Friday, July 29, 2011

The AvP Conundrum Part I

If you take two beloved sci-fi franchises, each one being an absolute brilliant example of science fiction, entertainment and overall a milestone in popular culture, and put them together, you would think that you have a sure fire hit, right? Get Aliens and Predators and put them together on paper, PC, console or a movie screen and it's surely destined for greatness, right?
What the f... weak!
Specifically in the video game world, nobody has really been able to really make an Aliens vs. Predator game that really became great, like to the level of household names like Halo or Gears of War. In fact, nobody has even made a very successful AvP game. Of course, the definition of "successful" is up for debate, but I would say that no AvP game has been able to break through that proverbial glass ceiling that only a handful of franchises have. I find this sad... and a bit pathetic. How can you put together two phenomena so popular and beloved and not be able to smash said ceiling to bits? Let's focus on the three games made from Rebellion (oddly enough, all three have virtually the same name), as they are considered the best ones.
Oh, s**t's goin' down!
In 1994 when I was 9 years old, I practically defecated myself when I saw the article for "Alien vs. Predator" in my "Game Players" magazine (which I still own). The article included screenshots that made me realize it's a first-person shooter, not some crappy side-scrolling beat 'em up like the first two games to carry the AvP moniker. Not only could you be Predators or Aliens, but you could be my heroes: The Colonial Marines! I jumped for joy! Then, my heart was torn to bits when I read it was an exculsive for the Atari Jaguar. I didn't own one and I didn't know anyone that owned one. In fact, nobody owned one, which is why it was such a complete failure. So, despite a good critical reception, this game was doomed to fail financially, just like every other Jaguar exclusive. I ended up playing it several years later in late 90's, when the emulation scene started to flourish. I remember the emulation being less than perfect, but good enough. Maybe from ages 9 to 13 I had mentally built up what Alien vs. Predator could be like, so unsurprisingly I was disappointed. Yeah, it was different and a solid FPS, but ultimately the poor presentation ruined the atmosphere which, in turn, ruined the game. The sprite animations were poor, the sound was terrible, the level design uninspired... it just felt bleh. Maybe I was spoiled by having just finished Half-Life, I don't know. Really, a good AvP game cannot be made with 1994's technology, but at least they tried.
Apparently, in 1994, infrared was a big
orange mess.
Luckily, not long after I found out "Aliens vs. Predator" for the PC was set to be released in 1999. I read any and all gaming magazines to find out as much about the game, that was surely to become my favorite of all time, as possible. At the time, the internet wasn't quite at the point where you could find a plethora of articles and features on any game you typed into Google. In fact, I had never heard of Google in 1999, I believe I was using Lycos. Then, in my issue of Computer Gaming World (notice all the name-dropping?), I read that Aliens vs. Predator will require a 3D accelerator. This was unheard of! Some games recommended them, sure, but required!? Luckily by this point in my life, I had a healthy PC game piracy ring going as I was the only kid that was both a PC gamer and an owner of this deviced called a "CD burner" Ah, simpler times. So, after selling several games at 10 bucks a pop I picked up my 3Dfx Voodoo3 3000 AGP, I was ready to go.
Kudos to you, Rebellion.
I still remember my amazement during my first playthrough. The atmosphere was spot-on; I was terrified to move forward, my heart thumped as I slowly made my way down ridiculously dark corridors, I freaked out at every blip on my motion tracker. The sounds were straight from the movies (mostly) and gameplay was unique. Being able to blow limbs off of aliens and have them come at you was groundbreaking. All three species' campaigns were a blast. The multiplayer was awesome, and although it was a bit unbalanced, it kept me going for years after release. It even had online co-op and was one of the first FPSs (if not the first) to do so. Online forums were getting big at this time, and I was a big participant on AvP forums and on MPlayer. Oh yeah, I was definitely one of those annoying 14 year old kids. Later on, mods would come out and would keep me going even longer. This game was amazing. Unfortunately, it was a bit overshadowed by other games of the day and really wasn't quite the success that it maybe could have been. Additionally, despite my massive fanboydom, I always felt this game wasn't quite "there". It was awesome, but not anywhere near its potential. At the time I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I just felt this tug in the back of my mind that really kept me (and apparently most gamers) from putting this game up there with Half-Life, Doom and other "name brand" FPSs. I now realize why, and I will get to that in a minute.
So, ten years (and one okay but disappointing non-Rebellion made AvP2) later, "Aliens vs. Predator" was released. Again, the atmosphere was captured pretty well and all three species' campaigns are a blast. The sites and sounds are wonderful. There is also a decent amount of multiplayer game modes. However, this time, the species of Alien, Predator and Colonial Marine are horribly unbalanced, even worse than before. The Aliens and Predators have the ability to "insta-kill" their prey if they can either stun them or get behind them. It's a very cool feature that really adds to the presentation of the game; instead of running up a clawing their opponent to death, for example, the Alien will pick them up and ram their secondary mouth through their skull. Very cool. However, the circumstances that enable the "Press E" command are extremely lenient; I can't tell you how many times I've turned around face to face with an Alien who then does his from-behind insta-kill. Basically, a Predator or Alien player can run around spam the E button and rack up kills fairly quick. The Alien can see players through walls and can run on any surface, so, thanks to level design amongst other factors, they have the greatest advantage. Playing as the Alien takes little to no skill whatsoever, so a skilled Marine player won't be able to outkill even a n00b Alien player. The Preds and Marines aren't just fodder by any means, and really the developers were probably sticking to being faithful to the source material, so it is what it is. Couple this with the fact that everyone spawns all over the map at random, multiplayer can be quite the clusterf*ck. Other multiplayer modes, like Infestation and Predator Hunt, aren't so bad, so I give kudos to Rebellion on their third attempt. Anyway, the game came out to mixed reviews and good sales. Cool, so there's still money in the franchise, which means more AvP games which always makes me a happy boy. Still, even the latest title is not quite "there", just like before. So, what is it? What is this missing attribute that been holding down the franchise?
AvP evolution
The thing that the boys at Rebellion and other dev studios don't seem to realize, is that the concept of both the Alien and the Predator are not conducive to linear gameplay. In other words, it must be free-form! Think along the lines of GTA IV or Crisis. To truely get your head around the experience of being one of these nightmare creatures, you must be free to do what you want and go where you want. You can't be restricted to certain small areas. Yes, it would be a grand undertaking but something as huge (or at least it used to be huge) as Aliens vs. Predator deserves no less. In fact, a great AvP game for the ages must be a grand undertaking because, despite the innumberable disappoints of the past, fans have built up in their minds what an AvP game should be like, just like myself some 17 years ago prior to the release of the first AvP. To meet these huge expectations, a huge game needs to be developed.
How can something like this be done?

In parts II and III, I will discuss general gameplay as well as species specific gameplay. Stay tuned.

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