Modern gaming owes as much to James Cameron as it does to Shigeru Miyamoto. Cameron set the template for the action genre as we know it with Aliens, redefining the “under-equipped heroes up against overwhelming numbers of ruthless enemies” model for a new generation. Like levels in a videogame, the combat in the film traveled from the industrial corridors of a colonial outpost through the sinewy catacombs of the alien hive, with new creatures and set-pieces introduced along the way to keep the nonstop action interesting. Hell, the movie even had a vehicle section and ended with an epic multi-stage boss battle against the alien queen! Let’s not even try estimating the royalties that Cameron ought to receive from more than a few developers for his “space marine” concept. But for all the obvious inspiration that gaming has taken from Cameron’s sci-fi masterpiece, the industry hasn’t done a great job of paying the favor back with games that do the license justice.
Most of the games adorned with the Aliens brand have been forgettable, with one major exception. In In 1999, Rebellion’s Aliens vs. Predator took the expanded universe from the comic books and captured it beautifully. The brutality of the xenomorphs, the technological supremacy of the Predators, and the sheer desperation of the colonial marines all came through perfectly across a multifaceted campaign and some intense (albeit completely unbalanced) multiplayer. Sadly, Rebellion’s return to the franchise that put them on the map doesn’t live up to the fond, terrifying memories that the original still conjures up. Missed opportunities, poor design decisions and an overwhelming lack of polish prevent this extraterrestrial three-way from ever reaching its potential. Playing the game is more fun than watching either of the two AVP movies, but for all the ideas gaming has taken from Aliens, the license definitely deserves better.
Aliens vs. Predator has flashes of brilliance. There are moments scattered throughout the three single-player campaigns that perfectly capture the feel of the Alien and Predator movies. The Colonial Marine campaign is as much survival horror as it is a first-person shooter, with a physically weak protagonist and constant ammo drought keeping the stress level high right through to the end. When the lights go out and you’re left with nothing but the screams of your squad-mates and the tell-tale beep of the motion tracker to guide the barrel of your pulse rifle, it’s impossible to ignore the tension building. That expertly crafted tension deflated when the game repeatedly resorts to cheesy horror moments, but when the monsters that jump out of the shadows are HR Giger monstrosities, the ensuing fights for survival can get pretty damn tense in their own right. The action during the set-piece battles is pretty mindless “shoot anything that moves” fare, but the horror-movie violence and kinetic pace keep things entertaining.
The major problem with the Colonial Marine campaign is that once the novelty of carrying that iconic pulse rifle and shooting at classic movie monsters wears off, the game fails to offer anything that hasn’t been done before and better. This game a straight-forward corridor crawl, and not a particularly good one thanks to a host of downright weird functional omissions. I didn’t think crouching was still considered a feature, but apparently Rebellion does. They saw fit not to include it or a host of other accepted standards like aiming down the sights of your weapons. The enemy AI is non-existent, but I’d actually be willing to give the game a pass on that because facing off against unrelenting waves of faceless drones actually fits within the fiction. Doing so over and over without any kind of twist gets incredibly tiring though, and completely misses the genius of the movie. This universe offers so many opportunities for varied mission objectives, whether it’s setting up explosives to clear out a hive, or rescuing fallen comrades before they’re implanted with embryos, or actually setting up automated turrets and sealing doors. There are hints of these elements, but they’re all scripted sequences, so you never feel like you’re in the middle of the action, fighting to complete objectives against insurmountable odds.
It could be argued that the short Colonial Marine campaign doesn’t need variety, because Rebellion has included equally short Alien and Predator sequences. Like the human campaign, these campaigns do contain moments that capture the spirit of the two franchises from a completely new perspective. Dropping from the ceiling behind a human before impaling the poor sucker on your spine-tail feels delightfully vicious in the Alien campaign, but only in the rare instances when all the gameplay mechanics line up. Crawling across ceilings and walls should feel sneaky and empowering, but thanks to twitchy controls and inconsistent surface tracking, it generally just feels clumsy. Instead of feeling powerful, the player always feel vulnerable; constantly tip-toeing around so they don’t get caught up or turned around on pieces of geometry and summarily gunned down by Predators or space marines. Should the player actually manage to maneuver into the position for a kill without being seen, he can treat himself to one of several brutal insta-kill animations.
