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Wot I Think: Aliens vs Predator

Continuing the RPS trend of being up-to-the-minute with its verdicts, here's my brain-meanderings about the recent AvP sequel/remake. It's late because, frankly, the PC port wasn't in rude health. Like many other owners of the game, I suffered a bug which caused it to freeze for a few seconds every couple of minutes. A patch hit last week which, though it didn't fix the problem, alleviated it enough that I could stand to play the thing. Despite the naughty words this bug had me shouting, this write-up's consciously penned as though it wasn't an issue - partly because I'm sure it will be fixed, and primarily because it seems the majority of players didn't suffer it. So, on with the words. As RPS's resident AvP expert, it is my duty. Er. Which one's the Predator again? Is he that robot policeman, or is that someone else?

I didn't enjoy it at all until I decided to play Lady Gaga in the background. AvP3 fails on an absolutely fundamental level, given its classic monster subject matter - it's not scary. Whether that's the fault of the now over-exposed beasts, of the game's lurchingly empty atmosphere or both is academic. It's not scary. Not ever. Unfortunately, it's convinced it is. This means its constant attempts to put the willies up you come across as tediously predictable, annoyingly momentum-scuppering. In an alternate reality, I played it through, sighed, wrote terribly mean things about the game and that was that. In this reality, I turned its music off after a couple of hours and played Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster instead. And y'know what? I had a great time.

This is scarcely an unequivocal endorsement of Rebellion's do-over of their 1999 finest hour. It's just an accidental discovery that this grim'n'gritty but tonally misfiring FPS is sorely in need of an antidote to its own unsmiling adventurousness. That antidote is disco. "My telephone!" Cyber-spear to the face "M-m-my telephone!" Disc whips through three Aliens consecutively. "Cause I'm out in the club" slish-slash-slice " I'm sipping that bub" splat-splat-hiss-screeee "and you're not gonna reach my telephone!" Elephantine roar of triumph.

Whereas with the game's own, understandably film-derived music ol'Predator-Chap felt plodding and fiddly, with a high-BPM soundtrack I find myself playing at three times the speed, feeling twice as superhuman and ten times as entertained. And, with immaculate timing, I found myself holding a Colonial Marine commander's severed head up to a retinal security scanner to "Can't read my can't read no he can't read my poker face." This is very true. But he can read my gruesomely detached human skull. By not taking AvP seriously, I found myself able to take AvP seriously.

Is a sense of humour what AvP needed, then? I suspect not. It just needed the happy accident of something that took it miles away from its over-familiar foundations - monsters we know inside out, and oppressively metallic sci-fi corridors we've pounded far too many times before. The Alien's quick and stealthy. The Predator's gadget-laden and also stealthy. The Marine... well, the Marine's pretty screwed.

It's a dependable enough break-down, and truth be told this new AvP probably realises the murderous trio's abilities more film-accurately than its revered predecessors did. Unhappily, it doesn't put them anywhere interesting. It distractedly recreates a bunch of environments you might recognise from the movies (including the reviled AvPs), removes as much freedom as it possibly can and waves you onwards with a bitty, dreary story that thinks dialogue and characters should play second fiddle to overcooked fanservice. Couldn't we have had even a single remotely memorable and/or likeable character instead of the phoned-in Lance Henriksen appearance? Alternatively, we could have just been shown a picture of his face for thirty seconds while someone growled into the microphone. Would have been much cheaper whilst achieving exactly the same effect.

On paper, the idea that the three mini-campaigns segue into and crossover each other is a neat idea - for instance, in the Marine campaign you'll witness a scene of mysterious bloodshed, before later creating said bloodshed as the Predator. In practice, it means revisiting the same locations a few too many times without enough interesting narrative or combat to lift it. You know did lift my third visit to the squat metal warehouse that briefly housed a doomed Alien Queen? Lady Gaga's 2008 number one hit Just Dance, that's what.

It's not a terrible singleplayer shooter: it's just a very ordinary one. By Rebellion's recent, reliably low standards, that's something to be thankful for. It's a good-looking action game featuring things you recognise from old monster movies - it might well fall out of your brain the second you stop playing it, but you probably won't hate it. Well, except the super-dreary Marine campaign, nominally the game's first chapter but comfortably its least enjoyable section. You have to over there, then some woman alternately insults and compliments before telling you to go over there instead. That's about it. The Predator and Alien sections aren't structurally much more interesting - but the former's toy-packed inventory and the latter's Spiderman movement enable you to treat the small environments as more of a playground, a place to bound around alternately brutalising the human populace and running for your green-blooded life.

