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Gaming Nexus Alien Games Retrospective: Part 2

Gaming Nexus Alien Games Retrospective: Part 2

Written by Sean Colleli on 10/6/2014 for 360   PC   PS3   PS4   XONE  
More On: Aliens: Colonial Marines Aliens vs. Predator Aliens: Infestation Alien: Isolation

Last time on the Alien video game retrospective we looked at some of the defining entries the series had early on. In the 80s and 90s the alien game series explored shooters, arcade games, sidescrollers and even Doom mods. There were even a couple great Aliens vs. Predator beat-em-ups and fighting games, like The Last of His Clan on the Game Boy. That said, as the Aliens vs. Predator spinoff series came to dominate Alien videogames and the franchise moved into the 2000s, it was clear that the first-person-shooter was where the Alien formula worked best. In the following decade and change the Alien game franchise reached cosmic heights and success…and was eventually brought crashing down by hubris, mismanagement and outright lies.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As the 90s ended, what many fans consider the greatest Alien game burst onto the scene.

Aliens vs. Predator –1999-2000

After spending a few years away from the universe of xenomorphs and Weyland Yutani, Rebellion returned to perfect the formula they’d established on the Atari Jaguar back in 1994. Aliens vs. Predator was a revelation on PC in 1999, introducing gamers not only to the species-divided, asymmetric multiplayer that would come to define the game series, but also to a single player experience that was the first game to truly get the Alien franchise right. The same formula returned from the Jag game—three campaigns, Alien, Predator and Colonial Marine—but home computer technology had caught up to the original vision of the films. AvP was fast, unrelenting, painstakingly accurate and most important, utterly terrifying.

I still remember playing it for the first time at my cousins’ house, on my uncle’s then-cutting edge gaming PC. AvP was the first game since Doom 2 to scare the ever living crap out of me, mostly because—just like in the films—it forced a woefully outmatched average person (14-year-old me) to come to terms with a relentless enemy. Along with Quake, AvP was the game that forced me to switch from old-school Doom-style keyboard controls to keyboard-and-mouse aiming.

While the game got the Predator campaign more-or-less right, it was the Marine and Alien campaigns that it really nailed and those are the ones I remember most acutely. While most shooters were about macho empowerment, AvP’s Marine campaign was the exact opposite. Each level was a white-knuckle marathon sprint as you guided a single solitary marine from one bad situation to the next, all the while hounded by an endless onslaught of aliens. The perfectly recreated levels were dark and cramped, necessitating judicious use of flares and night vision. The ping of the motion tracker still makes the hair on my neck stand up—when I heard that, I knew they were almost on top of me.

The xenomorphs in AvP were fast—the fastest enemy I’d seen in an FPS up to that point—and Terminator-like in their persistence. I’d blast off a leg with my pulse rifle and they’d claw their way toward me as if nothing had happened, bleeding acid as they went. They were also the first enemy I had fought that attacked from multiple angles, scampering about on the walls and ceilings and often spearing me with their tails from above. The aliens were so fast, implacable and adaptive that each kill I scored felt like a small, significant victory, but I never had time to breathe because each level kept spawning more of them; I was never safe. Older games I’d played had nerfed difficult enemies for the sake of balance or fairness; not AvP. It presented the aliens exactly as they were in the movies, and expected you to adapt to them. To paraphrase a reviewer of the original Alien film, AvP’s Marine campaign was so scary, “it’ll make the peanuts pop out of your M&M’s.”

The Alien campaign was about as different from the Marine as you could get without switching to a different engine. The gameplay shifted to a completely different angle and made me feel like something truly alien: what I can only describe as living, liquid fear. With blind speed and grace I could race across ceilings and walls, quickly striking from the shadows or silently, patiently stalking my prey from above. Even the battle-hardened space marines screamed in panic as they tried to gun me down, futilely emptying clips into the murky corridors as I casually observed from the ceiling. Civilians simply cowered in abject, paralyzed horror. As the Alien, I was nothing less than terror incarnate.

