Aliens vs Predator

A PC game review by Bobulous

Okay, so I'm five years late to this party, seeing as this game was released in 2010. But it was being offered on Steam for two-pound-fifty so I decided to give it a go to see how it compares to the 1999 game of almost the same name: Aliens Versus Predator.

Just as before, in the 2010 Aliens vs Predator you can play as a human Colonial Marine, as a sleek, black, serpent-like alien, or as a bulky, technologically superior, trophy-hunting predator. In this way the game is in fact three separate campaigns, each played in its own way.

The Colonial Marine campaign

screenshot: A holographic poledancer moves about on a podium in a nightclub whose walls are coated with dark, organic, alien secretions, and from whose ceiling hang two human bodies stripped of their skin.
There are several problems with the scene at Club Eden.

The marine campaign starts, as so many FPS games, with your soldier landing at a trouble-stricken facility which has called for urgent help. By the time you get boots on the ground the colony BG 386 has been overrun by aliens which have somehow established a hive and have seemingly killed or snatched the colony's entire human population. Separated from your squad by a surprise attack, you fight your way across the colony, following orders as you receive them.

Though occasionally you team up with fellow Colonial Marines, most of the game sees you going it alone, making your way through colony buildings, jungle passes, and ancient ruins, with only a motion tracker and a heavy weapon or two for company. If you've seen the superb movie Aliens then you'll be instantly familiar with the motion tracker, which blips with an ever-more-urgent tone as a threat closes in on your position, and shows from which direction you can expect the trouble to come.

screenshot: An alien grabs at the player, teeth bared in a snarl, despite being engulfed in flames, while in the background is a dead Colonial Marine major, pinned to the wall in an alien host trap.
Being on fire is no reason for an alien to retreat.

When trouble arrives you can always rely on your pistol, which somehow has the benefit of infinite ammunition. The pistol will allow you to hold-off a single alien if you have the time and the space to dance around avoiding the beast while you wear it down. But once the party gets started proper, and you're facing several of the creatures at once, you'll be glad for the power of the pulse rifle, an automatic weapon with an underslung grenade launcher, or for the hefty kick of a double-barrel shotgun. There is also a scoped rifle which is excellent for tracking and picking off targets at far greater distances. And a flamethrower which I tried to love but just couldn't find much use for it: setting an alien ablaze just makes it pissed off and doesn't stop it hurling itself at you. Whichever weapons you favour, your arsenal gets reset at the start of each mission, so there's no reason not to experiment with each weapon and use whatever suits the situation.

screenshot: The aztec ambience of the huge hunter's pyramid fills the background while in the foreground an overlay shows that the player's smartgun has locked onto an alien target, and bright flame bursts from the weapon's barrel, just a meter to the right of a robot sentry gun which also flashes brightly as it spits bullets at the same target.
A smartgun and robot sentry aim with perfect precision.

As a special treat, just now and again, you get to play with the smartgun. This weapon is so large that it takes up both of your heavy weapon slots and removes your ability to sprint. But it's worth it because the smartgun overlays your view with a large targeting reticle and automatically hunts for targets which fall within that area. Once it locks a target it aims the barrel for your so that you're guaranteed to hit the target precisely. This perfect accuracy mean that even a short burst will destroy an alien outright, making it easy to wipe out a swarm of the beasts so long as they're all rushing you from roughly the same direction.

As is the fashion these days, your health recharges after you take damage, though it only does so within each third of your total. So if you soak up so much damage that your health falls below 33% you will automatically recharge your health back to 33%. To refill your health to full you'll have to use one of up to three medikits that you can carry at a time, and spares are dotted around each level. If you realise, mid-battle, that your health is dangerously low then you can run around in a panic while injecting yourself with a top-up, before returning your attention to blasting the opposing forces.

Given the chaos unfolding, you find yourself in a lot of dark areas. So you'll be pleased to hear that you have a flashlight which you can leave on permanently (even when you're wielding a weapon) and an infinite supply of flares which you can throw (only one at a time, mind) to cast some light in shadowy places. These are both vital because the dark shape of the alien is not easy to detect in the gloom, and it doesn't pay to let them get up close. For a start they'll grab you if they can and then you'll lose time and energy fighting them off, or die trying if you've already been worn down too much. And secondly because the aliens are chock full of acid, and smashing them at close range will drench you in the stuff, which will reduce your health.

