Two decades before blowing the lid off multiple box-office records with his Oscar-nominated, 3D masterpiece, Avatar, James Cameron was busy scaring the hell out of film-goers everywhere with his survival-horror/action sequel to the 1979 classic, Alien. Placing a squad of gung-ho, colonial marines in an infested colony with hundreds of aliens popping (quite literally) out of the woodwork, the film, Aliens, was a gritty, terrifying masterpiece that raised the bar for all other movies in the sci-fi action/horror sub-genre. That bar was quickly matched a year later in 1987, when director John McTiernan crafted Predator – a brilliant chronicle of one exceptional soldier (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his harrowing showdown against an extraterrestrial being bent on hunting, skinning, and collecting trophy skulls of his human prey. In the years following, both series suffered some tribulations before being combined into Alien vs. Predator – a single franchise which has since penetrated into a variety of different mediums, from comics and novels (many quite good) to motion pictures (sadly, not quite as good).
On the video games front, a relatively untested British development team known as Rebellion took a stab at the franchise, creating the aptly titled Alien vs. Predator for Atari’s Jaguar system in 1994. This game was met with considerable acclaim and quickly became known as the must-have title for Atari’s ill-fated hardware. Rebellion would continue its work with the franchise with the 1999 release of Aliens vs. Predator – a PC game that improved on all aspects of the Jaguar original. For nearly a decade after that, Rebellion worked on dozens of games (mostly for portable consoles, and with varying degrees of success), but many gamers were patiently awaiting the team’s inevitable creation of a truly next gen Aliens vs. Predator title. Well, that wait is now over. A Sega-published, Rebellion-developed Aliens vs. Predator is upon us; but does it live up to the high standards set by the developer’s own, previous iterations of the series? That answer is an emphatic yes.
“There hasn’t been a more jumpy, nerve-wracking survival-horror experience like this since EA’s Dead Space back in 2008″Aliens vs. Predator (henceforth AvP) doesn’t succeed based on any kind of technical prowess or earth-shattering innovation of gameplay, but rather due to the meticulous detail and loving care Rebellion used when handling the source material. In each of the single-player campaigns (of which there are three – more on that later) there are countless references to Aliens, Predator, and other films in the series’ histories – references which will immediately be recognizable and savored by the franchises’ many fans. Little moments like having a cloaked predator jump in front of you, flash his eye-like visor in your direction, and then leap out of sight – a direct tribute to a nearly identical scene from the first Predator movie. Or the nerve-wracking ping of the marine’s motion tracker – a required, yet deviously inefficient way of tracking aliens as they scamper around in ceiling vents or inside adjacent rooms, searching for the best way to lunge in and eviscerate their human prey. There is no question – if you are a fan of any of the Alien, Predator, or AvP films, Rebellion’s effort will strike a cord and become one of the go-to experiences in your video game collection.
As previously mentioned, there are three separate, single-player campaigns in AvP – one for the alien, one for the predator, and one for the colonial marines. Each will take anywhere from four to six hours to complete, with the marine campaign being the meatiest of the bunch. Taking more than a little direction from id’s Doom 3, the marine missions focus on advancing through dark, atmospheric environments (with a deviously ineffective flashlight), all the while trying not to get ripped apart by prowling aliens. Ammo is sparse in this campaign, and there will be plenty of moments where you’ll have to throw down your pulse rifle (which looks, sounds, and discharges exactly like it did in the movie Aliens) and fend off lunging aliens with your pistol (or just run like hell, which is quite often a very smart alternative). The dynamic lighting, gritty environments and film-perfect sound effects bring these missions to life – there hasn’t been a more jumpy, nerve-wracking survival-horror experience like this since EA’s Dead Space back in 2008.
