Aliens vs. Predator Impressions and Interview: Bringing It All Back Home

Being a big fan of Rebellion's original Aliens vs. Predator FPS, the studio's new sequel--a faithful three-campaign amalgamation of the original experience--is extremely exciting to me. And while I didn't go hands-on with it at E3, I did get a behind-closed-doors look at the Marine campaign. And the Marine campaign, as any fan knows, is the best part of any AVP title.

What I saw was encouraging. In terms of raw graphical prowess, the new Alien vs. Predator is a pure species of Alien game. Smoke, light and shadow dominated the palette in an overrun civilian compound, the setting of the demonstration. Gaping, acid-encrusted holes in the steel walkways, turret targeting lasers faintly cutting through the haze--it all would have been intensely scary, had the introductory level not been populated with scores of NPCs.

But beyond the game's impressive graphical touches--those screenshots aren't doctored--Rebellion is putting some work into making the iconic enemies just as terrifying to fight as they were in the original.

In the new AVP, Giger's nightmares understand what shadow is, and will intelligently use it to their advantage. During one assault, three aliens rapidly closed in on the Marine and his NPC buddies. After taking down two of the beasts, the third quietly disappeared near the end of the battle. Sensing a trap, the Marine slowly moved toward a doorway, only to notice that the last Alien had been creeping along the wall, hiding in the black, hoping the player would let down his guard. BOOM video 2072

Later, the Marine company was met with another furious attack. This time the Alien force proved overwhelming--in fact, the demo operator died several times in the course of the game--and one Alien managed to break through, pouncing directly onto the player's face. The Alien's head hovered over the Marine for a minute, and I expect it would have extended its protuberance for the fatal blow had the player not kicked off the thing and fired a saving shot.

The NPC soldiers were easily the most forgettable and unnecessary element of the demo. Of course, by the end of the demo, most of them were dead. Still, curious about how the overall game would balance the go-it-alone horror with the more scripted elements, I sat down with Alien vs. Predator project lead Tim Jones and producer Paul Mackman for a short Q&A on the promising title.

Shack: I can remember playing the original AVP back in.. what was it, '99?

Paul Mackman: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Jones: I was with Rebellion on that, and, yeah. We're still obsessed with it, and still really excited about bringing it all back home.

Shack: What sticks in my mind about that game was how scary it was. It was one of the first games I played that was almost repulsive in that sense.

Tim Jones: You always knew when a facehugger had got someone in the office, because they'd jump out of their chair screaming. [laughs]

Paul Mackman: As a matter of fact, at university I used to share the keyboard with a friend of mine. I'd do the looking and shooting, and he'd do the movement.

Tim Jones: How does that work? [laughs]

Shack: [laughs] Yeah, that's hardcore.

Tim Jones: It's hard enough already.

Paul Mackman: It's freakin' strange, but it did work. A lot of the time we played it in the dark, and those moments of backpedaling, trying to get away--it was really cool.

I started out in the industry as a games journalist, and one of the pieces I did was a retrospective on AVP, because I loved it so much. So while I didn't work on the original, it still [meant something] to me. And not just the game, the licenses themselves.

Tim Jones: Gamers' expectations obviously, and our own expectations, have moved along so far in the last decade that it's kind of daunting in some ways. It's like, how do we re-bundle the magic of the original on a new platform? And the rest of it is a really thrilling challenge, but when you catch those moments, and you catch yourself--even though you know how it's set up, and you play it again and again and it's still making you jump, and you're like "ahhhhhh," and you start swearing at the AI--"I'll get the bastard"--you know you've got something good.

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Shack: The Aliens themselves were really the most frightening part of the original. You never really know where they'd spawn, and they moved incredibly fast. Is that unpredictable nature something you're trying to recreate here?

Tim Jones: That's absolutely key to it. Gamers expect a certain level of choreography these days than we were able to do back then, to get a cross the narrative. But within the key beats of the narrative, the gameplay itself is very much emergent. The Aliens in particular, and Predators, they do their own thing.

Paul Mackman: As you saw from the gameplay there, three Aliens spawn in that room, and they can kind of do whatever they want.

Tim Jones: Darting in and out of darkness and the shadow.. it does have emergent gameplay that keeps you on your toes, and it is different each time.

Paul Mackman: You'll see something similar to that if you watch a couple of playthroughs of the Predator demo. I challenge you to see the same playthrough twice, because the AI do their own thing. They do something slightly different every time.

Shack: That's cool, because there can be that tendency now to script a lot of encounters, and when you're dealing with horror, that's something--

Tim Jones: I'm less attracted to choreographed scares than the ones that are genuinely different every time, because as soon as someone returns to a checkpoint and they get the same scare again, it diminishes it. But if they return to checkpoint, and I don't know where this guy is going to be, and then you start looking up there, and then there's the blip of the motion tracker, where's he coming from? And you get that sense of anticipation, but knowing how it's going to play out. And that's what keeps it interesting, and interesting for us as developers as well.

Shack: I feel like AVP's multiplayer wasn't championed enough. It almost did for the shooter what StarCraft did for the RTS, bringing three balanced classes together.

Tim Jones: Well thank you very much. Nice of you to say so. But yeah, multiplayer is obviously key to it. Obviously with three different species the balance is a challenge. But already we've got people playing in the office who are playing it obsessively, saying "Oh, this is my favorite species," and battling it out.

Shack: Since the original AVP came out, an AVP film franchise was born. There are other Aliens games in development right now. Is it tough to keep this stuff fresh?

Tim Jones: From my point of view, the world can always do with another Aliens game. [laughs] Obviously what we've got is the three different perspectives, which is something that is very fresh in both gaming and for the Aliens franchise in general.

Paul Mackman: Something I'm experiencing on the show floor down there, is that there is a huge appetite for this stuff. It's been a while.

Shack: Have you guys talked about co-op at all?

Tim Jones: Not something we can really talk about.

Shack: I remember actually hacking co-op into the AVP Gold edition with a rudimentary fan patch.

Tim Jones: Yeah. I remember getting stuck between doors a lot. [laughs]

Shack: I was curious about co-op, because of the female character in the demo seemed almost like an Alyx-type character from Half-Life 2. Do characters follow you around a lot? How often are you alone in this game?

Paul Mackman: There are a couple key characters that you'll see at key moments, and you'll get attached to, and that will have a lot of meaning.

Tim Jones: It's important to note that particularly for the Marine, it's a horrifying, scary experience. There's nothing like being on your own, and that's ultimately where the game is at. Yes, you do encounter other people at times, but the majority of time it's you against the rest of the world, if you like. And that's where the tension comes from. As soon as you introduce buddies into it, it makes you feel a little bit more comfortable.

Paul Mackman: And as you see in the demo, we kind of cut them down. [laughs]

Shack: Yeah, that was great.

Paul Mackman: We still love that thing where [the Aliens] are coming across the ceiling.

Shack: That's right out of Aliens.

Paul Mackman: Yeah. It's great recreating a moment that is so [iconic] like that. It's so cool.

Shack: Thanks guys.

Aliens vs. Predator hits the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in early 2010.