As I took damage during my stealthy attacks, I quickly realized I could regain vitality by feasting on the brains and bodies of my slain enemies. As I chewed and dismembered corpses the game’s brilliantly minimalist health meter slowly replenished. In subconscious disgust and fascination I reasoned that in the continuity of the movies, eating people to gain strength made perfect sense. I’m still ashamed to admit that sneaking up to an unsuspecting marine and coring his skull with a well-placed, health-restoring head bite is one of the more guiltily satisfying things I’ve done in a video game.

AvP’s Alien levels forced you to think in three dimensions to navigate but the beauty was that it was never a chore. Rebellion must have employed some of the best level designers of their time because every map had a very natural, organic progression. A flickering light, a loose vent cover on the ceiling or even the subtle coloring of a room gently drew you forward in a level, to the point where playing actually felt like you were acting on instinct. Playing as the Alien just felt right, like you were an animal acting not on emotion but on its own inherent nature. You were the perfect organism that Ash described in the movie: a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. AvP’s Marine campaign scared me by hounding me with those perfect organisms. The Alien campaign scared me by how natural and guiltless it felt to embody that remorseless killer.

I didn’t play much of AvP’s groundbreaking multiplayer (I was still on dialup back in 1999) but I fully appreciated what Rebellion accomplished with that game, especially after they added a wealth of new features, maps and options for the 2000 game of the year “Gold Edition.” AvP got all of the trappings of the Alien and Predator series down to the last detail, but games like Alien Trilogy had done that before. Rather, AvP was the first game to make it feel right too.


Aliens vs. Predator 2—2001

With the runaway success of the first AvP, it was inevitable that Fox would commission a sequel. Rebellion was occupied with other projects, so Monolith Productions was enlisted to develop the follow-up. Only a year after Rebellion released their extensive Gold Edition patch for AvP, Monolith launched Aliens vs. Predator 2, running on their proprietary Lithtech engine. The results were groundbreaking from a technical standpoint, but in terms of gameplay, AvP2 was a mixed bag.

By this time Half-Life had taken the FPS scene by storm, and that game’s influence on Monolith is very evident in AvP2. The game’s three single player campaigns—Marine, Predator and Alien once again—were highly linear affairs filled with scripted sequences and events. This made them novel to play through for the first time, but robbed them of the suspense and element of surprise from the original game. In AvP1, you never knew where an attack would come from, and there was an endless supply of respawning aliens to fight. In AvP2, once you had played a level it was the same every time. This let Monolith do cool things like have aliens claw their way through doors or burst through pipes in the ceiling, but the element of surprise was gone in subsequent playthroughs. AvP2 just wasn’t all that scary.

Monolith introduced an overarching story that tied all three campaigns together, following each character as they intersected with each other. The plot was pretty involved—something that Rebellion’s game lacked—but came off as convoluted and not terribly interesting. There was too much techno-babble, too many acronyms and a confusing mix of plot threads to keep track of, and none of the characters were very well written, which made it hard to get invested in any of them. That said, the Alien’s campaign was memorable just by the way it began. Monolith had you experience the full xenomorph life cycle—from sneaking around as a facehugger looking to infest an unwary colonist, all the way to chewing your way out of his ribcage in first-person as a chestburster. The whole sequence was heavily scripted to be sure, but gruesomely unforgettable and disturbing nonetheless.

While AvP2 was impressive on sheer graphical grounds, Monolith didn’t fully capitalize on their engine the way Rebellion had. Levels were linear, yet bland and confusing; the devious instinctual feeling of AvP1’s Alien campaign was gone. As a xenomorph, I’d often clamber aimlessly around on the ceiling for half an hour until I found the innocuous, poorly-lit vent shaft that led to the rest of the level. In AvP2 you can clearly see the precursors to the monotonous, repetitive office buildings and predictable scripted jump-scares in Monolith’s F.E.A.R. from a few years later.