And players will want to go for those instant kills because no matter how bored they are of seeing the same animation, it’s still faster and more satisfying than fussing with the game’s melee combat. Punches and kicks have never come across very well in first-person shooters, and it turns out replacing them with tails, claws and teeth doesn’t really make much of a difference. Rebellion has added an interesting wrinkle by including block and counter functions, and they can lead to some extended melee exchanges before the final, gory, payoff. The problem is that standing still and holding the block button while waiting for a counter as a freaking Alien feels absolutely ridiculous and completely pulls the player out of the role. It’s not that the melee combat system is conceptually poor, it just doesn’t fit within the framework of this game and this license. It’s almost as if Rebellion came up with the idea after they started working on the project and felt obligated to include it instead of filing it away for another project it would have been better suited to.
The Predator campaign suffers from the same reliance of the melee combat system, although it feels a little better from the vantage point of a Predator than it does from an Alien. It also wrestles with similar control issues, as you’ll be able to leap hundreds of feet into the tree-tops at some points, but not over waist-high obstacles at others. Neither of these problems hurt the Predator campaign as much as the simple fact that it fails to make the player feel like the interstellar badass seen in the movies. Pulling off violent trophy kills is satisfying, but that’s as close to feeling like the Predator as the game ever gets and that’s pretty sad considering it comes down to a button prompt and an animation. Rebellion has placed so many artificial restraints on the Predator, from camouflage that doesn’t work during attacks to weapons that need to be recharged at little pods scattered throughout the levels, that he feels laughably weak. Who came out of the Predator movies feeling like a fair fight would have been more interesting?
If Rebellion really wanted to offer variety and highlight the difference between the three races, then they should have gone the opposite direction and made players feel like gods as the Predator to balance out the vulnerability they felt as Colonial Marines. I understand the need for balance and challenge to keep the gamer’s interest, but castrating your main character is the laziest way to go about it. Creating convincing AI that would react to the player by sticking together, or covering themselves in mud to counter their heat vision, or set traps would have been the best way to go, but it would have taken more effort. If that route was too difficult, Rebellion could have just increased the number of enemies you face, or the power of their weaponry to counter the efficacy of the Predator’s weapons. Or they could have drawn from the “honor of the hunt” that Predators abide by and somehow reward players for relying less on their more powerful weapons. There’s no rule stating that a player has to be weaker than the enemies he’s facing. The whole campaign feels like a giant wasted opportunity.
Ironically, balance is less of an issue in multiplayer because Rebellion wisely chose to focus on asymmetrical objective modes that play up the differences between the races. Predator Hunt is a take-off of Juggernaut, pitting one hunter against an entire squad of colonial marines. Only the Predator gets points for his kills, so obviously he’s the focus of everyone’s attention. The player cast as Predator will have to make good use of hit-and-run tactics, using the cloak to maneuver undetected and picking off stragglers when the opportunity presents itself. When a Marine does manage to take the hunter down, he’ll dawn the mantle and get his chance to run up the score. The Predator is unfortunately still held back by the limitations present in the single-player, but the natural rush of competing against real humans and simple pleasure of gutting your best friends when they’re not looking makes it a lot easier to overlook those assaults on the source material.
Infestation is a variant of zombie mode, where one player starts as alien and infects other players as he kills them until there’s one human left standing. This mode is great because strategies change over the course of the match. In the beginning, the Alien will have to be really stealthy in his attacks because he’s vastly outnumbered, but as the numbers start to shift in his favor the aliens can start being more aggressive and it’s the humans turn to cower in the corner. This mode is great because strategies change over the course of the match. In the beginning, the Alien will have to be really stealthy in his attacks because he’s vastly outnumbered, but as the numbers start to shift in his favor, the aliens can start being more aggressive and it’s the humans’ turn to cower in the corner.
Developers need to learn that quality is the best form of fan service. Decorating a shoddy game with the hallmarks of the licenses doesn’t forgive a product’s failings in fans’ eyes, it magnifies them. It frustrates them because the product poorly represents characters and universes that they love, and blatantly misrepresents the quality of the license to those that are unfamiliar with it. Aliens Vs. Predator is laced with nods to the source material, from the meticulously detailed characters and weaponry to the signature shrieks of the Aliens, but beneath the surface there’s a striking lack of understanding for the licenses and the touches that made them classics. There are several interesting gameplay ideas here, but none of them are meaty enough to hang a game around, and many of them don’t line-up with the Alien or Predator licenses. The astounding lack of polish with which these mechanics have been implemented with doesn’t help either. Wait for the next rematch.