Assuming you do spot them before they get too close, it's usually easy to deal with an alien as they don't move as fast as you might expect. Even when you're firing at them they seem to take a somewhat relaxed approach to things, and never seem to sprint or leap to close the gap or get out of the line of fire. This does mean you can deal with larger numbers of the creatures at a time, but it also diminishes their reputation as a symbol of nightmare. It's also rare that you'll encounter that other nightmare symbol: the facehugger. Especially if you make sure to blast any eggs from a distance. And even if you do fail to spot a facehugger before it jumps at your face, you'll be able to fight it off so long as your health is not too low. This make the facehugger something you barely need give any consideration.

One foe that you can't as easily disregard is the combat android. These humanoid killers are hardy, extremely accurate (at least until you remove their head with the scoped rifle), and will actively take cover to make it difficult for you to wear them down with indiscriminate gunfire. Worst of all, these cold assassins tend to work as a pack, so while one draws your fire another is moving to take a shot at you.

It did initially surprise me that in the marine campaign you only get subtle hints of the presence of the "hunters" that we know from the movie Predator, and you only fight one of them in the entire campaign. But this does in fact fit with the scenario. The predator "hunters" tend to operate on a planet alone or in a small team, so it wouldn't make sense to be killing them left and right throughout each level.

The marine campaign took me around four hours to play and I enjoyed the sense of an unravelling situation, the secrets and conspiracies being revealed, the scenery reminiscent of Aliens, AvP and Predator, and the ambient music which gives strong nods to Aliens, Predator 2, and Alien 3. The audio logs dotted around each level also add to the story, though despite searching quite hard for all 67 of them I still missed about a dozen (though I always fail to find some of the collectibles, no matter what the game).

The Alien campaign

screenshot: Playing as the alien, crawling within the dark, featureless confines of a ceiling duct space, you sense the outline of two humans below, one dangerous and one harmless. A subtitle reports that one of them is asking how the alien knew how to cut the power.
The alien can sense the presence of other creatures even through solid walls.

Playing as the alien your campaign begins with your grisly birth in a research lab on BG 386, and your tutorial takes the form of a scientist giving you orders to test your ability to climb the walls and run along the ceiling, to hide yourself in the shadows by smashing sources of artificial light, and to attack targets. Initially these targets are terrified, clueless colony workers who have been ordered into your containment chamber (as part of clause 88c of their employment contract). But as soon as a power failure allows you to escape your shackles, your creators become your new targets as you claw your way out of containment and follow orders from the alien queen to reach and liberate her.

The alien campaign definitely cannot be called a first-person shooter, because the alien has no ranged weapons of any sort. You rely on silent movement and the ability to walk along walls and ceilings to reach vents and move through air ducts, allowing you to avoid approaching your enemies from the direction they expect. Run straight towards an alert Colonial Marine or a robot sentry gun and you'll be dead before you get within swiping distance. But enter a room by way of an air vent, use your long, flexible tail to smash the ceiling lights so that you can't be spotted in the dark, and then wait until a marine's patrol route leaves them isolated and you can drop down behind them and remove them as a threat.

screenshot: A view from inside the alien's outer jaw as it looms over the skull of an unsuspecting Colonial Marine.
Sneak up on a soldier to allow the alien to kill with its brutal jaws.

If you manage to get behind a target without it becoming alert you can perform a stealth kill which might involve your powerful tail spearing their upper body, or shattering their skull with a punching bite from your outer and inner jaws. If they have detected you then you'll have to duke it out, clawing and lashing at them until they succumb. If you take damage but survive then you will heal fully within a number of seconds, but sustained damage is likely to finish you off, so the stealthy, indirect approach is key. Dealing with unarmed targets is far easier: approach at your leisure, grab them, and hold them still while a facehugger turns them into a living host.

Moving about as the alien is fun because you can simply leap from floor to wall, wall to ceiling, and then run around with the world rushing past you at crazy angles. However, one thing that does spoil the flow is that you need to hold a "transition surface" key if you want to run from one surface to another without jumping. This is annoying because if you time the keypress wrongly you just bump into the wall and come to a dead stop. It's not clear why you would ever want to come to a complete stop while facing a wall, but the game requires the "transition" keypress every time, unless the wall you're facing is at a shallow enough angle. I think it would have been better to get rid of this control button and simply have the alien automatically transition to a new surface if you keep moving forward, to keep a feeling of fluidity. Even so, it is fun being able to see the world from any angle, and a nice touch is that if you spin around fast enough you can see your own tail whipping about behind you.

screenshot: A tilted view from the alien's perspective as it hangs from the wall which surrounds a ceremonial arena, a predator in the distance trying to lock onto the alien with its plasma caster targeting beam.
A formidable predator is a far greater threat than a human.

