Platform reviewed on: PC (Also available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Back in 1999, the original Aliens vs Predator first person shooter on PC earned its place at Australian events as a LAN party hit. Sure, the tournaments were all focused on the Quake and Half-Life ilk, but AvP and its 2001 sequel were a great bash and offered something a little different from the regular deathmatch experience - the three unique species: human Colonial Marines, Predator and the xenomorph Alien, offered as player classes established some great game modes, at a time when you really only saw this kind of gameplay variety in user-created mods. Couple that with the fun single-player stories that also had you playing as all three species and it was a game worthy of the space it took up on your 12GB hard-drive - the engine features weren't the best next to the FPS power hitters, but it made up for that in gameplay.
Fast forward to 2010 and after a decade of mostly forgettable titles (and platform porting duty for other studios' IP) the original series developer, UK outfit Rebellion Developments, are back with more AvP action. Earlier in the year, it looked like it may not even make it to our shores. The Australian Classification Board stamped it with the big RC on the first pass, later letting it slide under the MA15+ barrier after an appeal on the grounds that the cited violence was distanced-enough from reality due to the game's fantastical sci-fi creatures.
So does this new Aliens vs Predator title rise to meet the lofty expectations of the longstanding Aliens and Predator franchises (that the most recent Aliens vs Predator films failed to hit) and the fond memories of its videogame predecessors? Unfortunately the result is less James Cameron/John McTiernan and more Paul W.S. Anderson. Like the lacklustre AvP films, the game has a lot of awesome potential to work with, but fails to take advantage of that in several areas.
At least unlike the cheesy AvP films, this game sticks within the futuristic timeline of the franchise where humans have the heavy weaponry to give them a fighting chance. For the newcommers, the game's three factions function thusly: The Colonial Marines are the human military of intergalactic exploration and mining efforts - they follow your standard military heirarchy and pack human future-tech weaponry; the Aliens are geneticly fine-tuned killing machines that gestate in the chests of other species and adopt their strengths - their bodys are their weapons, complete with acidic blood and a form of hive communication; the predators are natural hunters with superior strength and technology (including a personal cloaking device), whose weakness is their code of honour that encourages them to fight solo to prove their worth. Like it's predecessors AvP does a solid job of balancing them all out.
The story stays in reasonable canon with the various comics and films, benifiting from actor Lance Henrickson supplying his voice and likeness as Karl Bishop Weyland, head of the spacefaring evil megacorp who are covertly conducting genetic experiments with the Xenomorph Aliens. The single-player campaign once again puts you in the boots of all three species, much like how the Call of Duty games offer multiple viewpoints throughout the story except the gameplay is more varied due to each creature's strategic differences - this is undoubtedly the strongest point of the game.
Unfortunately, however, much of this potential is squandered, largely due to two main issues: the brief (barely six hours) duration of the singleplayer campaign and the incredibly bad decision to launch the game with only a half-baked peer to peer multiplayer component. That's right, despite having three intertwined yet individual naratives, it still clocks less than most modern shooters - the best comparison being the also recently released BioShock 2 which offers 10+ hours.
The pacing is reasonable, but there's a distinct lack of really memorable moments. Modern Warfare 2 was similarly short in campaign, but it never left you too long between all those blockbuster-style scripted events. The brutal finishing moves that were no-doubt responsible for the initial ratings controversy are admitedly pretty cool, but after the fourth time you've seen preddie tear out a guys spine you'll find yourself wishing for a quicker way to insta-kill enemies - especially when you're being fired upon and frustratingly can't react until the five-second animation has played out.
The level design is really quite bland and the environments suffer from simple geometry - the screenshots here (supplied by the publisher) are just well-selected scenes, not from first person view and not really indicitive of most of the actual game. I also found that the slightly cartoonish art direction takes a lot of the edge off the scare-factor that a game like this should really have - an alien slithers out from a pattern on the wall and it's not even worth a startle as you quickly dispatch your shotgun into its face.
That said, it's far from horrible to look at and lighting and animation in particular have been executed to good effect. The novelty of playing as a camoflagued predator stalking human prey from the tree-tops or a wall-crawling xenomorph pouncing from the shadowed ceiling is what keeps this game from sliding into complete mediocrity because the marine campaign is as generic as they come. The bar is higher than this for first-person shooters in 2010.
The failings of the single-player could well have been salvaged by longevity in the multiplayer component, but once again a developer fails to understand the requirements of the PC market. As with Modern Warfare 2, the decision to ship the game on PC without support for dedicated servers has resulted in a sub-par experience. Peer to peer matchmaking might still fly on consoles because that's all they've ever known, but flawed matchmaking and a dozen players all trying to communicate through some poor sods 16 kilobyte per second upstream is not this seasoned PC gamer's idea of fun. This may be more tolerable in North America or Europe where faster connections without monthly transfer quotas are more prevalent, but here in Aus we've grown too accustomed to our local ISP hosted playgrounds.
Rebellion have since released "beta" dedicated server support for the game, but it's too little too late. It's difficult for third party game server providers to run because it requires a complete install of the game as well an active steam account - two things that are a large inconvenience for a server hosted in a data centre. Then there's the fact that "ranked" play is only available from the peer to peer matchmaking modes - so even though a handful of providers have gone to the effort of creating a couple of local servers for the game, you're still left deciding between a consistently reliable connection for a good gaming experience, or earning any of the game's unlocks or Acheivements while enduring p2p frustration. They've effectively divided their own online community only a few short weeks after launch, a mistake that can only serve to further damage the little longevity that this game's multiplayer might have had.
It's a huge shame since all the game modes that we loved from the original games are back in fine form with some excellent new ones. Some of the highlights being Predator Hunt
mode, where one player plays as the predator against the rest as marines, trying to stealthily dispatch them and Infestation
where one player starts as an Alien with the rest as humans who when killed also become aliens - the goal being to try and hold out as long as possible. The variety of the species here again adds much value to the game with the very different ways in which each class plays, but given there's no mod support or even an avenue for user-created maps - what you're given is what you get and the novelty will wear off pretty quickly for most.
All told, we regret to report that Aliens vs Predator is a dissapointment to our (admitedly lofty) expectations -- it had much to live up to and does fall short. Some bad decisions and half-baked features (including an incredibly clunky menu-UI) seem to indicate either a product rushed to market or a token-effort port of a console focused game for the piracy riddled PC platform. It's not a total wash though and most fans of Aliens, Predator and shooters in general will no doubt find at least some value here, it's just a matter of weighing up how much those negative aspects matter to you. If it were an option, we'd definitely recommend a rental over a retail purchase but the mandatory Steam activation requirement prevents that so all we can say is "buyer beware".