The character re-balancing dulled the rest of the edge right off of AvP2. The alien was much slower and clunkier; a far cry from the liquid fear incarnate from Rebellion’s game. The Predator was disappointingly a lot less resilient, although he finally got to use some of his cooler weapons like the netgun and combistick spear. The marine, Corporal “Frosty” Harrison, was tougher and his arsenal was more like a standard FPS—basically, you felt a lot less vulnerable as the marine.

While AvP2’s story mode was comparatively dull and repetitive compared to its white-knuckle predecessor, all of that balancing and focus on technical prowess really paid off in multiplayer. Monolith crafted one of the most superbly balanced and playable team deathmatch games I’ve ever experienced. I clearly remember playing marines vs. aliens infection, backed against a wall with my buddies as the xenomporph hellspawn endlessly rushed us. Every team member they picked off respawned as an alien, creating a deliciously tense war of attrition.

I might not have very many fond memories of AvP2’s story or characters, and I rarely feel the urge to replay its solo campaigns, but I still lament that many of the old servers I used to frequent are long gone now. I met some good friends in AvP2 multiplayer and I still reminisce about those unforgettable, tense matches where I was sneaking up on an unwary marine, or being stalked through a claustrophobic map by a predator player. I really hope Monolith can work something out with Valve so we can finally get AvP2 on Steam and revive that classic deathmatch mode.


Aliens vs. Predator—2010

For better or worse, the Aliens vs. Predator crossover series seemed to be the last word in Alien games during the 2000s. After the poorly-received AvP films in 2004 and 2007 (the former merely mediocre, the latter an utterly tasteless exercise in audience endurance), Rebellion took one last stab at the floundering spinoff with 2010’s game reboot. Simply titled Aliens vs. Predator (see also: Turok, Wolfenstein, Tomb Raider), the fans unofficially came to know this one as AvP3.

While many fans were hoping for a true return to form for the series, or at least a modern redo of AvP2’s excellent multiplayer, the end result was sadly a bit less impressive on all fronts. That’s not to say AvP3 is a bad game; it isn’t, and I still feel like it gets a bad rap in any case. It just failed to live up to either of its predecessors.

AvP3 retells in more detail the very loose plot from the original 1999 game. Weyland-Yutani sets up a colony to ostensibly terraform a planet, but their real goal is to excavate a hidden ceremonial Predator temple. Lance Henricksen reprises his role from the films as company boss Karl Bishop Weyland, directly linking this game to the much-maligned 2004 movie. Karl is there to raid the xenomorph eggs and the ancient alien queen from the temple and—what else?—turn them into bioweapons for the company. The Predators don’t take too kindly to this and show up loaded for bear, blast the marines’ mothership out of orbit, inadvertently cut power to all the experimental aliens’ cages and otherwise loose hell onto the colony.

The story is filled with all the series clichés you’d expect. There’s a wise-cracking Latina marine filling in for Pvt. Vasquez; your gruff sergeant gets infested by an alien and orders you to kill him; a predator stalks you through most of the campaign; there are evil scheming androids; and the arrogant playing-god company scientists are practically begging for you to eat them as the alien. AvP3’s story was not new or daring in any way whatsoever, but Rebellion knew this material so well that I didn’t mind. It was fun just to play through these clichés in a game where they were polished to a mirror shine and expertly fitted into place.

There were some memorable moments too. The fight against aliens in a bass-pounding nightclub early on was intense. Battling two predators at once as the alien—and in a ceremonial killing ground no less—was a suitably challenging fight. It was also cool to see the alien collapse in agony when it “felt” its queen die. The gameplay mechanics that this story was grafted onto were sadly only serviceable. The alien was slightly less clunky than it was in AvP2, but still not as fluid as it was in the first game. The marine was weaker and scarier to play, but his moves were strangely old-school; he couldn’t aim down his gun’s sights or even crouch. The Predator was more mobile, with the ability to leap between trees as in the original film, but his stealth abilities felt half-broken and even worse, made enemy marines seem incredibly stupid.

