Sunday, January 23, 2011

Aliens vs Predator (Xbox 360) Review

When I was 8 years old, I got to watch Aliens at my uncle's place, and I was hooked. Sci-Fi Marines, large alien bugs that bleed acid, and a tough-as-nails female lead in Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); it blew my fragile little mind. About a year later I got to see Predator at a friend's place, and watching a group of tough American commandos lead by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) hunted down one by one by an advanced alien hunter, well, it also rocked my world. Flash forward a few years later when the two franchises were merged together and I was in adolescent heaven.

While the first two Alien films are critically acclaimed and Predator is certainly regarded as an exceptional '80's B-flick, the rest of the franchise, either separately or together, has seen mixed success. Originally Aliens vs. Predator was the domain of comics, novels, action figures, and video games, and while the games appeared as retro-90's action sidescrollers, it wasn't until British developer Rebellion took the reins that Aliens vs. Predator became a first person shooter. Released in 1994, interestingly enough on a console, the game proved to be a killer app for the Atari Jaguar. The game allowed players to experience different single player experiences as a Colonial Marine, a Predator, and an Alien, each featuring unique styles of play.

In 1999, Rebellion once again developed Aliens versus Predator, this time for the PC, and it became an instant hit. Providing drastically different gameplay experiences, the Marine used conventional firearms and relied on his Motion Tracker and Night Vision Goggles to navigate his Campaign's environments. The Predator could Cloak and had a host of weapons to dispatch prey and collect trophies while using enhanced vision modes to stalk his targets. Most exciting of all though was the Alien, who had simple claw and tail attacks along withe a head bite to replenish health, but most unique of all was the Alien's ability to quickly and easily race along any surface: floors, walls, or ceilings, and she could see her prey via pheromone "outlines" around the targets, permitting sight through walls and other solid objects.

Lite on story, the game featured key areas from the films released to that point, and even some locations yet to come (this game was the first time I recall seeing Alien-themed temples, a concept used extensively in 2004's feature film, Alien vs. Predator), and it really allowed players to experience being the different species.

After an excellent sequel which really provided a solid story-based Campaign experience (developed by Monolith) and a not-so-excellent expansion to that sequel (developed by Third Law Entertainment), Rebellion has once again taken the reins and brought Aliens vs Predator both to the PC and back to console's on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Released in February 2010, I was knee deep in Mass Effect 2 at the time, and coupled with poor to average reviews siting a lackluster Campaign experience I decided to give the game a pass. This past November, however, I found the Xbox 360 version at Walmart for $19.99, and at that cost I decided to head bite and add it to my gaming backlog.

Taking a nod from the storytelling strength of Monolith's Aliens versus Predator 2, Aliens vs Predator features three Campaigns with interconnected stories, so events that occur in the Marine Campaign, for example, you'll see occur or hear referenced in the Predator Campaign and so on. The game's primary story takes place on the planet BG 386 and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation's Freya's Prospect colony.

As a Marine, you play as the Rookie, a solider who's part of the crew of the USS Marlow sent to investigate a distress signal from the colony. The game opens with your Dropship heading towards the planet when a large Predator vessel appears and destroys the Marlow, stranding you and any other survivors on the Alien infested colony. Through a quick series of events you're separated from the rest of your squad and you begin the game by trying to link up with them. A first person shooter with some survival horror elements, the Marine Campaign is literally dark, and you have a Flashlight on all your weapons to help illuminate the way. You can also toss a single Flare at a time to add some much brighter area-specific light to any environment. Of course, you'll want to keep tabs on your Motion Tracker, as it'll alert you to hostiles far better than your Mk 1 eyeball will.

The Marine, as is tradition, plays the most like a typical first person shooter character. You have a variety of weapons at your disposal, ranging from the basic Pistol (which has infinite ammo) to the Pulse Rifle, Shotgun, Flamethrower, Sniper Rifle, and Smart Gun. You can only carry three weapons at a time however, which always includes the Pistol, though the Smart Gun takes up two slots and prevents you from running.

And running is important, even in the middle of a fight as you're quite fragile as a simple human. You have three Health bars, which deplete with damage taken, however if a bar is not completely drained and you can avoid damage for half a minute, it'll regenerate. This provides an interesting take on health damage and regenerating health, and also allows you to better ration your Stims. You can carry three Stims at a time, and using one will completely replenish your Health. You can use Stims mid-combat, but keep in mind you can't run for a second while doing so.

