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.