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Aliens Versus Predator (2010)
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Aliens Vs Predator (2010 Version)

Two events coincide on this weekend, one of which is making me more or less unable to actually string together a coherent sentence. The lesser event is my tax refund came back higher than I expected. I missed the Schedule M form I didn't know I had to fill out, so the IRS recalculated my taxes based upon what should have been there. It was not an insubstantial difference for the sums I handle regularly. I got back about five times as much as I thought I would (since I was expecting only double digits, that isn't saying much). And the item which is leaving my brain running in circles is thus: It is reaching the end of the "Please wait this long to hear back from us" period for one of my submissions for publication. So I've been trying not to get my hopes up on the "is it going to be a form letter, a personalized rejection letter or a yes" question. But yeah, it's that anticipation that's more or less driving me to distraction.

So, I shelled out some of my tax money for the newest AvP game, just to have something to take my mind off the waiting. I've played through the first section of the Marine campaign and the first section of the Alien campaign and I have a few observations.

If you don't know what this game is about, first off, stop reading and go find two movies. The titles are real easy. The first is "Aliens" the second is "Predator". Watch both of them then imagine the hunter from Predator thrown into the movie Aliens. That's the basic premise. It worked for the previous incarnations of the franchise in game form.

Now there were a few things I noted while playing the game.

I hate collectables.

I don't care if it's apocalypse logs or royal jelly or whatnot, AvP is not about collecting crap. I know it's optional, but they score you on it. That leads me to my next complaint.

It's scored.

With performance rankings and everything. When I saw it in WarCraft it was asinine. It was even more so when I saw it in Renegade. Here it's simply egregious. There are three themes that made AvP good the previous games. The Marine game was always about survival and atmosphere. Not about surviving well, just plain surviving and getting out of Dodge in one piece. If you save the day in the process, cudos, if you had to nuke the site just to cover your back despite knowing there were still bundled up colonists down there, then so be it. The Alien game was about spreading chaos. It was about destroying shit and making pissant humans wet themselves with fear at your sudden an unexpected appearance above them. Sowing meyhem, chaos and fear, unmeasurable things, things which defy quantification. While cutting out the facehugger sequence might appeal to some players, I liked that part of the Alien campaign in AvP2 where you had to hunt down a host to develop. It fit.

It's episodic.

After finishing the first chapter of the marine campaign, instead of getting a cutscene where the next chapter gets set up, or some other meaningful transition, I get kicked back to a menu screen. It interrupted the flow of the game to ask me if I wanted to replay the chapter, view my ranking or even change to one of the other races. Seriously. They were doing so well at setting up the right atmosphere and then shattered it completely. Part of the fun of the marine campaign is supposed to be the continuity of atmosphere. Being afraid to push forward but knowing that if you stayed still you'd be overrun and that your only hope of getting off the rock is to keep going. When you interrupt the flow to critique the player's lack of xenomorph slaying skills, you're completely missing the point.

At first, I was going to have good things to say about this game, with only a few gripes about the fact that the flashlight is about as effective as my laser pointer at lighting up a room, and how the backpedalling away from aliens streaming out of the darkness, firing a rapidly emptying pulse rifle in the vain hope that they'll all die before I have to swap back to the pistol made it really feel like it's supposed to.

That reminds me about what I had to say on the matter of the flashlight. What is it with the people who make these AvP games and their obsession with the flares? Sure there were flares in Aliens, but Ripley wasn't using them as her primary light source. She used them as a trail of breadcrumbs to find her way back out of the hive. Why does my space marine have a flashlight with a field of illumination so narrow that 80% of the width of my screen is still dark? Every flashlight I own will light up the entire room, and light up the far end of a fifty foot server room without even losing intensity. LEDs are bright little bastards and they don't take up all that much space. One might say that this is to help build the atmosphere I was talking about earlier. But you can do that without leaving four fifths of the width of my screen completely blackened by lack of light.

The scale from me to the dots on that motion tracker is not really correlating in my mind. There doesn't seem to be a connection between a top down of the level and where those dots are. All it gives me is bearing. Okay, that's never worked right, so I'll lay off.

Tequila. Seriously, Tequila. Who would name their kid that? Besides, she rapidly becames an annoyance because she's the voice that keeps repeating "You're going the wrong way" and "Get to X". I'm going the wrong way because this colony is full of blind corners and dead ends. I have no map, so I didn't know the damn walkway didn't have stairs at the other end, so I had to walk all the way back to where I first got on because I can't hop the railing. Seriously, I can climb up on boxes (which is never a good idea because the aliens then have an easier time reaching from the ceiling) but I can't hop a railing of the same height.

