Aliens vs. Predator: Multiplayer Hands-On
Xenomorphs are probably the scariest things in the entire world; the fanged proboscises are terrifying and they've been designed to intimidate men by being made to look like terrifying willies. Or something like that. Just thinking about them means I'm going to have to sleep with the light on tonight, repeatedly reminding myself they're just men in suits.
My irrational terror for these slippery, acid-hocking endoparasitoids runs so deep that, at a recent preview event, the sight of a man dressed up in an alien costume - probably hired by Sega under the belief that it would be 'fun' and 'kooky' - caused me to jump in terror, shouting something highly unsavoury before scrambling to regain my composure and pretend like nothing had happened. Predators? Danny Glover can batter one to death, so I'm okay with those.
I'm airing my fears of certain fictional creatures in public because developer Rebellion are keen to harness the inherent terror of the source material in their upcoming Aliens vs. Predator, which meant I had to brave a poorly-lit underground London venue to experience some of the game's multiplayer modes. They're not real. They're not real.
In Infection mode, for instance, one player from a team of marines gets randomly plucked to spawn as an alien and hunt his former companions: it's rare to see a room full of fully-grown adult men spin around with such fear-driven urgency when they hear a teammate open fire. If the alien (and you quickly forget it's being controller by another player) gets a kill then the fallen teammate bolsters the alien ranks, and so the game continues until there's just one terrified marine versus a swarm. More advanced weaponry spawns as the marine ranks dwindle, but the psychological trauma of it all encouraged players to perform their best screaming Lambert impersonations. Never open the god-damn hatch!
Predator Hunt, on the other hand, spawns one player as a Predator and gives him a set amount of time to make a kill on the team of marines. Whoever kills the Predator comes back as him, and if any Predator fails to make a kill within the time limit they'll die from the shame of their failure, respawning as a human and giving a random player a go. Only the Predator can score from kills, so it pays for the marines to keep Ol' Painless waiting to deny the Predator points. There's something in those trees!
Admittedly I'm hamming it up a bit, but there's obvious potential in the license for unsettling players in ways most games only dream about. Consider the game's recently-announced Survivor mode, the latest incarnation of the ever-popular Horde mode (which Rebellion is at least partially responsible for crafting, seeing as they included a variant of it in the original AvP game way-back-when in 1999) which pits squads of marines against never-ending waves of CPU-controlled aliens. Are Rebellion aiming to finally make the Horde/Firefight/Nazi Zombies mode terrifying? "Definitely," says Rebellion's Eric Miller, "we try and achieve that with the atmosphere, the lighting, the way in which we increase the difficulty. There are no difficulty modes. You just play. You don't have little numbers coming up on your screen going 'congratulations, you made a kill! ' Everyone loves points increasing; don't get me wrong, it's a fundamental gameplay mechanic. But it's not scary."
Intentionally creeping players out is something the staff at Rebellion clearly love talking about. "The aliens aren't always going to come straight to you," interjects producer Dave Brickley, "their behaviour allows them to pathfind using the dark areas, and they'll hang out, they'll wait and see - so you get this weird experience where you're walking forward looking for them. We mix it up. You might be completely under attack at one point, but then you'll have to go looking. And you're not going to know where they are - they're sat in the dark, and it's a motion sensor! So if they're not moving you can't hear them."
Expanding the multiplayer into broader adversarial modes is also a key focus for the studio, and a few rounds of deathmatch highlighted the game's unique position: distilled into its base component, Aliens vs. Predator is unique in being one of the only class-based deathmatch modes currently on the market. That its three classes are based on some of the most iconic characters of all time probably doesn't hurt, either.