I had high hopes for this game. There was something in the way it was covered that made me think that this high-concept game would be something special, a singularity almost on the indie scene. On paper, the concept is an intriguing one: a virtual social media game, set in a faux Star Treks sci-fi universe where your destiny is largely out of your hands. There was a commentary there on modern life and social media that I found pleasing, plus it had Star Trek jokes, what’s not to love. …
When 2K’s Christoph Hartmann said that “strategy games are just not contemporary”, what he actually meant was “we can’t market and sell a strategy game on a console”. That was in defence of the abominable idea of turning X-Com into an FPS. Gentlemen, gentleladies, I am afraid that we may never see another strategy game in the X-Com series. One would think there were lessons to learn from Enforcer and Interceptor, but you would apparently be wrong.
Last semester, I had a module at university devoted entirely to the alien films. This culminated in a screening of the Alien Vs Predator movie which, as I’m sure you are aware, is very Paul WS Anderson in every regard. This was a bit annoying, having come to the film expecting something like Monolith’s rather snazzy AvP2. I gather that Rebellion’s original crack at an AvP game was rather good, but I missed it myself. Perhaps I was too young, or it was overshadowed by something else, I can’t remember. What this means, however, is that Rebellion’s return to the franchise is, for me, similar to Anderson’s film. It has a lot of expectations to live up to.
Does it manage it? Well, short answer, it doesn’t fail.
Aliens vs Predator drops you into the boots/exoskeleton/fashionable fishnet hunting gear of one of three characters: a Colonial Marine, or the titular Alien or Predator. The game gets off to a good start by having the three races control in subtly different manners, providing a different feel to each portion of the campaign.
Each race embraces different styles of play, from the pure run and gun antics of the marine (coupled with a bit of survival horror at times) to the more stealthy predator and aliens. While your time with each character in singleplayer is relatively brief, perhaps three or four hours, the knowledge that their stories all tie in with one another is a blessing.
AvP’s story takes place on a colony run under the watchful eye of Weyland-Yutani, the evil ultra-corp that any fan of the series will recognise. Karl Bishop Weyland has spent a great deal of time and money on this specific colony, unearthing an ancient predator ruin while simultaneously entering into some ethically and morally dubious research regarding the xenomorphs. Naturally, something goes wrong, the aliens escape and the predators turn up to ensure that no primitive human is going to take possession of their revered dead/technology. And when things go bad in the arse end of space, the Colonial Marines are the ones sent in to clean things up.
As plots go, it’s not going to win any awards, but it will keep you entertained long enough to be worthwhile. A generous scattering of audio logs help to flesh it out to some degree, but they are not essential to understand the motivations of the newest member of the Weyland family, merely an insight into some of the various characters you may hear about.
The three interconnected plots fit quite well, although they never truly overlap. You’ll go to the same places in the three campaigns, lending some credence to the argument that it is artificially lengthening the game, but each time the challenge will be different. For the marine, a march through a deserted garrison may be concerned with trying to deal with the bleeping of your motion tracker, desperately searching the scene for that one scuttling horror lurking in the shadows. For the alien perhaps you are that horror, trying to find your way from one side to the other without an army of synthetics blasting your limbs off. Even the predator, with his cloak and dagger mentality, will have a different challenge, trying to sabotage a specific system so that he can reclaim some much revered technology.
Rebellion have done a good job of nailing the motivation and feel of the characters, although they have made some unusual design choices in order to achieve this. The aliens and the predators are mostly perfect, both fast and deadly, strong when played in line with their movie mentalities and the perfect fodder when not. The marines, however, fare somewhat differently.
At first, all seems well. When the demo came out, there were complaints that the marine had no crouch ability, although this could easily be explained away with the notion that you should be spending the game running, always moving, otherwise you’ll be lunch. At first, this seems to ring true. Standing still in multiplayer does indeed equal death, and singleplayer is much the same; standing your ground against a rampaging horde of xenomorphs is a sure-fire why to see the game over screen. Then you reach the end portion of the marine campaign, and the synths are introduced.
