Version tested: Xbox 360
I'm trying very hard to suppress a Pavlovian instinct over 20 years in the making. As a teenaged boy in the eighties, Aliens and Predator pretty much defined the word "awesome", an ingrained response that has endured ever since.
Even in adulthood, both Cameron and McTiernan's movies stand the test of time. Each is assembled from unforgettably taut set-pieces, incredibly quotable dialogue and pacing that leaves breathing room for both character and mayhem to grow and evolve.
For nearly 20 five years we've absorbed every nuance of these iconic creature designs, every sound effect and music sting, every subtle environmental cue that tells us we're back in a place where acid-bleeding bugs and dreadlocked hunters are waiting to demolish our fragile fleshy bodies.
Rebellion understands this connection, and has laced this remake-cum-reboot of its 1999 hit with a seductive amount of note-perfect fan service. The lonely high-pitched ping of a motion tracker. The falsetto sputter of a pulse rifle. The guttural clicks and growls of a Predator. The swoosh that accompanies the shift to thermal vision. The malevolent hiss of an Alien, the elephantine scream as it dies in a hail of bullets. It's all here and, like Pavlov's pooches, we start to drool.
However, as with all games that dazzle us with beloved characters, it's a good idea to wipe your chin and take a closer look. While the surface details go out of their way to pleasure the fanbase, the game underneath is trudging along, content to let a quarter century of accumulated passion do the hard work.
As with the 1999 game, play is divided between three species-specific solo campaigns and a chunk of multiplayer modes. All are hobbled in some way by hurried design choices, with the single-player coming off worst.
Playing as the Marine is an uninspiring introduction. It's not Rebellion's fault that Aliens was such a heavy influence on the FPS genre, but the eagerness with which it embraces outdated clichés doesn't do much to differentiate this from everything that came before. There are some nice scripted scares along the way, and a couple of reasonably intense battles against swarms of Aliens, but it's not enough to disguise the lifeless padding in between.
Creeping down gloomy corridors, finding terminals to open doors, there's not a single memorable moment. There's no iron-sight aiming, no duck or cover capability, and no reason to venture from the linear path other than - oh, surprise - collectible audio logs. Alien encounters quickly exhaust their initial thrills and the game resorts to using combat androids to offer more varied foes. Take away the movie topping and you've got a drab, anonymous shooter with low ambition.
The Predator fares better in the innovation stakes, simply because it comes with a suite of powers that shake up shooter stereotypes. You play through the same locations, albeit occasionally taking the roof rather than the ground route, but the shift away from straight blasting doesn't do the creaky FPS engine any favours.
Battling Aliens is an often bewildering swirl of close-up grappling based around a stiff block-and-counter mechanism, while taking down Marines relies on the game's woolly sense of stealth. You can turn invisible (although doing literally anything else inexplicably drops your cloak) and use your extra-terrestrial ventriloquism skills to distract unwary enemies.
The AI is so poor that such theatrics are rarely required though. Never mind the fact the Marines happily snap to attention and walk to the exact spot you specified, just on the command of an eerie voice that gargles "Over here, MOTHERF***ER", even during combat their response is to simply pop in and out of one spot or to rush towards you, firing. Hardly opponents worthy of the galaxy's greatest hunter. The trophy kills are gruesomely satisfying, at least, but that's provided you can creep into the fussy hotspot required to trigger them.
This is a problem that recurs throughout the game, across all modes. There's a lot of reliance on context-sensitive prompts, but the game is needlessly picky about when you can do them. Shuffling about behind an enemy, trying to get the big button prompt to appear is hardly immersive.
It's even more damaging in the clumsily implemented jumping ability. Hold down the left trigger and you enter "focus mode". This highlights items and objectives, and also places you can leap to reach. Getting the jump marker in the right place is an enormous fiddle, and while this isn't an issue when you're playing stalker, it can be fatal when you're trying to escape from a sticky situation. Health draining away as you grapple with multiple buttons, trying to find a safe vantage point that the game will actually let you jump to, is no fun at all.
As an Alien, you scamper through the same maps for a third time, now able to stick to walls and ceilings, lashing out with tail and claws. It's a stripped-down control scheme that is actually quite refreshing after the over-complicated Predator mode. Sticky responses and clumsy interactions still blight the play, however.
