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Posted in PC Reviews on Wednesday, June 9th, 1999

Review by: David Laprad
Published: June 9, 1999

Remember Bill Paxton as the whimpering Private Hudson in the classic James Cameron film Aliens? “Game over, man! We’re dead!” I have always scorned Hudson for not showing more courage against the Alien hordes. Until recently. Now that I have endured the same terrors and battled the same impossible odds as that notorious doomsayer, I have a newfound appreciation for the deep-rooted fear he was experiencing. I thought his overwhelming sense of dread would subside when I reversed into the role of the Alien, but found myself more unsettled than ever and battling even greater odds, despite the fact that I was now supposed to be the scary one. Of course, when it came to battling as the Predator, I could understand my enemies’ spineless fits of panic. After all, the greatest hunter in the universe is renown for his deviant chiropractic inclinations and Class A stealth tactics. With their 3D action title Aliens vs. Predator, Fox Interactive and Rebellion have succeeded in creating a convincing and immersive extension of two enduring science fiction film franchises.

Given the industry’s overall failure in the adaptation of films into successful games, Fox set itself up for a fall on this title. Then again, the publisher probably realized it had an ace up its sleeve with the talented U.K.-based development team Rebellion, the artisans behind the 1994 Atari Jaguar title of the same name. That title set the standard in real-time gaming terror with its intense atmosphere, graphics and sounds. With this update, Rebellion has brought the concept to the PC with the same brilliant sense of atmosphere and proven that LucasArts is not the only developer who can enchant good interactive entertainment out of a movie. The short and sweet of it is, their determination to do more than slap a popular license on top of an uninspired game has led to the creation of the best 3D action title since Half-Life.

In fact, Rebellion faced a greater challenge than LucasArts in creating their vision. Bringing together separate fictional universes into a cohesive whole and meeting the expectations of two very critical and devout audiences is no small chore. It is, therefore, a tribute to the craftsmanship of this game that we immediately forgive Rebellion for weaving together the barest threads of a plot. The adventure is split into three linear campaigns, one each for the Marine, Alien and Predator. Although this genre is long-removed from the trite urgings of Doom and its immediate descendants, Aliens vs. Predator is unable to tailor a solid narrative from the rich tapestry of the films. The Marine must flee a planetary compound crawling with Aliens and Predators and exterminate as many of them as possible; the Alien is intent on clearing its habitat of the same invasive filth; and the Predator must battle the Marines and Aliens and escape to his scout ship. It is never clear why these mortal enemies have been tossed into this xenomorphic melting pot, but it doesn’t matter. Rebellion transcends the muddled scenario by colliding our most morbid cinematic memories with a vicious and unforgettable combat experience.

Part of the reason the action is so successful is the generally faithful implementation of the three player characters. Each has a different set of abilities, weapons and equipment that encourages a tactically distinct approach to conflict. The Marine missions are perhaps the best launching point because the gameplay is the most familiar. Doom aficionados will have no trouble stepping into his fleet-footed boots and battling through the futuristic environments with the standard selection of high-tech weapons in hand. I almost hesitate to mention he brandishes grenade and missile launchers because the execution of the weapons is surprisingly well-balanced. For instance, the targeting reticule for the Smartgun actually follows the Aliens as they scurry through the corridors and the flame-thrower is a not-so-gentle reminder that getting too close to the enemy is the wrong strategic approach.

The Marine also carries a motion sensor lifted straight from Cameron’s celluloid vision. Its incessant blipping is a constant reminder that danger prowls nearby, though I question its tactical benefits since it senses creatures on other horizontal planes that pose no immediate threat. Image intensifiers and flares illuminate the dim environments, though Rebellion should have placed a limit on their use; it is too tempting to leave the intensifier on to see the depravities hidden in the shadows. Each character also has a unique set of bonus missions and equipment that can be accessed after completing the regular excursions on the higher difficulty levels, a nice boon for surviving the hellish fights. Capable warriors are granted the use of a jetpack in the Marine’s bonus maps.

The true gameplay innovations come with the Predator and Alien characters. The Predator is the strongest physically and the most faithful to the films. He wears a life support helmet that has various functions, including three vision enhancement modes that help him pursue different types of quarry. Certain weapons and the helmet require force energy that can be gathered throughout the maps. The firearms range from melee mechanisms to projectile weapons, including a Speargun, a shoulder-mounted plasma cannon and a smart disc that targets the nearest enemy, but it is the artful combination of these weapons and the furtive approach to exploration that brings the Predator to life. Using his suit’s invisibility mode, he can creep into a room, then use his Speargun’s telescopic lens to zoom in on an unsuspecting Marine. If his opponent sees him and returns fire — which can happen if the Predator moves too much or enters a brightly lit area — he can rip open a MediComp and inject it into his bloodstream. The Predator and the Aliens are some of the best species of aliens ever conceived, and the designers challenge their abilities and remain true to character. For instance, the Predator’s use of stealth only when necessary recalls its culture’s stern ethic regarding the hunting and slaughtering of prey.

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