A guy named Bill once said that all the world’s a stage. I’m tend to agree and furthermore – I suspect that behind the curtain, a few chubby magnates made a diabolical pact: to finance bad sequels, in a truly evil attempt to lower the audience’s standards in such a way that even a blank CD on which „Matrix Retributions” is sketchily written with an oil-based marker would sell like hot cakes.
My hypothesis is confirmed by the cruel punishment one of the (very) few people who defied this protocol had to endure: after daring to actually make a sequel that’s better than the original (The Empire Strikes Back), George Lucas was replaced with an evil robot and wrote, directed and cashed out on the “blockbuster” incest pompously called The Phantom Menace. Following this logic, I skeptically wondered before the release of the new Aliens vs. Predator if the guys down at Rebellion stood by the rule or truly deserve their name.
Fear the punch thrown by the man with nothing to lose
So I started out just like my mother taught me before my first day in grade school: I chose the most tension-filled path – a meat bag with a prehistoric sonar trying to survive encounters with other species conceived particularly to hunt down frail organisms. Since the first title of the AvP series I thought that the most interesting path would be that of the „inferior” species, without stealth, teeth-clenching speed or futuristic weapons to bash in the skull of anything that smells like fresh meat on a range of fifteen parsecs.
Aside from the stupid premise – a very sketchy rendering of you getting separated from the rest of your marine squad – I thought that this first campaign was actually kind of entertaining overall. The empty colony, the heavy noise of horrible deaths behind closed doors or the already monotonous strolls you engage in to start power generators – everything James Cameron made possible back in 1986 and was reused in nearly every AvP game or comic book, it’s all here.
And despite the simplistic architecture, the chain of clichés and the total lack of innovation, I must admit that up until the last level, the Marine campaign has a lot of feel to it – partly because Aliens vs. Predator looks very well, the interiors are loaded with industrial details and we can find the former residents’ audio logs. Aside from those, the exteriors further illustrate a credible planet, and the animations also sensibly contribute to the feeling of immersion.
Slowly however, I got entangled by small shortcomings. The audio logs are inferior to the ones in AvP2 – a lot shorter and lacking in expression, partly because of the generic, soulless script and partly because the voice acting comes across as a hangover ranting. More so, it’s extremely annoying that you can’t listen to them „on the fly”, as in BioShock, and you have to open a special menu that pauses the game for a few seconds of dull monologues.
Even the enemy’s AI is flawed, the best example being xenomorphs. Instead of using the ceiling as much as possible, they’ll expose themselves and crawl towards you on the illuminated floors, because I speculate that the pathfinding dictates that this way they’ll use a shorter route. On other occasions however, they’ll sneak under the alcove you’re standing in and organize ingenious ambushes, but the flimsiness and the hazard that allow such things to happen make me believe this all has more to do with sheer luck than clever scripting.
Still, in the general chaos of good elements sabotaged by black holes, I feel I have to stress out the fact that I did get scared a couple of times. Granted, the difficulty was set to Nightmare, which automatically means a higher stress level, which significantly contributes to the feeling of desperation (and convinces you to play more more tactically, perfectly conscious that two claws in the face will send you back to the most recent checkpoint).
The AI doesn’t get any smarter once you raise the difficulty level, but the brutal challenge distracts you from the failures in design or presentation and raises the degree of immersion. Just as well, having a bit of time to breathe in and out and review what happened up to that point, you’ll realize that the maps are built up pretty mechanically and there’s this vague sensation that you can almost see the trigger points that start the arena events, the very arcade boss fights and generally a medium lacking the flow of creative architecture.
The combat also contributes to the „a fly caught in the web” notion. You constantly feel that you’re being followed and an inch away from death, while the motion tracker brings a strange paleness to your face every time it bleeps mercilessly, more and more often, until the corner of your eye catches a glimpse of a big, black tail.
Whenever one of Giger’s monsters pops out in front of you, you can parry and hit the beast in the skull with the back of your rifle, just enough to gain a second or two in which to reload or gain some distance from the beast. The animations of these maneuvers are spectacular at first, but become pretty repetitive even in the short time you’ll spend in the campaigns.
I’m saying „short time” not because you’ll be rushing for the multiplayer or got bored by the rat maze chase, but because all of the campaigns can be finished in a total of under five hours. And the campaign I was previously mentioning – the one in which you’re the mouse and everything that grins in the darkness is a wild cat with acid blood – the tension diminishes towards the end, when you get to fight annoying androids (because of their gigantic health pool and idiotic reactions in each and every encounter).