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.
A few rounds of deathmatch kindly reminded us of the faction differences Rebellion helped craft over a decade ago. The alien is fast but weak; playing successfully means never stopping and learning to scurry across the ceiling without making your eyes hurt. The Predator allows for a slower, increasingly cerebral style of play, picking opportune moments to de-cloak and launch their overpowered arsenal. And the marine spends a lot of time booking it and shooting things with his gun, hoping each pocket of shadow contains a hidden alien and every glimmer in the corner of the screen is a cloaked Predator.
Still, it's coming up to a decade since Rebellion last made a multiplayer mode out of AvP, and the interim period has seen studios like Bungie and Infinity Ward competently redefine online gaming. Brickley remains confident Rebellion can adapt to the current generation of consoles, however: "everyone wants the latest gadget, gizmo and gimmick. For us, you play to your strength, and one of the strengths of the engine is the lighting. As the marine you've got a flare, which you can throw and it'll give you a little pool of light which you can use to your advantage. But it's going to fizzle out, so you've got to be very tactical about how you use these things. As the alien you're going the other way round, you're trying to extinguish all the light to make darkness so you can stealth kill. That was a great opportunity for us: to build on the strength that the engine has. We didn't put stuff in for the hell of it."
The two maps I got to play on - Jungle and Temple - backed up Brickley's claims, with success in both maps relying heavily on an understanding of the light and shadow contrast alongside hedging between indoors and outdoors. Jungle had an intimate series of shadowy underground corridors, presumably to house Aliens, and some larger outside areas, complete with dense foliage and twisting vegetation for Predators and marines to play in. Temple was more vertically orientated, focusing on the eponymous object but keeping the indoor/outdoor contrast seen in the previous map. It was also home to a few statues of the Xenomorphs with their proboscis hanging out, like you do, and plenty of watery areas to provide a degree of safety for non-Predator races. Who can't cloak in water, of course.
Balance is paramount to the game's success online: nothing would be more annoying than one race simply dominating the others. I didn't have enough time to pass any definitive judgement as to whether Rebellion got the mix spot-on, but from the few hours I spent with the game it didn't seem like there any one race had definitive advantages. Still, the Predator was easily the most popular choice for players, partially because of being awesome but also because all of his weapons were made available from spawn: in the final version the pointy-jawed hunter will need to pick-up weapons from the map, which obviously puts the guy at a bit of a disadvantage and also gives astute opponents knowledge of what areas to camp.
It also didn't stop the more-unpopular Alien and Marine from frequently coming top of the results table, especially in rounds where I was playing as either of the two. Ahem. Despite the Predator's popularity during the session there was something about his metered, exact play style that caused me to be rubbish at him, and instead I preferred the savage nature of the Alien. Who needs a rocket launcher built into your suit when you can bite people through the head?
But that's the point, isn't it? The game works best when there's a good mix of players who all have a variety of favourite races. The only problem we can think of is that so many options might over-complicate the game for typical online gamers. "It doesn't take long to get. And then people just can't come off it," retorts Brickley. We have a feeling he might be right.
Our thanks to Dave Brickley, whose favourite alien/predator movie is the theatrical cut of Aliens, and Eric Miller, who liked all the movies too much to possibly choose one. Aliens vs. Predator is due out for the PS3, 360 and PC on February 26 2010.
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