I’ll attempt to counterbalance my recent whining about Aliens with some celebration of Aliens.
I have only foggy, slightly disappointed memories of Aliens vs Predator 2 – handled by FEARmeisters Monolith rather than the first game’s Rebellion – so, hungry for Gearbox’s upcoming Colonial Marines, I though it was about time I revisited it. Specifically, to talk about its one moment of genius.
Unfortunately, it turned out I couldn’t be bothered to play much of the game again. It’s not as dripping in menace as AvP the first (of which I penned a retrospective of sorts here), the Aliens don’t climb walls properly, there’s a bit too much cutscene drone going on, and I was haunted by terrible visions of the space-cows from the expansion pack (which wasn’t handled by Monolith, in fairness). It’s a reasonable enough sequel, going through most of the motions it needs to, though somehow the cruder, more claustrophobic, disco-light look of the first game now seems more presentable than Monolith’s glossier, higher-tech take. AvP seems to my nostalgia-addled eye to have a certain visual language of its own, whereas AvP2 much more bears the look of Any FPS From That Era. I could say the same about, say, Quake and Quake IV.
(I’ve occasionally muttered that 2D games, in general, seem to date less than 3D (until the likes of WoW, The Sims 2, Ico and TF2 threw in an art-curveball, anyway), because their appearance is that much more defined by their artists, not the level of technology they were created with. I wonder if the same is true of earlier 3D games versus most of what we’ve seen this century. When the graphics have a certain level of blocky, cludgy simplicity to them, perhaps we’re better able to shrug off its paucity and let our imaginations bolster it – whereas a game that’s crept within spitting distance of realistic makes us notice instead what doesn’t quite work, has us moaning about blurry textures, cubist hands and blob shadows. But then in this case I’m talking about games released within two years of each other, so I’m probably talking bollocks. Sorry. It’s a habit of mine.)
Anyway! That celebration of Aliens I promised. AVP2 has one great moment that absolutely shames AVP1. It’s the start of the Alien campaign; in AVP1 you begin it a fully-formed Alien warrior, an engine of slashing and headbiting destruction from the off. In AVP2, you begin low to the ground, with nothing to your name except a surprisingly powerful jump and the ability to climb walls. The nearby remnants of an Egg reveal the curious truth. You’re a Facehugger – an iconic monster we have, until now, only gotten to shoot at. What does a Facehugger do? It hugs faces. Then sticks a hideous protuberance down the huggee’s throat and pumps parasitical genetic material into their belly. So that’s what you’ve got to do.
The level that follows is ten minutes of panicked crawling through disorientatingly similar airducts, but possessed by a rare sense of absolute purpose. You aren’t trying to escape, or kill everyone, or score points – you’re looking for a victim, a host. The game teases expertly – you pass over oblivious or nervous civilians you’re desperate to get to, but the closed metal tunnels forbid it. Oh, the frustration – you’re like a tiger in the zoo, staring forlornly at all the delicious meat standing just outside your reach.
Finally, you spy a way out of the vents – and into a room with humans in it, no less. Scientists. Unarmed scientists. Oh, yes. You drop down, you pounce smoothly onto pink, fleshy face, and you sit back in satisfaction as your new host writhes on the ground, clutching futilely at his choked neck.
Then a soldier runs in with a flamethrower and it’s all over. Oh. Facehuggers had it easier in the movies.
No matter: you’ll just have to catch someone on their own. Quickload, sneak past the scientists, carefully dodge more armed guards, slip through a hole in the wall and… there he is. He’s asleep. He’s alone. He’s beautiful.
Fade to black.
Fade into… red?
Has the game broken? And what’s that thumping noise? Better click a button.
There’s muffled screaming as you keep clicking, keep chewing.
At last, the beating of his hideous heart stops. And…
There’s even an open window, the curtains fluttering to signpost your escape route. Out you go, into the dark streets. The first thing you see is a human. You’re still small, but now you have teeth. Chomp. The human screams and runs, beckoning over soldiers. You don’t last long.
Weaker prey is needed, clearly. There’s an occasional sound in the distance. A baby? A bird? No. It’s a cat. Ah yes – that’ll do it. The next few minutes offer heart-in-mouth tension, avoiding armed guard after guard, sticking to the shadows, seizing your moments to dash, all the while desperate to be more powerful – your knowledge of the Aliens movies means you know full-well what gruesome butterfly you’ll soon become, and it translates almost into a survival instinct. Again, that sense of real purpose, so lacking in most FPSes – you know why you’re doing this, and what your reward for it will be.
Eventually, you locate the source of the sound, a room containing quarantined cats, and finally the game gives you a break – there’s a convenient hole in the fence. In you go. Perhaps mercifully, you’re not shown the actual cat-munching, but the awful squelchy noises and subtle spray of blood tell you all you need to know.
Fade to black. Fade in to….
From hereon in, it’s the diminishing returns of familiarity and repetition, but there’s one last reward before the game reverts to type. All those soldiers you had to humiliatingly hide from to reach that darned cat? Yeah. Go get ’em, tiger.
AVP’s the better game, but what it never did was put you inside the Alien’s head as well as its carapace. It’s half an hour of glorious, gory tribute to one of cinema’s greatest monsters; I’m unlikely to ever play through AVP2 again, but I’ll always respect that moment of gruesome genius. It neatly exemplifies the nature of an FPS – start off weak, be rewarded for progress by becoming stronger – but this time there’s a great reason for it, rather than expecting you to believe the space marine you’re playing as didn’t think to bring all his best guns with him.
I hope the Monolith who thought up that section of AVP2 are the Monolith making Project Origin. I didn’t notice their calling cards in F.E.A.R.