It's easy to get confused while upside down, but that's something you can learn to overcome. Less forgivable is the way the game decides which surfaces you can scuttle up immediately, and which need you to hold down a trigger. Passing through doorways, for example, can leave you halfway up a wall. Equally, trying to escape down the side of a jungle temple can leave you exposed when the game suddenly decides that you need to hold a trigger to pass over an outcrop.
The same fussiness regarding stealth kills also proves problematic, though the ability to whip enemies off their feet with your tail alleviates the hassle somewhat.
All three campaigns have their moments of strength, usually when the flimsy story wiggles itself into something that looks a bit like a scene from one of the original movies, but on the whole they're all held back by bland design, dull maps and fussy control.
Too many functions require you to hold down a button rather than simply press it, usually triggering a long and uninterruptable animation that leaves you open to attack. For both Marine and Predator, the game actually gets easier as you go along, as your arsenal expands with powerful insta-kill weaponry while the enemies remain tethered to movie lore.
And that's without mentioning the weird little fumbles, such as the way the game swaps the Marine's weapons between levels. I found the combination of scoped rifle and shotgun worked best, yet time and again the game made an executive decision and started me in the next stage with the inaccurate and frankly rubbish pulse rifle.
It also makes poor use of the Predator, a creature clearly too overpowered to fit comfortably into this rickety shooter shell. Both the Marine and Alien rarely encounter their third stablemate, and when they do the battle is disappointingly flat. In fact, all the clunky and tiresome boss battles are just another weak link in a game already held together more by good faith than strong design glue.
Visually it's all nothing special. There are some appealing lighting decisions, particularly the use of shadows to amp up the creep factor, but textures are muddy, human character models are stiff and unconvincing and animation often seems jittery, as if frames have been chopped out to get the skittering bugs up to the required lunge speed.
At least the audio is bang on the money, effortlessly evoking the movie atmosphere, even if the use of random music stings to put you on edge is overused. Eventually, you realise the game is just crying wolf and wait for the telltale screech of an Alien to tip you off instead.
All of which adds up to three short and uneventful solo campaigns, blighted by stodgy control and with little to offer beyond inherited iconography. There is the multiplayer side of things, of course, and it's here that the game claws back some of its credibility.
The standard Deathmatch, as inexplicably used for the demo, is rubbish. Completely missing the point of both creatures and concept, it quickly devolves into laughable conga lines of Aliens and Predators performing one-hit stealth kills on each other.
Domination is equally perfunctory, trying to cram a base-capture mechanism into a game where two thirds of the characters have no real reason to defend a meaningless glowing MacGuffin. Team Deathmatch is a lot more fun, in that it allows the sort of freeform teamwork that enables each species to play to its strengths, but even this pales alongside the other modes available.
Survivor, for example, is Aliens by way of Left 4 Dead. Four human players, one relentless swarm of AI Aliens. Last for as long as you can. With only two maps, neither of which are very exciting, it's a tantalising taster but is automatically more fun than the solo game purely for the human factor.
It gets better though. Infestation sets a small group of Marines against a lone Alien. Each player picked off by the xenomorph becomes an Alien. Whoever gets wiped out first loses. It's deliciously simple, yet digs right into what makes both monster and movies so popular.
Predator Hunt is pretty much the same thing, but with players taking turns as a Predator on the prowl for trophies. Again, the Ten Little Indians format is absolutely ideal for the licence and the thrill of the hunt, even in this truncated form, provides a solid example of the more interesting avenues left unexplored by the rush to copy a 10-year-old game template.
Strong multiplayer just isn't enough to make Aliens vs Predator a worthwhile endeavour though. It still struggles with the same fudgy controls as single-player, the rudimentary lobby offers only limited options (there's no host migration, for example) and with only six maps, all of which are locations you'll have explored thrice in solo play, it won't take long for dedicated players to reach saturation point and start craving some DLC map packs.
The online portion is enough, at least, to rescue the overall package from the utter mediocrity of the rest of the game but it remains, on balance, a deeply disappointing effort. Scrappy where it needed to be polished, clumsy where it needed to be nimble, the game wears its iconic characters as a shield, happy to serve up scripted shocks but offering nothing that might actually surprise.
6 / 10