Or: How To Make A Great Aliens Tie-In
Aliens: Colonial Marines has finally stumbled out of its torturous development cycle, and without putting too fine a point on it, we're in for some chop. SEGA sadly didn't give us an advance review copy this time around, though considering the savage critical beating it's currently receiving from our peers, I use the word "sadly" in the most general and academic way possible. Aliens fans seem to have received short shrift yet again, this generation providing us with little of merit save a surprisingly decent DS platformer.
It's genuinely depressing, doubly so because we know that the rich Aliens universe can make for truly exceptional videogames. It's high time that we cast our Blast From The Past spotlight on one of the very best.
Back in 2001, Monolith were at the height of their powers. Atmospheric shooters were their bread and butter, long before they abandoned the likes of FEAR and Condemned for forgettable downloadable frippery, and they set their considerable skills to good use on a truly superior game. Bringing in lore and inspiration from the Aliens films, comics and even the Predator mythology, Monolith created a title that brought fear and empowerment in equal measure; three games in one that each offered unique gameplay experiences and a respectful take on a sprawling, engaging storyline.
Better yet, the second level started within a hapless human's ribcage... whereupon we fangloriously chomped our way out of his living body as a newborn Chestburster. Oh my. I'm talking, of course, about Aliens vs Predator 2.
AvP 2 offered players three separate campaigns that intertwined into a single narrative, allowing us to play either as a human Marine, a fearsome Predator out for a hunting holiday or a slavering Alien looking for some tasty elevenses. The Lithtech engine, though primitive by modern standards, did a great job of evoking a grim and atmospheric facility to explore, a rich canvas for rampant bloodletting brought home by haunting sound direction.
By the looks of things, Gearbox and Time Gate could have learned a lot from the Marine campaign, which managed to get things exactly right.
See, we love Apone's cigar-chomping monologues and Vasquez being just"so bad" it hurts. We remember the snarling whine of the Pulse Rifle and lust after the awe-inspiring Smart Gun . But Aliens was a truly exceptional film because the elite team of battle-hardened leathernecks were terrified in the face of an implacable, nightmarish foe. Machismo and arrogance became blind panic as their advance turned to rout, and desperation as the hordes mounted breached their defences. Bleep bleep. Bleep bleeeeeeep. Nine metres. Seven. Six. That can't be, that's inside the room!
The marines were powerful and armed to the teeth, sure, but they were also uniquely vulnerable, leading to constant threat and numerous heroic sacrifices as they struggled to survive. Catchphrases and cool gear made Aliens great, but the tension made it timeless.
AvP 2 understood that. You had the cool toys and the big guns, but throughout the campaign, numerous badass, fist-punching moments were tempered by an oppressive atmosphere of sustained dread. Every dark corner, whether a floor or ceiling, could mask a Face Hugger eager to get to third base or a pair of Xenos who'd come hissing at you from unexpected angles. Though the dynamic music sometimes gave the game away a few seconds too early, Monolith continually hit players hard with unpredictable scares, while peppering the levels with chillingly empty corridors and plenty of epic gunfights to let players feel powerful and potent. Before snatching it all away again.
The Predator campaign turned this on its head by making players a glass cannon. Packing multiple vision modes, insanely epic technology and stealth camouflage, we became both hunters and prey, carefully butchering our targets without presenting our fragile fishnet-clad bodies to rampaging squads of combat synthetics. We stalked the human cattle, unseen in the tree tops. We made trophies. We melted heads. And, frequently, we bunny-hopped for our dear lives. Again, it was a perfect balance between potency and powerlessness, though playing as a Predator naturally favoured the former. Damn, it was sweet.
But ultimately, being able to play as an Alien stole the show. We started out, not as a prowling soldier, but a simple Facehugger. Scuttling through the shadows and avoiding roving Weyland Yutani patrols was as tense as any of the marine levels, perhaps more so because we had no way of fighting back. After finding our helpless target, however, we were soon able to participate in that section that everybody remembers; namely waking up inside our prey and manually noshing through his still-beating heart to freedom. No cutscenes. No QTEs. We just did it, and frankly, I was both appalled and utterly enthralled to the point of going native.
Our sneaky shenanigans and gory emancipation paid off once we grew into the Xenomorph. Hunting on any surface, smelling out humans and pouncing upon them encouraged us to think tactically in three dimensions, with the knowledge that the well-equipped Marines would cut our chitin to ribbons if caught in the open. Reducing squads to bloody tatters, picking them off one by one and suckling on their delicious brainpans before melting back into the shadows put any number of stealth games to shame, and still provided the tense, atmospheric experience that used to define Monolith's wares.
AvP 2 definitely wasn't perfect, partly due to some embarrassing clipping issues, and it doesn't quite hold up as well today as some other shooters I could mention. But it was still a masterclass in how to respectfully take the Aliens source material (and Predator, don't forget) and turn it into an excellent videogame. We hope that the next developer who's tasked with the job decides to look to the past for inspiration.