Like other survival horror games, you also have an adviser who keeps tabs on you and provides you with your objectives. At first this is another squad mate, Tequila, and switches to another character a little later on. While the storytelling isn't the strongest, I confess I did get attached to Tequila by the Campaign's end, so credit to Rebellion there. Audio Logs from colonists, scientists, and soldiers are also scattered all throughout the levels, and collecting them helps to fill in some of the game's backstory.

Next up we have the Alien Campaign. Chronologically this one starts first, and you play as Number 6, a specially bred Drone by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who, naturally, escapes captivity and violently frees other captured Aliens to begin Freya's Prospect's infestation.

Originally I was concerned about bringing the complicated Alien control scheme to a console Controller, but I confess Rebellion did a great job with it and after several minutes of practice, quickly navigating the environments and moving along walls and ceilings became second nature.

The Alien is _fast_, there's no better way to put. Clicking the Left Stick and moving initiates Running just like the other species, but the Alien just rockets back and forth. Holding the Right Trigger allows you to maneuver along almost any surface, and holding the Left Trigger allows you to Focus on an object or target to quickly jump there or pounce on them.

Possessing a claw attack and stronger tail attack, the Alien can quickly take down individual targets but groups of enemies will pose a problem, so the player must rely on stealth. Smashing lights and hiding in darkness will make the Alien almost invisible to human eyes, and you can also Hiss to lure prey closer to you (or to split up groups if that's your goal). The Alien's health also regenerates after a little, and you can increase this regeneration quickly by Head Biting enemy corpses.

What really astounded me with the Alien, however, was the Executions and Stealth Kills that you can do. Sneak up behind an enemy and you can press "X" to do a Stealth Kill, which will quietly kill any human enemy. Do enough damage in regular combat to an opponent and you'll also be able to press "X" to do an Execution which, as the name implies, allows you to viciously tear your opponent apart in a variety of pre-scripted ways. Honestly, the extent of the violence present in these kinds of kills surprised and shocked me at first as they're exceptionally gory and oft outright sadistic, and you can tell Rebellion had a lot of fun putting these into the game.

Human Civilians, on the other hand, you can Harvest. Press "X" when near them, and you'll grab them and force them onto the ground, roughly exposing their face so a conveniently appearing Facehugger can pounce right on them. Harvest every Civilan in the Campaign and you'll even unlock an Achievement!

While the Alien can't collect random Audio Diaries, there are dozens of containers of Royal Jelly scattered around the environments. Smashing them constitutes the Alien's collectibles.

Last up is the Predator Campaign, which begins with you proving yourself to become an Elite. The tutorial teaches you how to perform quick and strong attacks and to use your Plasma Caster, and also introduces you to the Predator's own Executions, which are nearly as sadistic as the Alien's. Once you complete the tutorial you and several other Elites head to BG-386 to discover the fates of several lost Young Bloods, and you ultimately end up hunting alone trying to deny the human's access to Predator technology and attempting to eradicate a newly spawned PredAlien.

Aliens vs Predator presents the best gameplay representation of the Predator to date. Not only do you finally get to use the Spear as a proper throwing Spear for the first time, but you can also jump amongst your environment just like the Predators can in the films. Hold Left Trigger to enter Focus Mode and you'll see jump points scattered across the area. If you're close enough, press "A" and you'll do a mighty leap. This allows you to quickly maneuver your environments and stalk your prey.

Initially you have access to your Wrist Blades, Plasma Caster, and Heat Vision mode, and later on you'll get Mines, the Disc, Spear, and a vision mode that allows you to clearly see Aliens (now all green-ish like the films). You can Cloak indefinitely, and you have Health with limited regeneration just like the Marine which you can restore with Shards. You have a limited supply of Energy that fuels your Plasma Caster and Mines and to replenish your Energy, you need to siphon power from human power sources scattered about the levels.