The freshness may have gone from the story and gameplay, but AvP3 really excelled in presentation. Rebellion took the new DirectX 11 standard as far as it would go, and four years later, I’m still amazed by how good this game looks on a high-end rig. The way the aliens slithered along the ceiling and blended in seamlessly with their hive walls gave me goosebumps. There was subtle acid pitting on the predators’ armor, the marines’ skin glistened with cold, nervous sweat, and sickly pale sunlight streamed through the colony’s windows at daybreak. And then of course there were the fatalities.

AvP3 pushed the series’ gore and violence beyond anything I’d seen in an Alien video game before. As the Predator or the Alien you could perform some incredibly grisly finishing moves on your hapless human prey. The xenomorph’s disturbingly sensual method of impaling a marine through the torso, or the ever-popular skull perforation with its inner jaw, made me recoil in disgust. The Predator was worse; he favored decapitation, and the way he caressed and inspected the human head trophies he collected really made my skin crawl. If anything, Rebellion nailed the unsettling sexual aspects of these monsters that H.R. Giger established all the way back in 1979.

Unfortunately, these gruesome finishers did not translate into multiplayer very well. AvP3’s species deathmatch was perfectly serviceable and even had a pretty tense team skirmish mode, but it wasn’t the second coming of AvP2. The fatality moves were luridly indulgent in the solo campaign, but in deathmatch they took way too long to pull off. This often led to comical conga-lines of death—the likes of which Gears of War players know all too well—with an alien disemboweling a marine, and a Predator patiently waiting nearby to eviscerate the alien, and so on. AvP3 wasn’t the blockbuster that fans were hoping for and its multiplayer didn’t pick up the loyal following of its predecessors, but it’s still a notable entry in the series. It’s definitely worth checking out, if just for how disgustingly gorgeous it is.

Aliens: Infestation—2011

Once the Aliens vs. Predator film series had crashed and burned and AvP3 met with less than stellar reception, Sega realized that it was time to shift focus away from the crossover and reorient on something guaranteed to make money: nostalgia. They went full steam ahead on Gearbox’s promising FPS, Aliens: Colonial Marines, which the developer promised was a true sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens. Sega even cancelled the promising Aliens: Crucible, a squad-based RPG in development at Obsidian Entertainment, to focus all attention and hype on Colonial Marines. That turned out to be a big mistake, but before we dive into that whole sordid mess we can’t forget about the one good thing to come out of Colonial Marines’ development.

Sega commissioned Wayforward Technologies to make a handheld companion game for Colonial Marines, called Aliens: Infestation. In a turn of supreme cosmic irony, Infestation was released ahead of schedule in late 2011 (Colonial Marines would suffer multiple delays before finally shambling to store shelves over a year later), and to top it all off, Infestation was really, really good. Infestation is swan song for the aging Nintendo DS—by the time the game was released, the 3DS had been out for several months. Nonetheless, Infestation is a great game in its own right and one of the best Aliens games, and you can carry it around in your pocket.

In a fitting homage, Wayforward made Infestation a 2D side-scrolling, Metroid-style adventure game. Considering Metroid was originally inspired by Alien, this is more than appropriate. The 2D style worked well for Wayforward; known for games like Shantae and A Boy and His Blob, the studio is a master of expressive sprite art and retro game design. It’s no surprise that the game turned out so well.

Infestation’s story mirrors Colonial Marines’ to a certain degree. The USS Sephora picks up the distress call from the Sulaco and goes to investigate. The Sephora’s company of marines discovers that Sulaco’s crew is missing and the ship has been overrun by xenomorphs, killer androids and a neo-socialist faction opposed to Weyland-Yutani, who hope to harvest the aliens and use them against the company. Thankfully, Infestation’s plot eventually differs considerably from Colonial Marines, omitting the hackneyed fanservice twists and turns that muddle Gearbox’s game.

