March 3, 2010

Review - Aliens vs. Predator - A Shallow and Bloody Bad Time

(A little late, sorry, but I take a lot of time when I write!)

"I got a bad feeling about this drop," prophesies Pvt. Frost minutes before he, Ripley, and "the Corps" thrust themselves into the xenomorph badlands of LV-426 in Aliens.

"So you cooked up a story and dropped the six of us in a meatgrinder?" expostulates "Ah-nold" Dutch to "Apollo Creed" Dillon in Predator.

Two quotes from the two films of which February 16th's Aliens vs. Predator represents are ironically perfect descriptions of my internal struggle and short play through experience with said game.  Anyone who knows me knows well that I'm an Alien fanatic.  The Predator is less of an appealing obsession, save for his completely cool design, but the Alien, to me, is the king (or Queen) of nightmarishly simple creations that are just down right, well, creative.  Plug into the xeno-realm the inseparable fate of the steadfast Lt. Ellen Ripley, each a thorn in each other's claw, and the Alien saga is thematic as well as frightful.  I love the Alien franchise.

So, perhaps I went into this game with too much excitement and hope, focusing too much on one side of the adversarial triangle that is Aliens vs. Predator.  Aliens, Predators, and the humans they encounter are tightly woven into their own universes, and though crossing over sounds fantastic in idea (and conceptually it's not really all that bad), executing that crossover in film and video game hasn't met with resounding success.  On the other hand, Rebellion's first two attempts in the franchise were very well received for both the Atari Jaguar and the PC.  I played the PC version and it scared the poo out of me!  For it's time, the graphics and gameplay were superior.  Was it wrong to hope that the team who seemed to have the AvP formula down would secure another hit?  And is it ever wrong to have hope, anyway?

No, but for this game my hope for a quality experience never came.  That's why it's a huge eye-opener when I say that six days after having my highly anticipated copy, I traded it back in.  I, the Xenophile that I am, got rid of probably the best looking Alien game to date.  But looks will only take you so far.  In the end, all I felt I had experienced were point-blank sequences of gore, three incredibly uninspired campaigns, and a lack of multiplayer replay value.

Read on for my sadly disappointing experience with Aliens vs. Predator.

I knew going into playing AvP there would be issues (refer to the Pvt. Frost quote above).  One, most attempts at pitting the two species together has a history of not coming out just right.  The novels and comics do better justice, but the more mainstream exposures leave far too much to be desired (like substance).  Can you really craft a good story, though, with Aliens and Predators?  YES.  The Alien movies use the monsters more as backdrops or catalysts instead of main characters.  Why not dive into the culture of the Predator, the struggles they face, the sacrifices they have to endure to even win a spot at seeing one of these temple-fighting-grounds they've built around the galaxy; or how about a rogue Predator?  I guess video games isn't the best medium to tell that story, but I believe it is possible.

Issue two: when the focus on these two "enemies" is their abilities for bloody mutilation, then all we can be as viewers/gamers is grossed out, or unholy satisfied if our hearts sadistically seek out gruesome killing.  This could easily lead into a "violence in video games" diatribe, but we'll save that for it's proper time and place.  I'm a Christian, I play video games, and yes I'm aware that the majority of games (party and family genres excluded) use "killing" in some way, but AvP takes glorifying the level of specified violence to an extreme I haven't felt until now (and I don't plan on playing Manhunt 2).

I wanted to like this game.  The screenshots portrayed the most authentic visuals for these creatures in video games so far.  The multiplayer demo, while fraught with annoying special kill Conga lines, was enjoyable to a degree and showcased a new way to multiplay.  Survivor mode was going to be my chance to live out the best action scenes from the oft-referenced Aliens.  But these dreams were met instead with such a lack of inspiration and fine-tuning that most of the time I was fighting with the controls and terrible lighting instead of against the AI shooting or lunging at me.

One of AvP's strong points is the ability to play three different species (another positive being the tutorials before each campaign, but good luck making "Tutorials!" a selling point).  Most first-person shooters are designed with the inescapable weapon on the right hand side of the screen and a HUD that doesn't exist in reality (when are we all going to get our standard issue health bars, ammo count, and tracking number of first aid kits?).  The Marine campaign has this traditional setup with the added pulsing and iconic motion tracker.  Choosing to play as the other two extra terrestrials is where things veer for both the good and the bad.  Good in offering differing play styles; bad in execution.

