Balancing three distinct factions in a competitive multiplayer game is one of the tougher challenges in game design. (Just ask Blizzard, which has seen StarCraft's tenth anniversary come and go before it's managed to nail down the second outing for the Terrans, Protoss and Zerg.) Three is too few to allow for variations on a theme; in such intimate company, each faction is going to have to stand out as an individual in the whole, not just in the detail. Each needs to present a completely rounded, completely unique play style.
But three is also too many for the easy trade-offs of a one-on-one war. Every strength or weakness, every ability needs to have not one, but two answers to it. You have to construct a world in which scissors can cut through rock and bounce off paper.
Creating three first-person shooter characters might not be as big a challenge as forging a triumvirate of strategy-game armies, but the nature of Aliens vs. Predator's source material isn't making things any easier for developer Rebellion. The feral, obscene Xenomorph and invisible, invincible Predator were created to scare people in cinemas, not for game balance. Each of them has taken an entire cast down solo before, while the Marines - the third wheel, the human contingent, as defined by James Cameron's Aliens film - were just made to panic and die. That's not a very valid strategy for succeeding in deathmatches (not that we haven't tried it).
So it comes as no great surprise that, at this early pre-alpha stage, multiplayer Aliens vs. Predator is a rather uneven experience. The best modes of the three we try on this PS3 version - Infestation and Predator Hunt - make a virtue of that. Standard deathmatch doesn't, but it does provide a good arena for finding out what each of these three unique combatants can do.
In broad terms, Xenomorphs (Aliens) are melee specialists, with no ranged attacks at all, some stealth skills, and very fast and free movement. Marines' heavy hardware makes them strongest at range - in theory - but they have no stealth abilities and move very slowly when not in a weapon-disabling sprint. Predators have on-demand stealth, great manoeuvrability and powerful attacks at both close and long range. Guess which was regularly reaping the highest kill counts?
The three species are relatively closely-matched in some areas. Melee attacks work roughly the same across the board. There are light, heavy and block moves; light blows are blockable and heavy ones aren't, but a heavy attack has a slower animation which leaves you open to a light counter. It's a simple and well-balanced system, although in our short playtest most melee encounters were over too quickly to put it to the test.
Marines lack the heavy attack, but that's not what leaves them at such a disadvantage. Both Aliens and Predators can lock on using their left-trigger "focus" and then do a powerful and very fast leap attack from the shadows or a vantage point. Both can also do an instant-kill stealth attack - telegraphed with a clear button prompt - from behind if they get close enough. Aliens need to be in the dark to access stealth, while Predators have their cloaking devices, which are disrupted whenever they use an attack.
The Marines simply have no answer to these - especially the Predator's wildly overpowered stealth - and the woes of the human soldiers don't end there. They are vastly inferior to their extraterrestrial enemies in mobility, too, with the Aliens able to run at lightning speed up walls and along ceilings (although not without some disorientation), and the Predators having a neat "focus jump" that allows them to target and leap to useful vantage points, like branches and overhangs. The Marines' ranged superiority isn't the consolation you might think; they might have assault rifles and shotguns, but Predators get mines, throwing discs with after-touch, and explosive lock-on missiles.
The species are more evenly matched in one area which AVP exploits better than many shooters - visibility. Predators have thermal visors and easy access to high vantage points, Aliens have a sense which allows them to see outlined enemies through walls, and Marines have their iconic, pinging motion detectors, whose radar blips are the best line of defence against a cloaked Predator.
Rebellion has described the single-player Marine campaign of AVP as "survival horror", and that's pretty much the multiplayer experience for the hapless humans too, only with a bit less survival. But what doesn't work in deathmatch - which, like all of AVP's modes, supports 18 players - works much better in Infestation and Predator Hunt.
In the former, a variation of Last Man Standing. all but one player starts as a Marine, with the other starting as a solitary Alien. Every Marine killed then comes back as an Alien, and since they get infinite respawns, the tide of Xenomorphic death can't be stopped - only delayed until you go down in a blaze of glory assisted by a last-minute weapons drop.
In Predator Hunt - and you need no further indication of how overpowered the Predator is than this - there is only ever one Predator, with the rest of the match taking the role of Marines. Whoever manages to kill the Predator becomes it, and the goal is to secure the most kills as the Predator for the glory of the hunt.
Purely through the character and abilities of the three species, both these modes create great, spontaneous recreations of classic Aliens and Predator moments. Infestation had Marines with their backs together in a panicked huddle, defending against a multiplying horde of Xenomorphs (this will also be replicated in a four-player co-op mode that we didn't get to try). In Predator Hunt, we found ourselves hunting suspiciously for a lone Predator over tense, quiet minutes, until he suddenly materialised in our midst, strangling one of our number, and all hell broke loose.
At times like these, you're reminded that Rebellion has a long history with and great enthusiasm for this material - it made the 1994 Atari Jaguar and 1999 PC games, as well as a recent PSP movie spin-off. It knows exactly what being a Marine, Alien or Predator is supposed to feel like: feeling your heart rate double as the pinging of your motion sensor does; racing upside down through tangle of shadow; swooping, cloaked, on your prey from a high branch. Perhaps that's more important than balance overall, but if AVP is to contend with its multiplayer rivals when it launches next year, Rebellion will need to find one without sacrificing the other.