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The iconic movie heavyweights gear up for combat once again, but nothing seems to really change...
It's three years since SEGA secured the Aliens license from 20th Century Fox. Barely a blip on the motion detector ever materialised from Obsidian's aborted RPG effort, while uncertainty continues to surround Gearbox's shooter, particularly given the subsequent success of Borderlands and the inevitability of a sequel.
So in a bid to save some embarrassment SEGA has enlisted the assistance of Rebellion, presumably hoping their experience with the franchise will at least bear results. Since creating one of the few titles of any interest for the Atari Jaguar, the UK studio has made a name for itself with fairly decent attempts at pitting the two movie heavyweights against one another. The 2010 title from SEGA follows the same format of its previous namesakes, pitching the Aliens, Predators, and Marines against one another in three different campaigns of xenomorphic battles.
The notion that Rebellion had to turn this around pretty sharpish dawns almost instantly. Bland, functional menus and presentation are often a giveaway; admittedly it's the equivalent of judging a book by its cover, but more times than not it's an indicator of how much thought has gone into the overall game. Strangely a message proclaiming: 'Wayland-Yulandi thanks you for your patience' during the loading screen is eerily prescient of the experience that awaits.
With over 30 years of film heritage to draw upon - iconic movie antagonists, high tech weaponry, chilling terror, and explosive action - the brands should provide an ideal scope for an excellent video game. The emphasis there is squarely on the 'should'. Using a similar structure to the Monolith developed Aliens vs Predator 2, the manner in which the three separate plots intersect one another provides a rare glimpse of imagination in a setting that otherwise fails to capture the action, suspense and terror that the original material offers in abundance. Instead it's the rehashed concept of Predators waging war with the Aliens and the unknowing Marines once again getting caught up in the situation. Anybody looking for something even bordering the reasons or whys will have to follow the textual updates that sit awkwardly atop of the action, or face collecting the datapads found in the Marines campaign.
The varying abilities hinted at by the characters of the three campaigns do at least provide a slight sense of variety to the proceedings, but it never really feels as though the concept has been developed or pushed forward significantly enough. The problem facing all three campaigns is one of overall mediocrity and a lack of any genuine imagination. Controls are often awkward, there's an emphasis across the board on the brutally efficient yet thoroughly bland melee combat, and an overall tired approach to objectives and pacing that never threatens to faithfully portray the scope of its material.
With a stealth approach to combat, the Predator initially promises a satisfyingly tense affair. Leaping across elevated ledges taking down opponents one by one while under the veil of camouflage, is a little cumbersome but at least representative of what's expected from the movies. Simple AI however quickly destroys any such illusion. The same technique of luring opponents away with disguised speech recordings soon grows dull through the lack of challenge and sheer repetition. When combat becomes less about preying and more about action, the Predator continues to disappoint. 23 years of movies, comic-books and video games have provided an arsenal of weapons that would shame most countries (along with a specific wiki page that's longer than most countries!), however the Predator's collection of four weapons in the game never manage to instill the sense of excitement that should be a given. With most of the weapons restricted by a reserve of energy, the Predator has to often resort to melee attacks which are woefully lacking. Beyond ripping a Marines head and spine from his shoulders (which soon gets irritating and time consuming), melee combat becomes overly repetitive very quickly and never really manages to pack a punch. This seems to be a wider criticism of the game instead of just the Predator, as melee attacks are often a little too efficient across the board. Obviously the Aliens have little else, however strangely the Marine's most effective technique is to bash opponents with the butt of a rifle and unload a clip into the fallen, briefly defenceless opponent.
The Aliens campaign is a test of knowing which way is up and which is down. The ability to clamber across any surface is generally well implemented but never becomes entirely comfortable. Unfortunately the lack of techniques afforded to the Alien makes combat a thoroughly pedestrian affair, switching between pathetic swipes with feeble forearms and slightly more powerful tail attacks that could easily have somebody's eye out. The game suggests that a strategy lies in keeping to the darkness and destroying light sources, but ultimately - like the poor AI thwarted the Predator - this never becomes a crucial tactic and it's far too easy to play the campaign without ever resorting to it. Instead the Aliens speed and regenerative health makes getting into battles and quickly back out again the most effective, but not entirely enjoyable, way to play.
Surprisingly the most enjoyment comes from the Marines campaign. Admittedly it's a much more conventional experience, but the threat of Aliens lurking in the dark and a Predator's three red lights spontaneously appearing creates something close to the tension that is often sadly lacking.
The mildly varying degrees of gameplay, however, are made redundant by the overall uninspired approach to the design of each stage. Combat quickly grows dull regardless of the campaign. Too often it's all about killing everybody in the area, usually with the inherent problem of retracing your steps just to find the last remaining opponent. Poor AI and a lack of imagination, leaves it all a routine, laborious experience, which fails to leave a lasting impression. It's never more than going through the motions, racing to reach the end rather then enjoying it; it's never surprising or scary, even just a little bit. Sporadic set pieces fail to dramatise the action to any significant degree, while boss battles are understated and can often be solved using simple techniques to easily outsmart the opponent.
The few qualities stem from the characteristics imposed by the license, things that instantly make this appealing for an audience who grew up petrified of these things. The unmistakable bleeps of the motion tracker, the aggressive bursts from the Marines pulse rifle, the unnatural clicks from the Predator and the anguished screams of the Aliens all mirror the movies admirably and help to create a familiar experience - on the ears at least. The prevalent lack of ambition, however, is guilty of relying solely on these qualities - knowing that the right sounding bleeps on a motion detector instantly creates tension, the undeniably terrifying screech of an alien is enough to make up for its general dullness - rather than carefully creating an experience inspired by them.
So a distinctly mediocre experience, which is let down further by some severe bugs and glitches throughout the boxed PS3 copy of the game. Examples of the problems included a stage that seemed to block off areas with invisible barriers, but revealed to be giant containers in a later campaign set on the same stage. The glitch that made the objects invisible probably explained why Aliens also scuttled around in thin air. Further bugs included a later mission in the Marines campaign, where an impregnated Marine has to be escorted to safety from the Aliens nest and open up the locked door after fighting through a wave of aliens. On the first attempt she stood by the side of the door, vomiting and complaining. After wandering back through the entire stage looking for something that might have been missed, the only thing left - out of sheer frustration - was to see how long it takes to kill yourself with grenades - not long! A second attempt gained no further success. On the third attempt I decided to stand where the marine took her position, only to be forced through the scenery and bring about a game crash that needed the machine to be rebooted. Miraculously the fourth attempt found the marine coming back round to her senses and opening the door! There are further bugs throughout the seven or eight hours that Aliens vs Predator lasts. This isn't a QA sheet but it does beg the question: if we managed to find so many issues in that time, how much time was actually spent on testing?
Fortunately whereas the main game falls considerably short of delivering the experience associated with what's expected, the game's multiplayer modes capture the essence with considerably more success. Mixing traditional game types with those that demonstrate a little more creativity and sit well with the factions, game types such as Predator Hunt - which pits a lone Predator against a squad of Marines - and Infestation - which finds infected marines joining the aliens side - provide the types of experiences that the single player is often found lacking.