Let's begin with the Alien.  You're fast.  Really fast.  You can crawl anywhere ... well, almost anywhere (invisible walls, the scourge of the xenomorph!).  You can see enemy auras through walls, jump 30 feet floor-to-ceiling, and destroy lights to hide in the dark.  Sounds great, huh?  For the most part it is.  You feel like an Alien, even receiving telepathic instructions from the Queen and having the ability to hiss.  But if you've read any other reviews out in the internet ether, or read my multiplayer impressions, you know that running around walls, upside-down, at high speed is very disorienting.  Rebellion tries to right your dizziness with a compass-like reticule that always points to the ground, but it still doesn't completely work because it's oddly shaped and not big enough.  It's shape is supposed to change when you're able to leap onto a surface, and when you're in the dark it will turn dark.  It's purpose is sound on paper, but I felt it could have used some more refinement.

Since the Alien is so simple in nature, your HUD is, too.  All you get is the reticule and a curved health bar above.  That is all you need, and thankfully Rebellion didn't add anything else (aside from messages from your Queen).

But simple is not always good, as is the case with the Alien campaign.  Two hours; that's how long it took me on normal, and that includes searching for (but not finding) 50 un-story related Royal Jelly containers stuck in the most random, unrealistic locations.  One review I read somewhere said about an Alien campaign something like, "How much can you give an Alien to do anyway aside from finding the Queen, infecting bodies, and killing?"  True, but can we at least try and add something?

The campaign starts off promising as you play as Number 6, a special bug because when you burst from your first chest you weren't ready to be man-handled.  But the humans caught you, you caught the company's eye, and you've been in captivity, biding your time apparently.  When you eventually do break out, your goals are to get to the Queen and deal with enemies along the way, infecting innocents, attacking your attackers.  And that's it.  I don't remember now how often you fight alongside your "brothers," but you don't really feel like a fearsome force.  Obstacles aren't memorable, and you have to destroy an inane amount of switches and panel boards and technology (but you can't touch sentry guns at all, when you could take them out with your tail in the PC version).  You fight Predators ONCE, and the campaign ends.  I was left with a "That's it?" feeling regarding both the campaign length and shallow story.  It would have been leaps ahead in storytelling if we explored a bit more of what it's like to be the most feared creature in the universe.

To avoid stagnation, it's great when companies offer different approaches to gameplay, different shoes to wear, different "guns" to fire.  The Alien is one of the most unique, with a full range of motion and speed balanced with only melee attacks.  But shallow is the end result of this effort.  The Alien is cool ... evil, but cool in an unrealistically-scary way.  But a lot of the creature's swagger is erased after the campaign and once you see an Alien trying to block your melee attacks in multiplayer ... an Alien blocking is one of the stupidest looking visuals I've seen in recent memory.

But if meleeing and speeding around with motion sickness isn't your thing, your have some options that bring a bit more firepower.

Nerd Jason coming through: the Predator is not as intimidating as the Alien.  There, I said it.  But apparently the whole world disagrees because the majority of my time in multiplayer, the Predator limits filled up first.  I can see why he's so appealing, but it seems like an easy choice to pick the guy that can turn invisible and shoot projectiles.  To each his own.

I like the Predator culture, however, because they have some redeeming qualities that make them less like cold-blooded killers; they have rules of engagement.  If you're not armed, they won't hurt you.  If you're not a threat, they won't harm you.  If you tick them off, they will hunt you.  They are a warrior tribe, if you will, so they have progression, demotion, trials, and well, anyway let's get to the game.

Being a Predator is not as awesome as it sounds.  Yes, you can cloak.  Yes, you have mad jumping skills.  Yes, your arsenal is deadly.  But your cloaking doesn't hide you from everything (sentry guns, water and Aliens).  Your jumping is way too limited, and your weapons ... ok, they're still deadly.

Let me first talk about the jumping.  Holding LT will bring up a targeting system of sorts (same with the Alien) that lets you know 1.) when you can leap onto an enemy, and 2.) to where you can jump.  If you remember from the first film, the Predator swings through the foliage, perching and leaping with ease like an outer space, invisible Tarzan.  Now, I understand that there are limitations in video games, but there are far too many moments as the Predator when your jumping will feel stupidly stifled.  There will be a tree branch 20 feet above you that you can't jump to, but you can jump to it if you take one tiny step to the right.  Um ... what?  You will feel like an ape-man-creature when you find stretches in the level design that were made for you to traverse 100 yards in three bounds, but otherwise jumping to escape or travel is on the frustrating side.