Climbing on boxes reminds me of the next interface pet peeve. The tooltips. Sure it's nice to see what's interactive and all, so I'd leave in all the "you can interact with this" ones. But shut up about pressing the middle mouse button for a melee attack or to transition to another surface. I get it already. It's awkard as hell to depress my mouse wheel and click it like a button. I'm never going to do it in combat. Marine melee atack should be mapped to something easy to hit that isn't already in use. How about the space bar? It's not as though the marines can jump worth a damn, and it's really easy to hit. Why is the default 'Mouse 3'?! The only 'Mouse 3' I ever saw that was easy to press shipped with a Sun box, and you don't play video games on Sun boxes. Even so, why must the game deem it nessessary to remind me that 'Mouse 3' is my melee attack Every time an enemy gets anywhere near me, even when I'm spraying pulse rifle bullets into their face? Helpful tutorials are one thing, but this is obnoxious. Worse still, it goes through the 'move the mouse to look around' and 'WASD to move' tutorial for every race. Sure it's different each time and fits in with the campaign, but still, it's bloody condescending.

I'm not yet mad at them limiting the saves to checkpoints (you can manually save, but it only stores the last checkpoint to a more permanant record for later restores). That's probably because my Marine hasn't died yet. I can't say the same about my Alien, but I made the mistake of charging a sentry gun. Not at all unreasonable to fail when doing that. And guess what, each time you get killed and reload, your score goes down. That's right, you're running through what is supposed to be the collision of the three most lethal species in the universe and they mock you for getting killed. The score is something games had before they had a plot. A plot based game doesn't need a score. A score is a substitute for a plot, not an augment to it. This isn't space invaders... well it is, but not really. You get what I'm saying, right?

I put it on easy because lately I've been seeing a tendency for higher difficulty settings to act as though they were named 'rape me' instead of 'medium'. I just figure that's because I suck at games, but whatever. Though the aforementioned scoring takes into account your difficulty setting, at least 'easy' was 'x1' and not 'x1/2' or something. And can someone tell me why the marines can't crouch, duck or crawl? Coming off of Mass Effect 2 where I clung to and ducked behind every scrap of cover I could get, this sort of threw me. Or did I just miss another choice control mapping. Is crawl mapped to 'L' or something?

Bak to Tequila. Now aside from being the annoying voice on the radio, she's constantly trying to give directions to a bunch of different groups. Every group she sends to help the player ends up massacred by the Aliens. Now either she's the most incompetent director of forces known to the colonial marines, or she's working for the hive. No one is that bad at regrouping marines. To top things off, she repeatedly sends the player into xenomorph ambushes. When I get directed into the sewer level... Seriously, another sewer level? Anyway, when I get directed into the sewer level, it isn't "The only way out" It's actually got more Aliens in it than the way I came in. I'd be better off backtracking to where Tequilia is. Moreover, when I reached a few strides from the end of the level, I got grabbed by an Alien and dragged into the floor, scraping the concrete with my gloved hands to try and stay out of it. My first reaction - *BLEEP*it, now I gotta try that again. I would say I reloaded at once and ran through it a few times, but I'd be lying, I was too busy fuming and trying to figure out how I could have avoided the trap. Guess what - you can't. Turns out this isn't a special xenomorph amush kill for the unwary marine, but a scripted event. Turns out the end of the level is being dragged to hell by the Aliens, and Tequila led me right into it.

That's enough of a rant

--Robert McCarroll

| Posted 2/27/2010 at 7:57am Eastern |

Phong Shading

I must be in a ranting mood.

Why do game designers these days love Phong Shading so much? Whenever I see it, it makes the rendered object even more obiously fake than it needs to be. When used it makes everything glossy and shiny in a way real surfaces are not. I've only once seen a real surface display the sorts of visual properties you get with Phong shading. It was in a leaky parking garage and the rain had been distributed along the walkway by a lot of drudging feet on their way to work. The glossy surface of the floor looked like Phong shaded concrete. Seriously, that is what went through my head "That floor looks Phong Shaded" because it was the one time anything not on a computer screen looked like that. The AvP2010 game (see rant below) uses this shader to excess. Mr Weyland's hair and face do not need to be Phong Shaded - unless he uses some sort of seriously heavy hair gel and face cream every time he's about to open an alien pyramid. Even the Aliens who have a gloss finish were far too glossy. Everything reflects light as if there was a horrible mishap with a truckload of KY Jelly that aerosolized it and left a fine sheen on the entire game. I left this out of the main rant because good gameplay can overcome graphics flaws like that (see main rant for gameplay). Ever since Doom3, too many games have flung Phong Shading around like it was the end all in realism. In truth it just makes the game look like I need to wash my hands after playing it.