In the predator campaign, you’ll explore some of the same environments that you saw in the marine campaign, but under different circumstances (all three campaigns actually take place at the same “Freya’s Prospect” colony, but follow slightly different timelines, which allowed Rebellion to alter the levels and keep them fresh) As the predator you’ll have full access to the extraterrestrial hunter’s impressive arsenal, such as his shoulder cannon, combi stick, smart disc, and trademark wristblades. This is no simple rehash of the more typical, react-and-shoot style of gameplay found in the marine campaign (and most other first-person shooters), however. With the predator you will do exactly what he does in the movies – use camouflage to maneuver into strategically advantageous positions and methodically eliminate targets. Leaping from tree branch to tree branch, tracking your prey, then leaping down and tearing the skull and spine from an unwary target (à la Scorpian in Mortal Kombat) is absolutely grotesque, yet wholly truthful to the source material. A lot of your time as the predator will be spent in melee range, slashing with your razor-sharp wristblades, so it should come as quite a relief that Rebellion managed to craft one of the most brutal and effective close-quarters combat systems in a first-person game to date.
Finally, we have the alien campaign – a unique first-person experience (with, obviously, a complete focus on melee attacks) that utilizes undoubtedly the game’s most controversial gameplay mechanics. You see, as the alien you’ll be moving at lightning fast speeds and have the ability to cling to almost any surface. That means you’ll be able to scurry up walls, onto ceilings, and virtually anywhere else that you can see. This combination of blazing speed and a constant shifting of planes can cause the camera to go all kinds of haywire – if you’ve ever gotten motion sickness while playing a first-person game, prepare to have a barf-bag handy when first coming to grips with the alien’s style of play (pro tip: turn Alien Auto Transition to “On” in the options). That said, there is something incredibly liberating about playing as the alien. The levels are truly your playground to explore as you see fit, smashing lights (nearly all light sources in the game can be extinguished), hissing at your human prey and striking fast and from the darkness. You’ll really feel as if you are a jet-black, slavering, and absolutely lethal alien drone – a true credit to Rebellion’s work on what must have been one of the harder aspects of AvP’s game design.
After you’ve spent the fifteen or so hours it takes to complete all three single-player campaigns (not counting the multiple play-throughs required to collect all of the hidden goodies), you’ll likely be drawn to the game’s impressive suite of multiplayer modes. Once again, capitalizing on beloved themes and experiences from the movies, AvP offers up some of the most addictive and unique multiplayer game types on the current generation of consoles. Take Infection, for example; in this mode everyone in the game starts as a marine, with one player being randomly chosen as an alien. The alien’s goal is to kill the marines – thereby “infecting” them and making them spawn as an alien as well. These matches generally start out slowly, with a group of marines setting up a perimeter in a defensible section of the map. The aliens have the advantage of speed, however, and when striking from the darkness via unexpected angles, the marines’ perimeter will eventually be breached. As marines are killed, their numbers decrease while the number of aliens inversely increases. In the end, it always ends up with the last few marines locked in a frantic last-stand against a swarm of aliens – an epic multiplayer experience, and one that can’t truly be recreated in any other game.
Of course, there are other amazing multiplayer modes as well. Modes such as Predator Hunt (recreating the one predator versus a group of armed humans from the movies), Survivor (four players cooperatively holding out against increasingly larger waves of A.I.-controlled aliens) and Species Death Match (each species works together to kill the opposition). Each of these modes is incredibly addictive and a complete blast to play, whether with friends or random strangers over PSN. It’s also remarkable how well-balanced Rebellion managed to make the multiplayer, considering the vastly different play styles of each of the three species. Marines start out heavily armed, but have limited vision and a shoddy flashlight. They have to rely on quick reflexes, proper positioning and, most importantly, their motion tracker to find success. Predators can cloak, have access to multiple visor modes and high tech weaponry, but must collect their best weapons from points on the map after spawning, and have no way of detecting an attack from behind other than physically turning and seeing it coming. Lastly, aliens are extremely fragile, but shockingly fast and hard to track. They can knock out lights and strike from the darkness – a stationary alien clinging to the celling of a darkened hallway is the bane of a colonial marine’s existence, as they don’t come up on the motion tracker and are nigh invisible. All in all, success in the game’s multiplayer comes down to skill with your species of choice, and that’s definitely a good thing.