I'll be honest with you ... right now I'm trying to think of a segue into discussing the campaign ... but I can't even remember how the campaign ends!  You go to the temple, fight android security guards ... OH YEAH!  You fight a Predalien, I think, or a Praetorian guard ... or the Queen ... guess that tells you how deep and memorable the story was, huh?  It's longer than the Alien, but your main reason for being in the game is stopping the humans from defiling the temple, and killing whatever attacks you.  You start out as a Youngblood/trainee and progress through the ranks as your leaders send you out to prove yourself by keeping the temple safe.  You're sent out with only your wristblades to find out what happened to the other Youngbloods who essentially haven't checked back in, and to find your other weapons. It's a cool progression idea, one that sees your Predator achieve greatness in protecting the temple (even witnessing in playback the very first victory against the Xenomorph race), but being put on a god-like pedestal after only four hours from being a newbie is a might too quick.  And, yeah, it's another short campaign.

I may not recall all of the Predator campaign, but what I do recall with unfortunate detail are the trophy kills.  I have a section reserved for the violence below, however.  Instead, let's discuss the Marines, those poor, third-wheel Marines.


The longest of the campaigns (since it's the most traditional of the species) belongs to the humans.  And without a doubt much more attention was focused here.  One thing I like about the campaigns, despite their length and lack of depth, is their circumnavigation of a linked plot point, that of a downed human ship named the Marlowe that the Predators shot down.  But I can't remember if that's what brings your team down to the planet's surface or not.  In any case, you play as the all too common cop-out of "the Rookie" character, a noob without much experience.  You drop down and get separated from your team, then must make your way to your surviving partners, picking up stronger firepower as you go.  You fight Aliens, one Predator (again) if I remember correctly, and Karl Bishop Weyland himself, who is annoyingly tough (and is explained after you beat it).

Rebellion wanted to go back to the films for inspiration, and they certainly achieved that goal with the Marines.  The Pulse Rifles are Pulse Rifles, the Aliens look like Cameron's bugs, and the corridors scream LV-426.  But I think they should have been inspired only for aesthetics instead of for characters.  I say this mainly in reference to the character of Tequila.  A tough, Hispanic woman Marine.  Vazquez, anyone?  And Tequila would have been a great name if Vazquez never existed in Aliens.  I quibble a little.

I also quibble at the fear factor.  If the motion tracker didn't exist, then the scares would be far too tame to even suggest this campaign as "survival horror."  But I will excitedly shake the person's hand who created that radar because the Alien series loses its suspense without it (Alien 3 is another topic, though).  Though appearing in the first Alien, it was Aliens that perfected the motion tracker's look and sound, and AvP does it justice.  The pitch increasing ning-ning that alerts you when enemies are drawing closer to you is panicking, and is expertly matched with the flat metronome that pulses when nothing is around but keeps you incessantly on your guard.

Why I quibble is that your encounters are not actually scary in and of themselves, the scare is in the motion tracker.  The first Alien you fight is actually scary, since it's the first one and you only have your Pistol.  But I died at least five times on normal at the first enemy before I finally took him down; ending with more frustration than heightened nerves.  A few other Aliens come from beneath the floor in front of you, they lurk in the shadows of cavernous spaces, and crawl around buildings when you're outside, but they don't ever jump out at you or startle you.  Like I said, the motion tracker saves the day.  Much more could have been tried to up the tension.  For example, one sequence has you kidnapped by the Aliens who intelligently take away your big guns, leaving you with your Pistol ... and your motion tracker!  They're smart enough to take away your weapons (save for your sidearm), but not that dinging thing that lets the humans know where they are?  How scary would it have been to walk through a portion of the game without any radar help, only your flashlight?  Put shadows everywhere, throw in a lot of hisses and your heart is in your throat!  But nope ... they didn't do that.