For those of you not familiar with the series, “synths” are androids designed to appear the same as humans, but to have all the expected mental superiority. They are, technically, bound by the Laws of Robotics, but Weyland-Yutani have circumvented these rules and invented combat-synths. What this means, then, is that these robots have perfect eyesight, perfect aim and can shrug off recoil like nobody’s business.
They can also crouch and take cover.
I had never truly realised how useful the crouch key is in a fire fight until I didn’t have it any more. Trying to fight the synths as a marine is an exercise in frustration, your ridiculously huge boots give away your position instantly, and they will be ready for you. Perhaps in the future, knees have been made obsolete by genetic engineering, or some hideous disease has resulted in deformed children with no joints, but it is suddenly very jarring when presented with enemies that fight back.
This is avoided in the other campaigns being as your primary goal is to go unseen. While you can survive a straight up fight if you are skilled, it feels like a personal failure to get spotted, much as it does in Splinter Cell for instance. The fact that you are largely reliant on melee combat encourages this, with gruesome animations for stealth kills and successful counters in combat. The combat itself can be reduced to a rock, paper, wrist-blade equation, but by the time it starts to grate you will be moving onto the next campaign, so it’s not too big a deal. Also, the predator’s cloak no longer draws from his energy reserves, which is just wizard.
I have a problem with the multiplayer, however. That problem, put simply, is that I hate it.
As a disclaimer, I’m not particularly fond of competitive multiplayer at the best of times, but clever ones will allow you to have fun even when you suck. Team Fortress 2 and Modern Warfare 2 manage this extremely well. AvP doesn’t. The matches are very fast paced and you will die a lot, but that’s fine; you don’t have much downtime and the game result is never a forgone conclusion.
The problems arise firstly with the maps. While they are deliciously detailed, with one being particularly memorable for replicating the pyramid from the AvP movie complete with moving walls, they are just too small. This is exemplified by the game’s inability to find a safe place to spawn you, often resulting in just dumping you in front of an enemy, leading to a never ending stream of spawn deaths or, worse, the death train.
The death train comes from the game’s trophy kill system, all the gory one-button kills from the singleplayer but transplanted into multiplayer. Using one is largely pointless, as the time it takes to complete will allow any nearby enemies (and there will be many owing to the tiny maps) to get behind you and prepare one of their own. This can repeat to a ludicrous degree, only stopping when the next man to board the train is a marine, owing to their lack of a trophy kill. The simple solution would be not to use the trophy kill at all, but then you have to contend with the annoying melee system, which ceases to be fun once lag gets involved. Even on the newly implemented dedicated servers, you’ll be lucky to see a ping below 100, which doesn’t seem much, but is just enough to make timing your punches and blocks harder than it needs to be.
My biggest gripe, however, is survival mode. All my problems with the competitive multiplayer can be written off or explained away as it not being my kind of game, and there may even be some legitimacy in that, but the failures of survival mode cannot. We were promised a compelling co-op experience wherein we and three friends would fight off the slavering horde on a number of maps. What we get is two maps (unless you shelled out for the special edition, then you get an exclusive extra pair) that are little more than a square room. It just seems so lazy, as if they’ve gone ‘here’s a room, put some aliens in it, done’. They could have put choke points, deployable turrets, doors to weld, anything. Allow you to relive that scene from Aliens when they are holed up in the colony and preparing for the inevitable alien onslaught. I don’t say this often, but they could have learned a lot from Killing Floor.
Overall, AvP does well at replicating the feel of the universe and the character of each race, at least in singleplayer. You never feel as though you are retreading your steps as you progress through the campaigns, and the individuality of each is maintained throughout, although by the third time you reach the final map you might be losing patience. It is unfortunate, then, that for every good decision Rebellion made they seemed to balance it out with a poor one.
Personally, I think that Rebellion could have adopted a few of Monolith’s innovations to the series, especially in the multiplayer department. The game does feel a little like a step back in that regard, with the multiplayer component being a bit archaic for my tastes, especially when the predecessor had such entertaining options as Lifecycle. Apart from the presentation, which is above par, there is a bare-bones feel to the whole product which hurts it more than a little. That said, however, it is still worth a go if you are a fan of the series, or a decent place to start.