“If you’ve ever gotten motion sickness while playing a first-person game, prepare to have a barf-bag handy when first coming to grips with the alien’s style of play”So, Rebellion crafted AvP to be meticulously true to the movies in many ways, but, technically, how does the game’s visual presentation hold up to other first-person titles on the market? The answer? The graphics won’t blow you away, but they get the job done. That said, AvP, is no Killzone 2 – you aren’t going to call your friends into the room so the both of you can “oooo” and “ahhhh” at any particular aspect of the game’s visual presentation. Even so, the game’s dark atmosphere and gritty environments (most of which look appropriately lived-in and worn) are extremely fitting to the subject matter and survival-horror-esque gameplay style. Small touches like vines and other foliage that sway when brushed up against, stellar dynamic lighting, viscous-looking kill animations, and absolutely fantastic predator and alien models give this game an adequately next-gen look – a truly laudable, if not mind-blowing upgrade from what we saw in Rebellion’s 1999 PC offering. Basically, what the game lacks in technical wizardry, it more than makes up for with effective art direction and poignant ambiance.
On the audio side of things, minus a smattering of ho-hum voice acting, AvP’s aural presentation is quite exceptional. The music is sparse, moody and, in many cases, ripped straight from the franchises’ best films, and the voice work by fan-favorite Lance Henriksen (aka Bishop from Aliens) adds a professional (and nostalgic) touch to the campaigns’ cut-scenes. And all the trademark sound effects that you’ve come to expect from both franchises – the insect-like clicking of the predator and the snappy *whoosh* of his visor, and the elephantine roar of a wounded alien – are here and accounted for, showing just how important it was for Rebellion to genuinely capture the spirit of the movies.
As moody, unique, and just plain fun as AvP is, there are a few problems that bring the game down. First, the online matchmaking is awful. It’s so awful, in fact, that it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to call it flat out broken. More often than not when attempting to use the ranked matchmaking, you will be forced to wait up to five minutes just to be placed with another person (that’s one person mind you), and then another several minutes to be placed in a lobby. The matchmaking system doesn’t seem capable of filling up a room with players, and consistently starts up matches with only a few people in the lobby. This can make multiplayer modes like Species Death Match pointless, as one marine versus one predator versus one alien is, essentially, just a straight up deathmatch. Even worse, you will often find yourself singled out against a pair of players from opposing species. In a nutshell, the ranked matchmaking system takes forever to get you into a lobby, then rushes from lobby to game before ensuring some kind of balance or acceptable number of players has been reached. Add all of this to the lack of dedicated servers (if someone rage-quits mid game and they happen to be the host, everyone is kicked out) and you have very shoddy online functionality that pales when compared to what you’ll find in games such as Modern Warfare 2. It’s a shame too, because the actual gameplay experience online is a blast – it’s just the getting into a proper game that is needlessly frustrating.
The other main problem with the game is a minor nitpick with the melee combat system. Using a combination of light and heavy attacks and blocking, the hand-to-hand combat is strategic, engaging, and remarkably well-implemented. However, there are times when, due to the camera bobbing and jerking around from your character being struck, it’s hard to tell why exactly your attack never connected. And sometimes you can be chasing an enemy, see the button prompt to pull off a “trophy kill,” only to have your character lunge forward and then do nothing. This can literally happen two or three times in row with the same adversary, with them eventually just turning around (after noticing you were apparently dry-humping them from behind) and meeting you in face-to-face combat. In a game so reliant on stealth, positioning, and one-button kills, it’s too bad that these situations weren’t completely ironed out before release, even if they are fairly rare occurrences that take place exclusively during online matches.
Overall, though, Aliens vs. Predator is a dream game for fans of the source material and, despite lacking a slick coat of whiz-bang graphical polish, ranks as one of the most unique and absorbing first-person titles for the PS3. Each of three, well-crafted single player campaigns offers a distinct gameplay experience, and the online portion of the game (barring the aggravating matchmaking system) is fully-featured, extremely balanced, and a whole lot of fun. Whether you’re leaping from rooftop to rooftop, stalking a platoon of marines as the predator, or scampering through a ventilation shaft on the way to propagating your species as the alien, Rebellion’s sci-fi, survival-horror/action title is an unequivocal gem of a FPS, and a worthy addition to nearly anyone’s budding game library.