I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Land of the Licensed is an ongoing series where I take a look at licensed games, how they represent their intellectual properties, and if they’re actually worth playing.
Recently, I was reminded by Chooch’s own Kay that a crossover between Japanese horror legends The Ring/Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge is in the works. Aside from inspiring some genuine excitement, it got me thinking about previously existing crossovers of other titanic horror icons. There’s classics like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man or King Kong vs. Godzilla, but these days people are probably more familiar with fare like Freddy vs. Jason or Aliens vs. Predator. As much as I’d love to do another article on Jason Voorhees, Freddy vs. Jason never got the video game treatment- but Aliens vs. Predator did. Many times, in fact.
That’s mostly due to the fact that Aliens vs. Predator is a franchise with a deceptively complex history. The first clash between the populous colony-minded xenomorphs from 1986’s Aliens and the hulking Arnold-hunting species of brutes from 1987’s Predator occurred within the pages of Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Horse Presents between November 1989 and February 1990. Dark Horse, before Hellboy had come around, was known for these franchises as well as other adaptations of sci-fi action spectacles like RoboCop and Terminator. They apparently couldn’t resist having these beasts from beyond punching it out on their pulpy pages, and the world is better for it. The film Predator 2 followed later in 1990, showcasing a xenomorph skull as one of the Predator’s many trophies. The rest is pop-culture history.
Between Predator 2 and the first actual Alien vs. Predator film in 2004, there would be fourteen years, at least six more comic series, a slew of action figures, three novels, and seven video games; one of which being an arcade beat ’em up published by Capcom. As much as I’d love to hit every arcade in central Texas trying to find a cabinet, this article is about arguably the most well-known and, in my opinion, the best of all those games- Aliens versus Predator, released for Windows and Mac back in 1999, and released for more modern machines some six years ago as Aliens versus Predator Classic 2000.
I like Predator well enough, but I’ll admit to being a huge sucker for the Alien franchise. I’ve played more or less every game spun out of it (including the relatively atrocious Aliens: Colonial Marines and the criminally overlooked Aliens Infestation), own no less than eight Alien-related figures, and have an Alien poster framed and hung directly above the headboard of my bed. I’ve even watched Alien 3 more than twice! So really, I’ll eat up anything that has Giger’s lovingly phallic space-monster on the cover, but how does the game fare for people who aren’t obsessed?
The answer is…really well, actually. As far as late 90’s PC shooters go, Aliens versus Predator is a surprisingly solid entry into the genre. Although it was released the same year as PC titans like Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Classic, and System Shock 2, Aliens versus Predator provides real enjoyment that goes outside the name-brand recognition of the franchise. Sure, the game packs itself full of references from the various films, like the derelict spacecraft from the original Alien, but as something like Aliens: Colonial Marines can attest to, reverence to the source material doesn’t necessarily make a good game.
Instead, Aliens versus Predator goes for a more immersive and unique approach in terms of gameplay. The game is split into three campaigns- Colonial Marines, Aliens, and Predator. While the Colonial Marines portion is pretty much what you’d expect in terms of a first-person shooter, AvP does a great job of making the experience truly terrifying. Unlike Aliens: Colonial Marines where the xenomorphs behave like any other AI foe and stumble into your line of fire, the aliens of AvP often take to hiding in darkness and only attacking when they’re right on top of you or close enough to charge you while screeching like an insectoid banshee. That’s not even to mention the occasionally invisible, Terminator-like Predators you’ll run into every now and then.
As a Marine, you truly feel helpless in the face of these galactic killers, something a lot of Aliens games throw out the window in favor of shoot-em-up action. Your only friends are your gun, your motion tracker, and your night vision. It’s a skill set that obviously lets you get through the game well enough, but isn’t powerful enough to just blast your way across every level. Of course, this runs into the problem inherent in most games that let you play as a super-powered monster of some kind. Why would you play as the weak human when you can rip victims apart as one of space’s most perfect murderers?
Thankfully, Aliens versus Predator manages to put all three of its playable species on the same relative gameplay level. All of them have some kind of special vision equivalent and a unique ability- for example, the aforementioned Predator cloaking and the Alien’s ability to climb walls and ceilings. Furthermore, when you consider the Marines you battle as the creature-species are a lot more heavily armed than the player’s Colonial Marine, it all evens out pretty well. The Alien and Predator gameplay relies just as much on stealth and cunning as the Marine, requiring you to skirt around automated turrets to dispatch the humans who invaded your hive or captured your ship. And of course, you’ll get to battle Aliens as the Predator and vice-versa. What kind of game would this be if you couldn’t?
Another place where AvP hits all the right buttons is really making you feel like you’re playing as a Predator on a hunt or an Alien skittering through the dark vents. That’s where the reverence for the source material pays off- how cool is it to view the world through thermal vision like you’re hunting down Arnold and then skewer someone with your wrist blades? There’s also the interesting choice to put all the Alien segments through a fish-eye lens- it’s a visual design that makes the experience of playing as the xenomorph really feel, well, alien.
Although some might find the story lacking in places, Aliens versus Predator makes up for it with a gameplay experience that truly delivers on the promise of the franchises involved. Even for people who aren’t necessarily big fans of Aliens or Predator, the game is good enough to stand against more well-known releases from the time. I’d be hard-pressed to call AvP a “forgotten classic” by any means, but it surprises me that this game never got more widespread recognition. The 2010 version inevitably got more coverage, but I can’t say it’s as good as this 1999 predecessor. Fans of the franchises definitely owe it to themselves to play this, and even those who aren’t should consider checking it out. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new monster to think about when you lay awake at night.