work, TemplarGFX might have gone from Dragon Rising modder to Red River developer. But given how the latter turned out, James says he's happy he turned it down.
Island War may be TemplarGFX's most comprehensive mod, but Aliens Colonial Marines Overhaul is by far his most famous. But while Island War managed to overhaul every facet over its base game, James' extensive work on Colonial Marines can only ever tweak and improve on the base game. He can only go so far.
Because of the lack of official modding tools, James doesn't work with the actual game. Instead, all of Overhaul's fixes are made through Unreal Explorer, a decompiler used to examine and modify the game's code. This is a complex task - there are over 2.5m objects and many more HEX entries. It comes as no surprise to learn James has spent five years learning how Colonial Marines works.
Armed with this knowledge, James managed to fix the game's unreliable gunplay. From aimlessly wandering through the code, James realised the importance of a function known as fractal wandering. It's an innovative but unsurprisingly busted feature; in-game the player normally moves the gun's butt from side-to-side. Fractal wandering also shifts the front. ACM Overhaul disables it.
With the feature enabled, aiming down sights causes the confirmed-hit marker to appear 10-15 pixels to the right of the target. As a player, you instinctively move the gun to the marker's location, taking your aim back off the target. "If the hit marker moved with the fractal wandering then it wouldn't be a problem," James says. "The actual mechanics are working, moving, but the HUD isn't moving with it. You only have the 3D model to gauge where the weapon is pointing."
Fixing key issues like this is what makes the mod so impressive. But it doesn't stop there. Alongside graphical improvements, such as lighting, decals and reshade effects, most of the work goes towards AI. For years, James has tweaked values in a multimillion-long list of entries to make the titular Aliens act more natural. It's worked - Overhaul turns the Xenos into an actual threat. However, one very famous typo rendered that work completely out of date.
Attachxenototeather is a mistake - a rather crucial one, too. Hidden within Colonial Marines' configuration files is a single line of code that tells the game to use a new function instead of an old one. It was introduced in the game's only patch, and it was supposed to fix the AI. But because this new function was misspelled, Colonial Marines reverts back to the original function, ensuring Xenos don't run on walls, don't transition between rooms and just generally act like idiots.
The discovery of this typo made players chuckle about a game they had long since cast aside, but it felt like a dagger in the heart for James. "I missed that [typo] for three years," James recalls. "It's really bad that it's in the game... I don't think anyone would have looked at the ini config file for as long as I looked at it. 99 percent of the mod was made inadvertently fighting that typo. There are so many thing that were so hard to do that, now, don't actually have to be there."
There is a silver lining, though. Following the discovery of this now infamous typo in Aliens Colonial Marines' code, James was energised, and set to work on rebuilding his mod from the ground up. No longer fighting the typo, Overhaul now works alongside it, and it's better for it.
I played version six of Overhaul, which came out in December 2018, with its creator. Colonial Marines is still far from fixed, but Overhaul makes a marked improvement. Graphically, it's marginally better, but technically, it's substantially enhanced. Friendly AI can still get stuck on objects, but now they throw grenades and know when to stay back. The same goes for enemy humans. However, the real improvement comes from the Xenos - they're smarter, deadlier and faster. They're a very real threat.
During our time together, I wonder what keeps James going. He tells me he doesn't play games, he mods them. If a game is unmoddable, he doesn't care. That said, on numerous occasions he calls Aliens Colonial Marines an unmoddable game. Without official modding tools, "It'll never be fixed - it's impossible," James tells me. "[Fixing] is never going to be possible."
So why is he so loyal to one of gaming's true black sheeps? As with any form of true dedication, it comes from a place of love.
Ever since he was a child, James has been infatuated with Aliens. It was a creature that used to give him nightmares; his childhood home on an Australian farm saw pitch black night skies, perfect for the Xenomorph to crawl through. As for Colonial Marines, for James, it's all he has.
"ACM had such a bad reception that I don't think we're going to see a game like ACM any time soon," James tells me. "Every now and again, I get that feeling where I'm like, 'Jeez, I really want to shoot some Aliens with a pulse rifle.' The only one I have is Colonial Marines. What keeps me going? It's Aliens!"
As bad as its overall package is, Colonial Marines is sadly the only true Aliens experience. As James points out, there's a lot of love for the movie in the game if you look hard enough. Hadley's Hope is fully recreated, and getting to explore the complex is an Aliens fan's dream come true. Weapons, props and even the enemies are so close to those in the original film that it's impossible, as a fan, not to appreciate the game in some regard.
Fandom is dedication and James is certainly dedicated. Overhaul isn't a project based on what someone can do, it's based on adoration of a game that missed the mark. James loves Aliens Colonial Marines, more than I thought anyone ever would, despite its faults. Overhaul - five years in the making - is the result. Just like how fans re-edit films, rewrite comics or enhance technology, James is working to fix a game that desperately needs it. After all, who else is going to?
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