The Aliens vs Predator brand has a long and varied history in the realm of gaming. Over the years several developers have approached the license in different ways, resulting in everything from scrolling beat-em-ups (via Capcom) to real-time strategy outings (via EA and Zono Inc). Some of these efforts were better than others, but most gamers will agree that the most successful outings were those that adopted a first-person shooter format - a structure first used by British developer Rebellion. In 1994 the Oxford-based studio hit upon the idea of a three-part FPS for the Atari Jaguar - a sci-fi triptych that would allow players to stalk their prey as a high-tech Predator, slash open faces as a vicious Xenomorph, and soil their pants as a terrified Colonial Marine.
Few of today's gamers will remember that release - or the long-deceased Jag, for that matter - but they may recall the excellent PC follow-up from 1999. Now, some ten years later, Rebellion is back to its old tricks - and I for one am pretty excited. Both Wez and Tom have already taken a look at the new project, but until last week I had yet to see much for myself. Having spent a morning with the game's multiplayer modes at a SEGA-hosted event, I can happily report that the new specimen has plenty of killer potential.
In short, it seems that Rebellion is playing to the same strengths it focused on at the end of the last millennium. The AVP universe is packed with iconic toys, from James Cameron's chunky Pulse Rifles to the Predator's thermal vision, and all of these elements make for great video game ingredients, allowing for different styles of gameplay. Each of the three single-player campaigns will feature a distinct flavour, but it's clear that this diversity will also extend to the multiplayer side of proceedings. Regardless of which species you choose to play as, there are clear strengths and weaknesses that will strongly define the way you approach a deathmatch.
The Predator was by far the most popular choice at last Friday's showcase, and it's not hard to see why. As the most technologically advanced of the three classes, ol' Tusky Face gets a nice selection of lethal gadgets: a shoulder cannon, proximity mines, and the ever-popular killer Frisbee. The latter is now controlled via a laser guidance system, so you can throw it through a doorway and then zip it about to slice up hidden enemies. If you switch your vision to Alien or Human targeting modes, you'll find that you gain a faster lock-on when fighting enemies of that species. On top of this, the Predator can also use his famous cloaking device - although he'll automatically reveal himself after every kill (and by that I mean he'll become visible again; he's not some form of intergalactic flasher).
For demonstration purposes we were playing a build with all the Predator's weapons unlocked, but under normal circumstances he'll have to find them on the map; until this happens, stealth tactics will play a big role in your tactics. The cloak is obviously extremely useful, but equally important is your ability to climb the environment with targeted leaping. By holding the left trigger you'll engage Focus Mode, summoning a bright red reticule: guide it to the spot you wish to reach, then hit the jump button to bound away. Focus Mode also highlights objects of interest in the game world, and by lining the red marker up with another player, you'll be able to pull off a leaping attack.
Through careful use of these skills, you should be able to creep up on your unwitting opponents. If you position yourself directly behind a foe, you'll be able to pull off an instant stealth kill at the touch of a button. If you're feeling cocky, you can approach an enemy from the front and perform a trophy execution. This is a real show-off move that leaves you vulnerable, and it's incredibly gory: when you grab a marine, you'll pull their head and spinal cord clean out of their neck, taking a moment or two to inspect their cold, dead eyes.
Personally, I found the Predator a bit too much to deal with. While most people loved all his flashy toys, I had far more fun with the Alien. As a Xenomorph, your main strengths are speed and dexterity. You run (or rather, crawl) like the wind, and if you approach a wall you'll run straight up it. If you never played the earlier AVP games you may find this a bit disorientating, as you've got to cope with the fact that you can easily end up on the ceiling. By tapping the right shoulder button you'll automatically drop back down to the ground, but once you get used to the Xeno's moves you won't have to do this too often. Indeed, you'll soon find that you're perfectly built for dashing up behind people: like the Predator, this placing allows you to perform a nasty execution.
Aside from this nimble nature, the Xenomorph has the benefit of regenerating health, a light and heavy melee attack, and an extra-long jump; he can also see enemies through walls, presumably because he eats a lot of carrots. These powers may sound pretty pitiful compared to the Predator's weapons, but when used well you'll absolutely mince the opposition. I won my first match as the Alien by getting 15 kills in about three minutes, and I can assure you that this tasted like gold. When you hit your groove you can scream around a corner and bite your mate's head off before he even knows you're there.
Finally, we have the Colonial Marine. At first he seems a bit weaker than the other two classes: he can't insta-kill, he's not particularly fast, and his default weapon is "just" a Pulse Rifle. The Marine is certainly a less showy choice than the other two, but he does get the assistance of a motion tracker - the very same one from that great "OMFG! THEY'RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!" bit in Aliens. If past games are anything to go by, the Marine will also get a wider arsenal than his extra-terrestrial chums - although the preview build I played only featured the Pulse Rifle, the Smart Gun, and the shotgun (which I like to keep handy for close encounters).
In addition to their respective advantages, all three classes must learn to deal with the rules of close combat. There are light and heavy attacks mapped to the upper bumpers (although the puny Marine only gets the light), and by holding both buttons you'll perform a block; a light swipe can interrupt a heavy blow, which in turn can break a guard, which in turn will counter a light attack. In essence it's a rock-paper-scissor-system - although the reality is less calm than this suggests, and more like a caveman trying to stone a barber to death... A barber with acid for blood and a miniature mouth on a stalk inside his gob, that is.
There's no denying that the Marine seems like the hardest class to do well with, even with the help of his tracker, but I suppose that'll just encourage those of you who like to show off how hard you are. Furthermore, the Marine's vulnerability has been used by Rebellion to create a pair of truly inspired game modes. In Predator Hunt everyone initially spawns as a human, but after a few moments one player is turned into Arnie's dreadlocked nemesis. The lone Predator then has 60 seconds to find and kill someone. If they manage to do this, they get a point and are awarded some more time; if one of the Marines kills them, then that player takes over the role. You can only score points while playing as Preddie Krueger, so the hunter/hunted dynamic works both ways.
If you think that sounds like fun, just wait until you check out Infestation. Once again everyone starts as a Marine, but after a few seconds one player randomly turns into a Xenomorph. When they kill another player, the victim also respawns as an Alien, with play proceeding until everyone has been switched. It's essentially just a variation on the classic Last Man Standing formula, but the Aliens makeover works extremely well. When you're standing with your mates at the top of an ancient pyramid and your motion tracker starts bleeping, you'll genuinely start to panic. We've come to expect this kind of tension in single-player AVP, but it feels remarkably fresh in a deathmatch game.
Then again, that's the strength of the AVP license. When Rebellion pulls this kind of stunt, it's slyly tapping into the atmosphere of the films - or at least the ones that were made before 1997. Rebellion and SEGA were keen to stress that this was an early build we were playing, but even at this rough-around-the-edges stage, there was plenty to enjoy. At the moment the game is still just a wiggly thing inside someone's chest, but we'll only have to wait until February before the final beast bursts out in a shower of blood and gibblets. Yummy!
Aliens vs Predator is scheduled for release in February 2010 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.