As you may have guessed I tried again to get my money's worth out of AvP2010. I started out by getting my alien killed again - walked right into an electrified panel just two minutes into the second mission. Yeah, I really get the feeling of being a perfect killing machine here. So I tried out the Predator tutorial to see if there might be a glimmer of hope for the standard escapist fantasies. Their tutorial was a total cop-out. You stand in a pit and fight aliens. No problem solving, no clever use of vision modes, no treetop movement chasing your prey through the backwoods. No unique predator homeworld prey. You stand in a pit and fight aliens. And they've mapped yet another time sensitive and vital control to Mouse 3. This time it's the Predator's signature plasma cannon. To trigger auto aim, your hold Mouse 3 and wait for the three bars to bracket your target. Mind you Mouse 3 is just about the most awkward control on a Mouse you have, so I sucked at this. I'm probably going to remap it to Mouse 2. After all their default for right-click is "Heavy Attack" which translates to "Strike a superhero 'about to punch' pose for FIVE SECONDS before actually throwing a punch." In that time, the tactical situation has changed such that the attack you wanted to make is pointless. Aliens are Fast, that is the thing that makes them dangerous as melee fighters in a game with a lot of ranged firepower - they move fast. A one second delay can be fatal. It also doesn't help that they decided to swap the locations of the health and power meters on the Predator HUD - an UNLABELLED HUD mind you. I kept looking at my power meter to see how my health was faring and got confused. I don't know about you guys, but I can't think of another game where health was in the lower right and ammo was in the lower left - both signified by very abstract meters and neither was labelled in any way. Had they simply swapped the two and put them in the conventional locations I'd have gotten past that really fast. Health is usually lower left and ammo is usually lower right. It's that way all over the place and doesn't have to be changed - Hell it's that way in this games' MARINE campaign, so you know they were aware of the convention and Chose to ignore it.

I really wanted this to be a good game. I did. I liked AvP2 a lot and finished all three campaigns. Why are you punishing me Sega?

UPDATE: at 5:27pm Eastern

Once again I am reminded why I hate putting scores on Plot based games. I played the first real Predator mission of the game where you actually get to use the treetops and the cloaking device to stalk prey. It had a rather whimsical (in a gallows humor kind of way) portion where you carried around the chief security officer's head to get past retinal scanners on your way into the human base. And when I was done kicking ass and reaching the end of the level (where the cutscene does the ominous reveal of the now obligatory predalien monster) I felt I'd done a pretty good job of handling the mission. The score's judgement: You Suck. They penalized me for making use of the best damn ranged weapon in the game, they penalized me for topping off my health when I passed three medpacks I'd been unable to pick up because I hadn't needed them and more or less called me a wuss for tackling problems in more or less the same way the movie predators tend to.

*BLEEP* you Sega!

I picked up all of your lame assed collectables and sure 'trophy kills' are theoretically more badass, but while I'm trophy killing one alien, his buddy is chewing on my ass because all my movement controls get locked out during the mini-cutscene, and those five marines on the other side of the map? They just caught me with my cloak down. Of course I'm going to make use of my superior firepower, That's what it's there for! And I think on the scale of badass, taking all seven of these guys on by the horns still ranks higher than the sorting algorithm than the shadow killer, especially because I WON. And that last marine had a real shocked expression when I tore her fire team to shreds and still managed to trophy kill her. (Although the marines always have a shocked expression when you trophy kill them...) So what if I took out two marines with the plasma cannon - I didn't bother with the slow-assed auto-aim either. I might not be a superb uber-player, but telling me I suck after a showing like that really sucks all the fun out of the adrenaline rush. So I say again, *BLEEP* you, Sega.

UPDATE: at 8:40pm Eastern

I decided I would ignore the scores and go for completing the plot of the Predator campaign and see if there was anything to redeem the game. I'll give it this - As a setpiece of action it has the psoitive aspect of being actually rather good. Let me rephrase that - it rocked. There is however one major problem. Note the timestamps on these updates. Add in the time it takes to rant and the fact that I spent half an hour or more watching webjunk in the middle of that time frame and you'll know what the issue is. The predator campaign is SHORT. Less than four hours gameplay unless you take the time to make every kill a trophy kill. Mind you at the penultimate battle, this is not an option. This is the reason Sega put those score up there, so that the player will see it and go "Damn it, I know I'm better" and go back and replay the mission. It is nothing more than an artificial gameplay multiplier to cover the the fact that they do not have any content. While the story they did tell has the elements one might expect in a complete package, it was lacking in duration. I've not yet completed the Marine or the Alien campaigns (and the way my alien keeps dying that one might take a while from sheer "I died again" restarting), but the brevity of the Predator campaign doesn't give me much hope. I'm somewhat inclined to say "My Alien diedduring a zerg rush of a sentry gun" and "My Marine gave birth to a bouncing baby drone after being dragged down to the hive" and call it quits. But, eventually I'll get over the fact that the game likes to call me names, the default control scheme loves 'Mouse 3' despite it's awkward and unusable nature, and wander back to finish it. I'm going to file this news item along with the first post in a 'Random Crap - Game Reviews' section next to the cooking articles.

-- Robert McCarroll

| Posted 3/7/2010 at 4:28pm Eastern |