Xbox 360 Review

Aliens vs. Predator

Whoopie f**kin' do

When Weyland Yutani's tyrannical Karl Bishop Weyland opens an ancient pyramid on an alien planet - a planet where his team of scientists have been sacrificing human colonists in an attempt to condition and train deadly Xenomorphs (Aliens) - he is unaware of the galactic beacon his actions have triggered.

Meanwhile, high in orbit, a squad of Colonial Marines approaching the planet watches in horror from a hurtling dropship as a gigantic spacecraft appears as if from nowhere and quickly destroys their nearby Colonial starship, the Marlow. Eager to escape a similar fate, the Marine dropship continues toward the planet's surface, where other Marine squads are already investigating colony facilities reportedly ravaged by escaping Xenomorphs.

However, the Marines are not alone on their descent and are being closely followed by several smaller craft released by the mysterious alien attack ship. And so, with Aliens running free, Marines fighting for survival, and Predators called forth to their hallowed proving grounds by a man intent on creating the perfect killing machine, the hunt is on.

On paper, the concept of a first-person shooter built on the dumb action foundations of Hollywood's Aliens vs Predator franchise is certainly one that teases the gameplay gland. On paper, providing the player with the opportunity to experience three separate but interwoven campaigns as a no-nonsense Colonial Marine, shadow-hugging Alien and powerhouse Predator is hugely promising. On paper, channeling the bloody conflict of those three races and their specific skill traits onto a unique multiplayer platform is a blueprint for success. On paper, Aliens vs Predator should be nothing short of awesome. On paper.

It's a little awkward to review Aliens vs. Predator as a single entity because it is, in many ways, three separate first-person shooters existing within the same narrative and surroundings but unfolding from completely different perspectives. As such, the Marine campaign is a typical 'death around every corner' shooter where light, ammo and clean underwear are in short supply, while the Alien missions centre on cunning, surprise attacks, and unrestricted movement, and the Predator campaign is a potent mixture of unrivalled agility, deadly weaponry, and cloaked stealth. So, seeing as the three separate gameplay portions differ fairly radically, it's therefore only fair to assess each on its individual merits and failings.

For the most part, the Marine campaign does a decent job of capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere and tension of the Alien movies that have so clearly inspired it. Accompanied by the ever-present and genuinely unnerving Motion Tracker on the HUD, the largely linear mission structure sees the player creeping tentatively through darkened colony buildings, a dank and grimy refinery, dense jungle overgrowth and ancient alien ruins - with an extremely twitchy trigger finger. Luckily that twitch is often appeased by a decent array of Colonial weaponry (the Smart Gun is a favourite) and sporadic bottleneck set pieces involving sudden waves of attacks from the shadows.

In terms of dealing with the progressive enemy onslaught, the game's cloying darkness means that choosing the right weapon for specific situations becomes increasingly important as more options are located. For example, while the Pulse Rifle spits lead at a reassuringly frantic pace, its fierce muzzle flare dazzles in close confines and makes aliens difficult to track as they leap across floor, wall and ceiling. The faithful double-barrelled Shotgun is much better suited to cramped exchanges, while the Flame Thrower is ideal for unopened eggs and pesky Face Huggers, and the Pulse Rifle and its low-slung Grenade Launcher definitely come into their own during open-world transitions.

Supported by audio diaries littered throughout the campaign, which provide a modicum of back story from a number of presumably dead NPCs, the Marine missions also boast the authenticity of recognisable musical cues, sound effects and even well-known quotes from the Alien universe. Indeed, the bleeping Motion Tracker and shrieking aliens manage to keep the heart pounding, while Lance Henriksen adds plenty of gravitas as Karl Bishop Weyland, and Marine chatter announcing "another bug hunt," advising fellow squad members to "stay frosty," or screaming "they cut the power!" will raise a flicker of a smile for those familiar with James Cameron's Aliens.

Pleasing familiarity aside, the Marine campaign's oppressive environments and frenetic set pieces cannot hide the gameplay's overall lack of freedom or that the player is often funneled from one place to the next before being tasked to stay alive during brief scripted confrontations that usually involve the automated bypass of a locked door or the stalled arrival of an elevator. The unfortunate shortfall of this particular portion of the narrative is that it is, without doubt, a perfectly serviceable shooter that could have made the leap to being memorable had developer Rebellion chosen to make a game focusing solely on the vulnerability of humans when pitted against overpowering odds and seemingly insurmountable foes.