The gameplay is very reminiscent of Metroid Fusion; story driven, but with plenty of 2D exploration. As the marines make their way through the derelict Sulaco they must collect iconic weapons and tools—like grenades or a cutting torch—to progress further in the ship, by blasting open armored vents or slicing welded doors open. Enemies respawn as soon as you leave a room and health and ammo are limited, adding a tension to the exploration that I haven’t felt since Super Metroid.

The main difference is that, unlike the solitary Samus, you aren’t alone. There’s a full platoon of space marines to choose from, up to 19 in all. You can swap for a different marine any time you visit a save room, but the catch is that once a marine is dead, he or she is gone for good. Marines can be killed outright or captured and cocooned, necessitating that you switch to a new character and attempt to track them down and save them before they are impregnated with a chestburster. While all of the marines played identically, each was written, drawn and animated with a unique, colorful personality. This added incentive to keep all of them alive as long as possible.

And damn, that wasn’t easy. The constantly respawning aliens, sneaky facehuggers, implacable robots and gargantuan bosses—most of which were utter bullet sponges—meant that death was usually right around the corner. Infestation’s stout difficulty was a bit jarring for me at first, and it was always sobering to remember that each of my “extra lives” was an individual character.

Aliens: Infestation wasn’t a very long game, but it had the blend of suspense, atmosphere and action that I love about the Alien series. It also proved that the reliable old DS could still get the job done. I’d say that’s pretty good for a handheld spinoff that was conceived as an afterthought companion for the “main event” that Gearbox was working on. Of course, I’d be remiss without discussing Infestation’s huge disappointment of a big brother…


Aliens: Colonial Marines—2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines is a textbook example of how developer hubris and lazy over-reliance on a brand can utterly destroy a promising game. Rarely spoken of in the press during most of its protracted five year development cycle, developer Gearbox Software ramped up a huge hype campaign toward the end that ultimately came back to bite them. I won’t go into the sordid details of how this promising game was undone—that’s been covered extensively elsewhere. Suffice to say, Gearbox farmed out most of the game’s development, scrapped and restarted the project late in the cycle, and relied on disingenuous and even outright fake trailers to build excitement for the game’s release.

Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford started talking up the game in Youtube development diaries, about a year before Colonial Marines was planned to come out. He gushed with fanboyish glee about how Fox had provided the developers with the official Aliens sound library. He quipped lines from the movie as he walked us through what was apparently the true sequel to Aliens that fans had always wanted. The hype continued with the usual smattering of pre-order DLC bonuses, statues and “collector’s edition” knick-knacks that are sadly common in the industry today. The game we got—after numerous troubling delays, no less—was a far cry from what we saw in those trailers. Stripped down, bland and horribly buggy compared to the exciting scenes Gearbox showed at PAX and E3, Colonial Marines was a colossal disappointment.

Even after the game’s enormous 4GB week-one patch dropped and fixed many of the crippling AI and gameplay issues, Colonial Marines clearly wasn’t what fans were promised. The trailers had shown pitched battles in the wreckage of the Hadley’s Hope colony, with aliens swarming across the ceilings and walls. There were mobile gun turrets, a chase across a decimated landscape, a tense standoff in the wrecked colony command center, and something Aliens fans had always begged for: a Power Loader battle with the Alien Queen. All of that was conspicuously missing from the final game, replaced by a dull campaign and a laughable plot.

Technical limitations aside, Colonial Marines clearly headed off in the wrong direction early in its troubled development. At some point, someone high up decided that Aliens really needed to be like the Call of Duty series that was (and continues) making so much money. The problem is that the two series are nothing alike, and it showed rather sorely in the gameplay. The marines end up fighting Weyland-Yutani mercenaries at least as often as they were shooting aliens, in cover-based attrition firefights that felt very CoD-like. When you did get to shoot some xenomorphs, they were slow, stupid and not terribly threatening.

