How good could an Aliens Vs Predator videogame really be? If you’re only familiar with the frankly appalling AVP movies, then you’d be more than forgiven for some overly healthy skepticism. But if you remember Rebellion’s original 1999 adaptation (of what was then only a geek fantasy writ in comic book form) you’d be more than aware of what pleasures a video game adaptation could pose.
By pedantically designing the combat around the specific abilities of each species and maintaining that domineering aura of weapon fetishism overwhelmingly inherent in both film series, that original AVP game was something of a masterpiece. It toyed with elements of stealth and survival horror, and actually was as much a horror game as an FPS – something that had never been pulled off to any considerable degree before. It is still played, online, even today.
Like that original game, Rebellion’s brand new AVP is actually three (narratively interwoven) games in one, and that isn’t even counting the (sure to be substantial) multiplayer component. Fans of James Cameron’s Aliens won’t need any prompting, but the game’s main menu places the Marine campaign at the top of it, clearly prompting everyone to begin the experience there. The Marine’s tale starts strongly, but it isn’t until around twenty minutes in, when a particular line of dialogue is spoken to your character, that the neck hairs are going to start going haywire. “Come in and grab yourself a pulse rifle, kid.”
The Marine campaign takes place (as do all three) on an desolate and unnamed mining planet that bears an uncanny, fan-baiting resemblance to LV426. The actual plot is very efficient but largely unimportant, because the Marine’s game is all about keeping you on the edge of your seat. Although all three modes toy (as before) with the concept of stealth, the Marine campaign is basically survival horror, with scarce ammunition and plentiful well-placed shocks. It adheres rigidly to the aesthetics of James Cameron’s film, and for a game that lasts around six hours – on the normal difficulty setting, mind – it houses more jumps and prolonged moments of unbearable tension than some games that clock in at twice that duration. And this represents only one third of the package.
One element that would make the Marine campaign falter horribly would be lacklustre Alien AI – and lacklustre is not a word that could ever be used to describe it. Besides being barely visible in the darkness, the Aliens also utilise their environment at every opportunity, by scarpering up trees, instantaneously scrambling beneath you on metal walkways, and looking for any opportunity to flank. Using old-school film techniques to make you jump out of your seat is one thing, but being backed into a corner by a snaking trio of Aliens who keep disappearing is liable to set a new horror benchmark for a lot of people.
If the Aliens seem almost impossibly agile and breakneck, then most player’s next stop will be the Alien campaign, just to see if Rebellion were able to nail the species’ vivacious skill set. And nail it they have, because in addition to moving like the speed of light and being able to leap between different surfaces at the touch of a button, you can use your environment to your advantage, by destroying light fixtures, spontaneously clambering up walls and ceilings, and making yourself invisible in small, darkened openings when you need to. Playing as an Alien is all about using stealth and speed combined, and it couldn’t be more different from the pensive and gung-ho tone of the Marine’s romp.
Stealth is also the primary focus of the Predator’s game, and although it seems terribly unfair to single-out one of these three for special praise in a package so complete, there is simply no denying that the Predator campaign is certain to take a place alongside the best gaming experiences you’ll have all year. The opening tutorial will probably confuse and overwhelm you at first, but it is astonishing to note how quickly those feelings fall away. Every physical attribute, every bit of hi-tech weaponry and every tactile piece of design that a Predator uses to his advantage is at your disposal from the get-go.
One of the most fascinating things about the Predator species – that completely bizarre, computerized approximation of human hearing – is re-imagined brilliantly on the soundtrack. If you have surround sound at home – and if ever a game was designed to encourage you to invest in it, its this – you’re very likely to enter a zen-like state when trying to weigh up your options in the battlefield. The entire campaign’s main set piece – consisting of a large open area populated by both Marines and Aliens that you are free to tackle however you wish – seems almost impossible on the harder difficulty settings, purely because you really have to use your head. Get spotted once, and every one’s on to you.
AVP also nonchalantly solves one of the fundamental problems with last year’s wonderful Batman: Arkham Asylum. Namely this: if utilising a particular vision mode is essential to progress through the game – and like Batman’s Detective ability, the Predator’s special visual channels are utterly requisite – then there is surely little reason (as Arkham Asylum unfortunately demonstrated) for the player to ever bother switching it off. But because the Aliens are invisible to the same thermal optics that can spot humans from a great distance, and because both they and the Marines often inhabit the same spaces, it becomes another tool in the grand scheme of maximising tension and setting up opportunities for long stretches of thrilling stealth gameplay.
The problems with Aliens Vs Predator are indubitably minor; the only notable issue being the strange decision to use the same cut scenes repeatedly, regardless of which game you play through. Everything else is pretty much as you’d hope, and if fans are feeling honest come this December, they’re going to have no option but to admit that this is the only choice for their Game Of The Year. The multiplayer modes – which we sadly haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience outside of the excellent recent online deathmatch demo – sound truly spectacular, and if Rebellion’s track record with the franchise is to be trusted, then that’s the least they’ll be. Even without those modes, and even if you’re not a hardcore fan, Aliens Vs Predator remains an absolute must-buy either way.