Big Pred is about escalation: his weapons slow-burn up from the desperate flailing of close-quarters blades to the effective but energy-hungry tri-laser to the resource-free disc and eventually the one-hit-kill spear. The need for stealth lessens as crabface increasingly becomes an engine of destruction and, a fairly silly boss fight aside, his later, carnage-heavy levels are where the singleplayer most shines. Shrug your brain out your, ear lose yourself to the scatty mayhem, and forget all about the aggravatingly stupid AI, the atmosphere-breaking shuffle to stand in just the right point necessary to push a button and the embarrassing deaths incurred whilst trapped in an impressively gory but absurdly lengthy stealth-kill animation.

The context-sensitive super-jumps, meanwhile have been much-maligned for limiting where you can go, but once I'd nailed a decent mental sense of the usual permitted range and destinations, these clicked for me most agreeably. I'd be able to simultaneously hurl red-laser death around the map and bound chimp-like between roofs, treetops and cliff edges. Rebellion haven't made Predhead's Tarzaneering as elegant as they perhaps needed to, but they're definitely onto something with their prompt-based rather than free-bounding system. It makes it measured and tactical rather than simply athletic, and that suits the character neatly. It all falls apart when you get shot in the bum because the bit you're trying to jump to is an inch out of permitted range, but when it all comes together it lends the character the omnipotency the films suggest.

The Alien I'm less keen on, though I like her a lot more than the sleepwalking Marine. The wallcrawling can work well, especially when you successfully use a vertical environment to sneak behind some ambulatory meat, but too often it's a matter of being stuck to a bit and at an angle you weren't aiming for. You feel less like an otherwordly killer tailor-made from the DNA up to take lives, and more like a guy who went through a walk in World Of Linen whilst wearing a velcro suit. There's a risk I've simply activated my rose-tint view mode when I say this, but it's hard not to feel the 2000 AvP did the Alien, especially, better. There's something to be said for being stripped down, but the unspecific prey-spotting Focus Mode and the Press E To Grab prompts overcomplicate the beast's assassin nature with overtly gamey elements.

All-told, it's a humdrum singleplayer tri-campaign, but it's certainly not as bad as some of the online mudslinging might suggest. A few of the control systems could definitely do with a rethink in order to grant superhuman power rather than hand-cramping fussiness, but for the most part it's merely a exceedingly ordinary game. As an AvP 2000 fan I feel let down, but not heartbroken.

The multiplayer comes out of it a whole lot better, and it doesn't even need a performance-art popstar soundtrack to do it. With the artificial scripting, the plonker AI and the stingy Predator count of the singleplayer removed in favour of calculating human brains, the game feels a whole lot more alive. I'm not going to go into the various modes available (bar to say that the point defence Domination mode feels too abstracted from dudes trying to shoot head-chomping monsters), but rather talk about the shared highlight. When you get into the groove with your character of choice, the baby-pink skin beneath AvP's musty, aged and over-fussy carapace really starts to show. You feel like you're in control of something interesting and powerful, not just a a pretend man with a pretend gun shooting oher pretend men with pretend guns. Waiting for a server sucks, as do the freezes when it decides there's a connection problem, but there's definitely something bright and bold to the pile-on mentality and creeping paranoia of three asymmetrical species hunting each other down.

At the moment, the Predator's double-whammy of hiding and insta-kill weapons seems to grant him a hilariously effective edge over the other species (and the gun-locked Marines a signficant disadvantage), but admittedly this varies hugely depending on both the mode you're playing and how players organise themselves. There isn't much that'll get past three or four clustered Marines, for instance, but in a way disorganisation works in AvP's favour. Aliens and Predator both have always been about finding new variations on "Oh god, we're gonna die." AvP fails to make that happen with scripting and storytelling, but when a couple of adept players are stalking random panickers like myself, this really threatens to be the game we hoped it would be.

It isn't ultimately that game, unfortunately, and while it's not the trainwreck you might have heard it is, it's messy enough that Rebellion have surely blown their last chance to reclaim their long-lost critical darlings status. Still, slip on a suitably antithetical pop soundtrack and once your eight-foot extraterrestrial hunter is busy bluffing with his muffin, this fiddly, sadly compromised thing makes more sense than it perhaps should.

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