The game goes as you'd expect.  You're ordered by Tequila to turn on power in different areas, you shoot up a few bugs, you hear the screams of other surviving comrades, the last levels of the game take you through halls of secreted resin and the plot-linking temple, and you try to save the day.  The story here is obviously more relateable to us humanoids and it tries to throw in a couple of sad twists (and the inevitable someone in the Alien universe actually being a synthetic person), but it's nothing to run out to buy to play.  Out of the three it is the best, but that still doesn't say much.

Two other things need to be mentioned with Aliens vs. Predator.  The first is multiplayer.  I've spent most of my review on the single-player portion, but I did play some multiplayer and this is probably where most people will go.  You could probably sum up all the above in one word, "shallow."  Multiplayer can even be surmised in that way, too.

Multiplayer suffers in this Call of Duty age because you don't have perks, classes, or loadouts to make your Alien or Predator different than xXJoe-Gam3rtag13Xx.  You don't "rank up," instead you unlock skins which are only interesting as the Alien or Predator; I doubt anyone is dying to unlock Van Zandt or any other unmemorable Marine.  Differences lie in the modes offered, which do offer varied play styles but there just aren't that many.

- Deathmatch is an all too common mode and unnecessary, only saved by Species/Mixed Species Team Deathmatch (because as I said in my demo impression, playing as a Marine and shooting at other Marines just don't feel right);
-Predator Hunt is like Halo's Juggernaut;
-Domination is Territories (and I never played it)
-Infestation is the best MP mode that feels like survival horror as your team slowly dissipates to the last man standing.

That's it!  Survivor mode had the best potential, and it is good.  I unfortunately didn't get all that excited about it and play it all the time because I never got to play it with anyone else.  It was scary, and like Nazi Zombies could be something you could play long into the night with other people.  However, keeping the full game long enough for Survivor and Infestation wasn't worth it because of the overwhelming focus on gruesome killing.


It's disgusting.  It's gross.  The movies and game are rated R and M for reasons (the first AvP was PG-13 however).  While the movies are violent, and chestbursters create the worst of it all, this game takes mutilation to a whole other level by way of trophy kills.  Another recent and violent game is Dead Space that touts "dismemberment," but for infected, no-longer-human attackers in third person.  Gears of War also is noted for it's chainsaw rifle and the bloody over the top finishing moves it allows.  Aliens vs. Predator decapitates, punctures, slices throats, tears heads, and eats brains all in first person.  It's obvious that a lot of effort went into the animations to make them disturbing and ultra gory, almost to the point of glorifying it.  Why would anyone want to sever someone's head from the chip up and stare into their shocked, fearful expression while neck muscles and tissue string down around the still attached spinal cord, of which you run your fingers underneath to stroke?  Or is it necessary to watch your Alien tail tease your frightened victim for a few seconds before you slit his throat, or have that same tail run through another human's rectum and out of their mouth?  You can have alien species-to alien species trophy kills, sure, but they aren't as personally affective because I don't have green or acid blood, or a banana shaped head or crab face.

The counter argument here is "Don't perform trophy kills!"  That's what I ended up doing, actually.  If you play anything beside the Predator campaign you can do this (because at least twice you must take someone's skull to use their eyes in retinal scans).  But that still doesn't save the mechanics and storytelling that just are not all that redeeming or of high quality that other games have.

It was the specified violence alone that I couldn't stand and felt like I was grieving the Spirit to partake in.  The shallowness and uninspiration I could forgive as long as it was fun shooting Aliens and the like.  But this wasn't fun.  Anytime I chose to commit a special kill, I felt worse than harvesting a Little Sister.  On these grounds specifically I can't recommend Aliens vs. Predator, as I couldn't even last one week before I traded it in.

The prospect of a good console game involving Aliens will always catch my eye ... at least until Colonial Marines comes out, and only if that one is good will my hope remain.  I was excited about Aliens vs. Predator despite it being a "vs. Predator" title and despite my fears of the violence.  The promise of something different was realized in the multiplayer demo, and, to me, the graphics looked to be the best gaming representation of the historic films.  But Rebellion decides to take the gory route, instead satiating those who revel in massacring bodies than those who want to kill Aliens for survival.  "Shallow" permeates every aspect from campaign to multiplayer.  Any reasons to play this game is for the lacking Marine campaign and Survival and Infestation modes (though Infestation opens the door to use the special kill if you become an Alien), all of which aren't even reason enough.  Game over, man.  Game over.


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