While you're moving around in air ducts you can sense the outline of enemy creatures, so that you know where threats and targets are. Armed threats have a red outline, while unarmed targets have a green outline. This makes it easy to avoid bursting into an open area full of armed opponents, and lets you plan your approach carefully. One thing that is different to the 1999 game is that in this version the alien can sense the aura of androids, making the android little different to a Colonial Marine (though they are somewhat harder to kill).

Human or android, the enemy AI is not particularly impressive. You can brutally slay a marine out in the open, and though the nearby soldiers briefly seem panicked they quickly return to saying things which suggest that they're not particularly worried about the situation. Robot sentry guns don't have any problem with intelligence: you stand within their firing arc and they blast you. Simple as that.

While most of your opponents are human and android you do get to fight three predators at the end of the alien campaign and there is something satisfying about dodging their ranged attacks and engaging in close combat with these formidable hunters. Though the alien campaign seemed shorter and simpler than the marine campaign, it lasted about four hours just the same. And again I was some way short of finding all of the hidden items (alien queen royal jelly canisters this time).

The Predator campaign

screenshot: A view from the predator's perspective as he punches vicious wristblades up into the head of an alien against a backdrop of lush and humid jungle.
The predator excels in hand-to-hand combat.

The foolish humans have entered the sacred hunters' pyramid and managed to unleash a horde of serpents in the process. When you step into the role of predator you are tasked with recovering ancient technological artefacts taken by the human raiders, and with ridding the whole area of the "serpent" aliens at the same time. First off your elders give you a training session which acts as a tutorial in close combat (blocking an attack, breaking an opponent's block, and finishing moves), ranged weapons, and reaching high ground with great bounding leaps. Then it's off to the human colony to tidy up the mess they've made.

As a predator you are larger and stronger than a puny human, so the focus is mostly on close combat fighting, punching and swiping with your deadly wristblades even when facing the acid-filled aliens that your hunter clan refer to as serpents. The acid splash does affect your health, but not so much as it affects a human. So you are expected to deal with the majority of threats close up. You can resort to your plasma caster, a ranged weapon which you can fire in snapshot mode, or you can lock a target before firing to improve your aim. Both modes require that your energy reserves have available charge, so you don't get many shots before you have to find a power source and drain it to recharge your weapon. This means that you can't play the game as a trigger-happy loon, and must only use the plasma caster in emergencies or to pick off a sniper or soften up an alien horde before they close in on you.

Apart from the limited charge available for your plasma caster, another downside to ranged weapons is that the default trigger key is Mouse3 which on most mice means squashing down the scroll wheel. This can be a bit awkward so it's not ideal, and while you can reconfigure your controls there isn't much room left on the keyboard or the mouse so you might find that Mouse3 is the only viable option. However, squashy as the scroll-wheel button is, I managed to use it often enough without much trouble. Along with the plasma caster, you also gain the option of dropping proximity mines, but I have to admit that I never thought of a good use for these.

screenshot: The predator watches a dark room full of Colonial Marines as they complain about their luck; switching to thermal vision highlights those soldiers in bright yellows and whites against the dark blue of walls and inanimate objects.
Thermal vision makes human figures glow like hot flares.

If you're stealthy you'll only rarely need the ranged weapons. Activating your light-bending camouflage makes it harder for human targets to detect you, allowing you to leap into a tree or onto a ledge right above their position without raising their suspicions. You can also distract a human target by projecting human speech sounds, which will lure them out of position so you can pick them off easily or get them out of the way so you can disable the robot sentry gun they were guarding. But be careful around the sentry guns: they seem to be very good at spotting you even when you're camouflaged and at a fair distance. Best to take an indirect approach.

Luckily your powerful jump lets you take the high path through treetops, along ledges, and across upper floors, which usually allows you close the distance and get the drop on a target before they have a chance to ready their weapon. To leap you hold the "focus" key and you see an overlay which tells you where you can land in one bound. This works well, and you can leap from ledge to ledge quite smoothly. The focus overlay also highlights the location of power sources, objectives, health shards, and even the collectible trophy belts.

If you can get yourself up close to an unaware or stunned target, human or alien, you can grab them and make a trophy kill of them with a gory display of violence, tearing their head from their body and holding it aloft proudly. These finishing moves guarantee death for the target, but they do take some time so it's not wise to show off if you're in the middle of an angry crowd. If you do take damage you'll recharge some of it after a few seconds, but for a full recharge you'll have to use a health shard, of which you can carry three at a time and you'll find extras dotted around each level (presumably because the human scientists have been studying them).

screenshot: The predator uses a special visibility mode to highlight a horde of aliens in bright green against the dark background, one alien lying defeated before him, acid and predator blood spattered around the surrounding area.
A special visibility mode highlights the predators' serpent foes.