The CoD influence permeated other areas of the game. There seemed to be a preoccupation with dressing up the sleek, futuristic pulse rifles with scopes, sights and other clunky 21st-century weapon attachments. The marines themselves indulged in a rather excessive amount of military jargon and acronyms—even moreso than in the movie, which is saying something—and this resulted in dialogue so packed with oorah-speak that it came off as nonsensical and unintentionally comical.

Colonial Marines’ biggest sin, however, was that it was such a crushing bore. Far from scary, tense or even suspenseful, the game was a linear, relentlessly scripted and thoroughly tedious chore to get through. The story, which focused on how Corp. Hicks supposedly didn’t die, came off like bad, convoluted fanfiction. I’m as unhappy as any Aliens fan that Hicks and Newt were unceremoniously killed off at the beginning of Alien 3, but the way Colonial Marines went about bringing Hicks back was more ham-fisted than Ripley getting cloned in Alien Resurrection. You could escape the single player campaign’s soul-sucking tedium by temporarily jumping into multiplayer, which was a serviceable Aliens take on Left 4 Dead.  Still, the game’s infamous (and well-deserved) reputation meant that the halfway decent multiplayer mode never gained much of a following.

Aliens: Colonial Marines shows how letting a brand speak louder than the game itself can seriously derail a project. The game had so much promise, but by fixating on the trappings of the Alien series and hoping that they would float a mediocre game, Gearbox lost sight of what the Alien series is all about. Even Michael Biehn, who reprised his role as Hicks, said that the project felt “passionless.” Colonial Marines put a lot of emphasis on nostalgia: the marines, their weapons and equipment, and how incredibly badass they all were. In the process, it missed the point that the movie was making.

James Cameron always intended Aliens to be the Vietnam War in space—the story of an arrogant military woefully unprepared for a relentless enemy. It doesn’t matter how powerful your guns are or how macho you feel; if you go up against the aliens, you are going to lose. You can’t fight them, you can barely escape them—and only if you are determined and lucky. That’s why the Alien series, at its best, is so scary. The only thing scary about Colonial Marines was that it showed how far a game could miss the mark, even when it started out with everything going for it.

Conclusion: the uncertain future?

Colonial Marines and its hollow hype campaign make me more than a little nervous about Alien: Isolation. From day one Creative Assembly has done their best to distance their game from Colonial Marines, and at first glance it seems safe to assume they are taking a drastically different approach. On paper, the two games couldn’t be more different: one is a rote, paint-by-numbers shooter and the other is apparently a tense haunted house survival horror game. Still, I’m beginning to see a little bit of history repeating itself. Once again Sega is pushing pre-order bonuses, season passes and retailer-specific DLC. They even cut out a huge portion of the game—featuring the original cast of Alien no less—to hold it back as a downloadable preorder incentive.

A game as strong as Alien: Isolation shouldn’t need this kind of shameless pandering, this insincere nostalgia-baiting that has become far too prevalent in the market these days. Alien: Isolation should be able to stand on its own. I hope I’m just being overly cautious. Colonial Marines and a number of other high-profile disappointments have made me feel a bit paranoid when publishers trot out the parade of piecemeal, nickel-and-dime, Gamestop-exclusive DLC. I hope this is just (sordid) business as usual, and Alien: Isolation is a truly spectacular game in spite of the hype.

One thing’s for sure: after Colonial Marines and its scandals, dismal reviews and multiple lawsuits, Sega can’t afford to fumble this one. If they fail again, Fox will undoubtedly snatch the Alien license away from them and give it to a more capable publisher. More importantly however is that after so many recent disappointments, the fans deserve a genuinely great Alien game. It would be pretty terrifying if they didn’t get one on Alien’s 35th anniversary, for being loyal all these years. If Alien: Isolation is another flop, especially after all the hyping for the longtime fans, you can be certain that Sega will hear them scream—for blood.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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