Somewhat similar to the Alien, you can Distract enemy humans with voice mimicking. Press "X" and select a Marine and then press "X" again while looking at the spot you want them to go. The Predator will then mimic a human voice, throwing it in that direction, and the Marine will go to investigate. While a bit cheesy and repetitive after a while, it works well to separate groups and to allow you opportunities for Stealth Kills.

For the Predator's collectibles, you'll find Trophy Belts scattered about the levels. These are actually the easiest collectibles of all to locate as entering Focus Mode shows their location in the entire area, even a good distance away.

One thing that I did not like, however, was that all three species rely on a clunky block-and-counter combat mechanic. At different points in a game, you'll be prompted to hold Left Bumper and Right Bumper to block a fast attack, or to press Right Bumper to Melee to counter a strong attack. Doing so properly leaves an enemy vulnerable allowing you to counter or get some breathing room, but I honestly found it only worked some of the time. The hit-and-miss nature of this mechanic made it rather unreliable; especially as the Marine who is deathly vulnerable to acid damage (close-in melee counters with Aliens killed me many times), not to mention a Marine meleeing an Alien really seems out of place for the franchise.

As I recall, the Alien's Campaign is a level shorter, and overall each level took me about an hour to complete. This included time exploring and patiently pulling off lots of stealth kills, so the entire experience on Normal difficulty for all three species took me about 15 to 20 hours. While each Campaign's experience is different, as the three species play very differently from one another, the majority of the levels traversed are very much the same each time around. You'll encounter the same colony, same ruins, and same mine in each Campaign, and while yes, you'll be able to navigate them differently and do different things in them, it is the same environments which is a little disappointing and adds a feeling of repetitiveness to the level design.

You also are unable to Quick Save in the game, and instead must reply upon Checkpoints to get you through. Check Points are auto-saved, however you can long save one in case you want to have multiple Campaigns in play. This feature is handy given how console titles work today, but was actually a bit confusing at first as it appeared that you _could_ save you current game progress when in reality, it was just the Checkpoint. Any collectibles you find are perma-found for your game, however, regardless of saving or death.

Visually the game looks nice, with great use of lighting (or the lack of it) and detailed environments present. Character models usually looked good, though some human models did look low quality on close-up, though this wasn't consistent. Weyland, an important character to the story, looked exceptional in some shots, but last-gen in others. Odd.

Audio wise, the voice acting is ridiculously cheesy throughout, though Lance Henriksen delivered a solid performance as usual, and it was also good to hear William Hope's voice again (Gorman in Aliens, though he plays a scientist in the game). The sound effects, however, are spot on with the franchise and the music is well done, mainly re-compositions of the traditional score.

Aliens vs Predator also features a full Multiplayer mode that was reasonably well praised, featuring a host of game types such as Deathmatch, Species Deathmatch, Survivor, etc., however less than a year after launch I found it very difficult to get a game going. Simply put, there doesn't seem to be a large player pool available via Xbox LIVE, and my Multiplayer exposure to the game is very slim.

After waiting in a lobby for about 10 minutes looking for a Quick Match, nothing was found. I then fired up a Single Player match of Survivor, which allowed me to play as a Marine attempting to survive waves of Aliens, and then finally after another several minutes I was able to get a match of Deathmatch going, but it was just me and another player.

No where in the manual or in-game does it mention how to switch your species in Multiplayer though, so I was stuck as a Marine and my opponent was a Predator. Considering a match can support a max of 4 Marines, 4 Aliens, or 2 Predators, you can imagine how a Marine vs. Predator match went. Yes, I fared very, very poorly and didn't have a chance what-so-ever. I personally don't mind loosing, but that was ridiculous and not fun at all.

In the end, Aliens vs Predator offers three diverse Campaign experiences with a solid length, though repetitive level design and some questionable gameplay mechanics hold it back. The Campaign's story is better told than anything Rebellion's done in the franchise before, but they have yet to reach the level of cohesion present in Monolith's efforts. Still, it's progress.

Like the rest of the franchise across any medium, Aliens vs Predator is really a fun B-title. Particularly now that it seems to have a dead Multiplayer community, I could never recommend the title at full retail cost, but as the bargain bin title I found it for I've gotten my money's worth and completely enjoyed myself. As a fan of the franchise, I really got to experience stepping into the shoes of these silver screen icons, and Rebellion did an excellent job of representing the unique appeal of each species.

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