A flashlight would ruin your stealth profile, so instead your predator's mask has a thermal vision mode which highlights human body heat and makes human and android targets appear in bright white against the dark blue background of inanimate objects and surfaces. The serpents do not have a heat signature so this visibility mode does not highlight aliens, but by making it easier to see the backdrop it does act as a sort of night vision and make it easier to pick out alien shapes in the dark. Better yet, eventually you acquire an ancient mask which does offer a special visibility mode that highlights the serpents in bright green, allowing to spot them with ease even in the darkest of places.

Other upgrades you get as you make your way into the hunters' pyramid are the battle disc and the combi stick. If you've seen Predator 2 the disc should be familiar: you hurl it and it slices through everything in its path before it gracefully returns to your hand. In this game you can throw the disc and then direct its motion by aiming your targeting reticle. This means you can hurl the disc at a line of aliens and have it tear through one or two or them before you guide it to return to you by way of a third alien. This is very handy when you're under siege, as you can slice several aliens at once and then engage whatever is left with your wristblades. It does require some skill to hit more than one target at a time, though.

The combi stick is a little odder. It resembles the weapon seen in Predator 2 which telescopically extends in length and is used for close combat and as a mid-range throwing weapon. So I was looking forward to adding a new close combat technique into the mix, but disappointingly the combi stick is only used in this game as a ranged weapon. You throw it and it instantly kills almost anything it hits. More bizarre is that one second later it's back in your possession (even though you've done nothing to retrieve it) and you're free to throw it again. So it effectively becomes an instant-kill ranged weapon with infinite ammo, which doesn't really fit well with the predator's general combat profile.

The combi stick won't give you an instant kill in your final showdown. Your ultimate objective is to annihilate the abomination: a predator-alien hybrid which has burst from a fallen elite predator. Because the predator-alien outclasses you in close combat this is a good excuse to use the plasma caster and hurl damage at the abomination whilst trying to keep as much distance as possible.

The predator campaign took me about five hours to complete. Again I failed to find all of the collectible items (this time trophy belts) which is frustrating because I realised too late that focus mode highlights the location of trophy belts even at a great distance, making it very difficult to miss them once you know to use focus mode to scan for them.

The game overall

Aliens vs Predator is an enjoyable and satisfying game, stuffed full of references to the ever-growing franchises spawned by the Alien and Predator movies in the 1980s.

There are a few things that could do with being tightened up for any future games. Firstly, the movies make clear how fearsome is the acid contained within each alien, but in the game the acid plays a minor role, barely injuring the player and not even making a mark on walls or floors when an alien is torn to shreds by gunfire. There's no chance of alien slaughter leading to its acid chewing through two or three levels of metal flooring, even though the game at one point shows a multi-floor crater with the exact appearance of those seen in the movie Aliens.

Also, both the aliens and facehuggers are somewhat gentler in this game than in the 1999 game. The aliens move smoothly but slowly (albeit with beautiful, fluid motions) and the facehuggers are barely a threat, which does remove a lot of the tension that was oozing from the earlier game. And the slightly bizarre combi stick, which you can throw over and over again without any clue as to how it's found its way back to you, and score an instant kill on every hit, seems a little unrealistic in such a modern game. It would have been more interesting to introduce it as a close combat weapon, or at least force you to fetch or recall the weapon before you could use it again.

On the plus side, the difficulty is far easier than that of the 1999 game. The earlier game forced you to complete a whole level in one go, with no save points (until a much later patch added this as an option), and consequently I never did complete the marine or alien campaigns in the 1999 game. In this 2010 game there are frequent checkpoints so that you never have to repeat the entire level just because you've died, and the difficulty on the "normal" setting is very manageable. Perfect for someone like me who wants the best parts of playing a game and watching a movie: to be in control but to progress from scene to scene without repeating anything too much. Though I did miss the randomness of the 1999 game in which aliens would emerge from different directions every time you played it, keeping you alert the whole time. In this 2010 game a particular scene will play out the same way each time you play it, with only one or two places in the game where an infinite number of foes will keep spawning until you leave the area.

Overall, though, this is great fun. The stories from the three campaigns overlap nicely, even visiting some of the same areas from different directions. At thirteen hours (with lots of futile hunting for collectibles) it's somewhat on the short side. But given how cheap you can buy the game now that it's five years old, I'd recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the alien and predator worlds.