Call it Freudian if you like, but I'm a bit of a wet lettuce when it comes to chitinous murder-beasts that impregnate people with their foul spawn, and an ill-advised trip to the Trocadero's Alien War at the tender age of 13 did nothing to endear me to Geiger's scampering Xenomorphs.
Lucky, then, that SEGA demonstrates Rebellion's latest Aliens vs. Predator title in the bright and airy Eurogamer demo room, which is totally lacking in vents, ducts and other things for evil to lurk behind. Even more luckily, we're booked in for a karaoke session afterwards, so I know this won't even be the scariest part of my day. Anyway, it turns out that what I'll largely be witness to is the gangly bastards meeting squishy, plasma-related ends in the Marine and Predator sections.
The sheer awfulness of the movies has tarnished the reputation of the Aliens vs. Predator crossover in recent years, but Rebellion has excellent AVP pedigree, knocking out 1994's Jaguar title and 1999's PC version - both of which impregnated the hearts of many gamers without the need for forcible tentacular throat-rape. This then is perhaps a chance to redress the balance and produce a game that fits more snugly with the generally excellent comics and graphic novels.
Rebellion's set about doing this by returning to the approach that made the PC first-person shooter so lovable, essentially crafting three very different games, with each playable race offering a distinctly different approach. First off, we're introduced to the creepy, underhanded Predator: all fleshy dreadlocks and hi-tech gadgetry as he stalks into a xeno-infested military post in the jungle. He's there to contain the outbreak: an abandoned hive disturbed by foolish humans mining the planet for ore.
Many of the Predator's abilities will be familiar to anyone who's played the previous game or seen the movies. The iconic wrist-blades are there, satisfyingly chunky and nasty-looking, and the shoulder-mounted plasma-caster shimmers its three-dot aiming laser through the trees. Key amongst the Predator's abilities, however, is his nifty cloaking device, which conceals him from the Marines - unless they happen to be carrying a motion-detector.
Aliens are also unfazed by this optical trickery, instead sniffing out their target. A lot of the time, though, you'll be sneaking around when you're playing as the Predator, attempting to get close enough to perform gruesome "trophy kills". For Aliens this can mean tearing off the extendible proboscis from their mouths as they attack; for unfortunate Marines it usually means some invasive dentistry and a gruesome decapitation. The showboating isn't just for kudos in the family album either; towards the end of the demo we see a dismembered head used to operate the retinal scan on a security door.
Another new ability is a floating jump reticule, acting like a grappling hook to leap to branches and walls with pinpoint accuracy. An approach from height seems to be a definite tactical advantage, offering cover and the all-important element of surprise. It also allows you to indulge in a little bit of skullduggery, zooming in with binoculars and recording snippets of enemy conversation.
These purloined voices can then be 'thrown' to a targeted point, distracting enemies and drawing them away from a group for a quiet dispatch. Any time. Some of the AI behaviour this elicits is a little questionable, with single enemies peeling off from groups to investigate the voice of the man next to them, but it adds a useful tool to the armoury. The binoculars also enable human enemies to be scanned, ascertaining their firepower and threat level, as well as determining whether or not they're carrying a telltale motion scanner.
Alternate vision modes are back, too, with an infrared Xenovision and a thermal human-detecting mode. The fact that each race becomes all but invisible when viewed in the wrong mode keeps you on your toes, and makes sure areas featuring both factions provide extra squeaky bum time. A fact demonstrated to us most clearly at the end of the preview level when, as the base infiltration is completed, a giant Predalien half-breed looms unpleasantly through the gloom, shaking the gore of a slaughtered Marine from its claws.
In contrast to the Predator's stealth-cum-problem-solving is the Colonial Marine. Billed as survival-horror, the Marine section takes place in a much more traditional Alien-themed environment, tight metallic corridors perforated by air vents and plagued by sudden electrical failure. Patrolling these corridors, the ping of your motion sensor gently keeping pace, you feel vulnerable, claustrophobic and tense. Even before the Xenos start clambering over barriers and swarming past sentry guns, there's a palpable sense that the only head you're expected to take home as a trophy is your own.
All the traditional tricks are used to generate atmosphere, with the patchy lighting, hissing jets of steam and scuttling shadows evoking James Cameron's sequel very nicely. Small nods to the films are scattered around, too, with a rusting power-loader cluttering up a loading bay and a suspiciously Vasquez-like female Marine who, like her cinematic counterpart, buys the farm, although it's not clear whether she too accepts Gorman always was an asshole. Firepower is the key aspect of the Marine's approach, with the trusty pulse rifle spitting staccato streams of blue death into shadowy corners and the close-combat shotgun popping up for a quick one-two, which results in a spray of acid, crippling the Marine's vision and ravaging his health.
The sentry guns, and the maintenance thereof, seems to be key to maintaining a perimeter, requiring occasional resets from laptops scattered around the ship as the nasties interfere with circuitry. This destructive DIY also knocks out lighting systems, forcing the use of a seemingly endless supply of flares. The Xenomorphs certainly seemed more willing to engage the soft, fleshy Marine, charging in for salvoes of rapid slashes and devastating tail-strikes where they had been happy to hold back and time assaults more carefully against the better-equipped Predator. We never see them attack in any significant numbers, but groups of two and three are certainly enough to cope with, still soaking up damage and crawling across the floor on broken limbs after a significant plasma-dowsing.
Slightly worrying, especially given the nature of the twisting corridors and dark passages of the levels, is the lack of a map. I'm able to get lost inside an overly large t-shirt, so I don't really fancy having brief, acid-saturated fire-fights interspersed by long strolls though the interior of ships the size of Milton Keynes. That's more a problem with my total lack of spatial awareness than the game itself, though, and could even be played for horror. Either way, with AVP shipping "early next year" Rebellion has enough time to iron out any kinks. The proprietary Asura engine looks to be performing well, the atmosphere is hitting the right notes, and we've yet to see what new tricks the Alien gameplay will reveal, or what form multiplayer will take.
Until then, I'm sleeping with the lights on.
Aliens vs. Predator is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in early 2010.