The strength of this criticism shifts into perspective when assuming the roles of either the Alien or the Predator, both of which are blessed with creative invention but cursed by the massive advantages they possess over the well-armed but decidedly soft-skinned Marines. Case in point, the Alien campaign revolves around using every available surface to destroy light sources, create (even) darker environments, and gradually pick off unsuspecting enemies with the aid of a feral tracking vision that pierces solid objects. The same can be said of the Predator missions, which allow the use of agile leaping, an invisibility cloak, human voice samples, heat tracking, and a charged shoulder cannon to lure Marines to their gruesome deaths. Factor in the Alien's ability to coax enemies into the open by hissing, and the strategic advantage it gains by flanking through air ducts, and suddenly the flashes of fear peppering the Marine campaign are replaced by an imbalanced sense of near-invincibility and a distinct lack of challenge.

Ultimately, while playing as the Alien and Predator is certainly fun for the first hour or so, it soon becomes an oddly empty experience. The real gameplay disappointment here lies with the Alien, which, although able to transition across every in-game surface, is hamstrung by clunky, unintuitive controls that fracture the enjoyment of the hunt while magnifying a feeling of constant disorientation whenever attempting to chase or evade enemies by sprinting across walls and ceilings. A tracking reticule that always points to the ground and denotes where the Alien can leap should help provide a sense of direction, but sadly it doesn't, rending the execution of stealth kills an annoyingly inconsistent chore that frustrates more than it satisfies.

Aesthetically, Aliens vs. Predator isn't exactly a next-gen head turner and its level design is less than inspired, but the general art design is strong due to it borrowing liberally from the asset bank at 20th Century Fox. As a result, character models, weaponry and spacecraft are convincing, as is interior detailing throughout the colony and on Marine and Predator armour. The much publicised close-quarter instant kills assigned to the Alien and Predator (which saw the game briefly banned in Australia) are unnecessarily gory given that they're clearly in place for shock value and add absolutely nothing to the game beyond gallons of blood and some gratuitous dismemberment. While pre-pubescent boys eager to dodge PEGI's 18 rating and sample such pointless savagery may attain a shallow moment of weak-kneed excitement, everyone else will likely agree that the gameplay really doesn't benefit. Of course, in reassessing the inclusion of instant kills in connection to the Alien, it perhaps becomes clear why Rebellion fought so hard to retain the gore level - mainly because, without it, the poor Alien's lack of physical weaponry leaves it reduced to fairly ineffectual slash attacks.

With the three narrative campaigns played through to their combined conclusions, the player is left with an offline Survivor mode, which is essentially a Horde mode that throws progressively more difficult and populated waves of resistance at the player in a selection of relatively cramped (and, of course, darkened) arenas. Surprisingly thrilling while building kill combos, sprinting for ammo and first aid caches, and desperately reloading weaponry, Survivor mode is a throwaway but fun addition for those not willing to sample the Aliens vs Predator multiplayer.

Speaking of multiplayer, anyone who tried the Deathmatch mode used as the game's pre-release demo will be unsurprised to hear that it's (still) awful and generally devolves into mad flurries of players lining up to unleash instant kills upon one another. While generally unimpressive gameplay also blights the capture-the-base Domination mode, the online version of Survivor ramps up the thrill factor by grouping four human players against the same ceaseless wave of mercilessly aggressive Alien bots that pad out the single-player version. The multiplayer component even secures a surefire success through Infestation, which pits a group of Marines against a single Alien and gradually shifts the battlefield advantage in the Alien's favour by re-spawning each killed squad member as a Xenomorph. Virtually the same mode is trotted out through Predator Hunt, which tasks the single player with gathering bloody skull trophies from the decapitated bodies of opponents.

The bottom line with Aliens vs. Predator is that its worth as a dependable first-person shooter is inexplicably linked to the fear and foreboding running through its Marine campaign, which leaves the Alien and Predator missions as surprisingly flat additions that quickly drain the fun meter by granting the player far too much power. Even when ignoring the Alien's clunky controls, the unnecessary bloodletting, and the cliche-cluttered narrative, it remains an inescapable truth that the passable Marine missions really should have been effortlessly overshadowed by Alien and Predator campaigns that hold all the required invention and originality but fail to impress due to a lack of balance, poor design decisions and some shoddy execution. Game over, man! Game over!

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