Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aliens vs Predator

In space no-one can hear you scream. But in the gaming room of Oxford-based developer Rebellion’s head office everyone can. Sitting mere meters away from the world’s largest TV screen with the lights down low and the volume up high, Aliens vs Predator is a very scary game.

It’s also a very ambitious game. Each species (humans, Aliens and Predators) gets its own campaign, control method and even screen furniture. Clearly Rebellion has gotten under the skin of these creatures to bring them to virtual life as accurately as possible. The result is a game that can by turns leave you feeling slightly sick with fear or giddy with power.

That each species has been fine-tuned for just the right balance of vulnerability and toughness is also impressive. Humans have access to greater firepower, the Aliens are quick and stealthy and the Predator is a master of the hunt. None are invincible and all can be deadly when used effectively.

It‘s a supremely authentic feeling title. There are various nods to the movies, from iconic weaponry such as the pulse rifle to the horrible clicking sound the Predator makes. There’s even a terrifying Predalien too.

So far, so impressive (our playthrough left us feeling a bit jittery with adrenaline), but questions remain. The Predator’s controls for instance feel a bit unwieldy at times and close quarters combat can be a slog. The major fear though is that the game’s chief selling point – its three distinctive campaigns – will result in each feeling too short and the whole feeling a bit, well, bitty.

That said, Aliens vs Predator is without doubt one of the most playfully inventive and exciting shooters we’ve seen for some time. We’re going to go out on a limb and say that if it were a movie it’d be Aliens rather than AvP: Requiem. The next three sections cover the three species’ campaigns, so read on to find out what we played of each.

We’re first introduced to Six, the game’s playable Alien character, as he bursts out of the chest of some poor unfortunate soul somewhere in the bowels of the Weyland-Yutani compound. It’s a sinister and unsettling scene but, oddly enough, makes us sympathise with Six and start eyeing up the evil scientists for a good mauling.

Cut to an adult Six that’s restrained in a lab and being put through his paces by a particularly sinister scientist. As more unfortunate employees of the world’s most evil corporation are marched in one by one we quickly get the hang of things.

You can’t carry weapons as the Alien, but effectively you are a weapon. Armed with vicious claws, a long tail and two (count ’em) mouths, playing as an Alien is visceral, gruesome fun. Felled enemies can even be grabbed, initiating one of several finishing moves. Our favourite? Puncturing skulls with the inner mouth.

But once Six is freed from his prison, it’s the speed of the thing that really impresses. He can barrel along at a frightening pace and takes walls and ceilings in stride. To move more stealthily he can even dodge in and out of vents and use his tail to disable light sources. And you’ll need to be stealthy too. Faced with armed guards and sentry guns you’ll be torn to acid-soaked ribbons in seconds.

The end result is a fast-paced first-person experience that plays against all your finely honed shooter instincts. Here escaping firefights by taking cover behind scenery is pointless. Instead, you’re required to climb the walls before dropping from the ceiling for a surprise attack. It’s a wrench to get your head around, but once you do, mercilessly hunting down your quarry becomes a guilty pleasure. Just as well too, as the scene ends with Six releasing his brethren and the Alien queen. It looks like there are going to be a lot more Alien attacks in mission two.

The mighty Predator’s game begins as a group of warriors descend to the planet to investigate the deaths of a pack of wet-behind-the-mandibles young Preds. The scene is set by a transmission showing one victim being latched onto by a facehugger – nicely setting up the inevitable appearance of a Predalien later on.

The game proper begins with a tutorial, necessarily so as the Predator controls are easily the most complicated of the three characters. Largely, combat is handled with wrist gauntlets - raise both of them to serve as a block that can set up counters. It’s a weighty, pugilistic system that again subverts the norms of first-person combat.

Left at that, the Predator’s game would be something of a slog. But in common with the Alien, the hunter is more vulnerable than his movie appearances would have us believe. As a result there’s a wealth of other techniques available that make for some nicely tactical gameplay.

At one point we’re charged with entering a heavily guarded human compound to retrieve the head of its commander. Simply wading in and slashing away quickly proves futile. Instead, we choose to approach things differently by enabling the cloaking device and leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

Targeting an enemy allows you to record their voice and project it somewhere else in the compound. Curious humans will now be drawn toward the sound and become ripe for picking off with a well-timed lunge or a blast from your shoulder-mounted cannons.

Despite your character’s immense power, then, the real thrill comes from approaching things tactically. Herding a soldier like a dumb cow before tearing his head and spine out is much more satisfying than trading blows for bullets.


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