Alien vs Predator (Jaguar)

Alien vs Predator (Jaguar)
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Game Name: Alien vs Predator
Platforms: Jaguar
Publisher(s): Atari
Developer(s): Rebellion
Genre(s): First Person Shooter
Release Date: 1994

It is true, I purchased a Jaguar on Ebay for peanuts, and I did so for this game. Yes, you’ll be seeing other Jag reviews in the future, but I figure it’s fitting to begin with the game that started this little fiasco, and very likely led others to seek out Jaguars on various auction sites as well – or at least consider it.

I won’t get into the history of the Jaguar, except to say that it was steeply priced compared to the established 16-bit systems, was arguably the first “64 bit” system (short version: it was, but was improperly limited and underused), and was desperately lacking a killer launch title. It also clogged the shelves of the Babbages at the mall, alongside the 3DO and Phillips’ CD-I, that sported tremendously gouged prices and little to set the members of this trinity apart. Then AvP came to town.

The Pred’s visual filters are active when cloaked.

I remember I couldn’t care less about the Jaguar until I walked into the store one day and saw the display box for AvP. As fortune would have it, a game magazine announced a review of the game on their front cover, which I snapped up, and which became a double whammy. It was now my mission in life to get a Jaguar just to play this game. NO ONE had put together a game where you could play as an Alien running around and cocooning marines, a game where you slinked around as the cloaked Predator and made stealthy kills, and a game where you played as a marine creeping through the sets of the movies in first-person, blasting away at hordes of Aliens like Hudson’s last stand. And NO ONE had them all in the same game! Nowadays you could never get that same reaction from an AvP title, but they dropped it right in the laps of hungry, frothing, Aliens fans at the perfect time. And it was beautiful.

If you’ve played any of the recent Aliens vs Predator games, then this setup should be familiar to you. The game essentially documents a disaster at a distant Marine training station from the perspective of the three “heroes.” The Aliens arrive first in the chronology, allowing for a station full of unsuspecting humans. Then the Predators respond, and a young Predator enters the station alone to earn his stripes. The Marine’s game comes last, allowing him to wake from cryosleep as the last human on a station full of extraterrestrial baddies. It’s a system that works well, despite the fact that none of the events that occur in one game make any difference in the others.

The Alien game starts you out in a docked ship reminiscent of the derelict in the first film and tasks you to find and free the Queen. You’re quite fragile and cannot leap, climb, or crawl along walls, but you do have the fastest foot speed in the game. This allows quick attacks and retreats against the armed marines patrolling all levels of the staton. You can slash open most doors, but cannot use elevators, so you can only progress through the station by using air vents.

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Enemy AI doesn’t exactly let you stalk Marines, but you can catch them by surprise as they round corners.

The full arsenal of Alien weapons is available here; a slashing claw, a stunning tail, and the insta-kill inner teeth attack, each mapped to the A, B, or C button for quick access. They decrease in power if you keep smacking a certain attack, encouraging you to vary your strikes. The Alien cannot heal itself, but it can cocoon any Marine, anywhere, with a claw-tail-claw combo. Once a cocoon is set, it takes about three minutes to become “ready” (you actually watch the cells divide and become an embryo on the left side of your HUD), at which point the cocoon will hatch when you die. This effectively works as a system of plantable continue points, and through proper cocoon-management, you can never “die.” This is also the most the Alien must concern itself with, making this game the easiest and simplest of the three.

The Predator’s game starts in a docked Predator ship, similar to the one in Predator 2. Your enemies here are mostly Marines, with a few Aliens in the lower levels, and your task is to find and kill the Alien Queen. Four weapons are available to you – the wristblades, a staff, some discs, and the shoulder cannon – but you must earn the last three through a system of “honor points” (read: your score.) These weapons act just like the Alien’s, with no ammo and a charge that weakens the attack with continued use. Initially you’ll have to pursue lone Marines and dispatch them up close with your blades. After you earn your stronger toys, you’ll be quickly picking off squads from afar and raising the kind of confusion in their ranks as seen in the films. It’s perversely enjoyable to see them accidentally shooting each other in frantic attempts to draw a bead on you.

The Predator has the ability to render himself invisible to enemy humans, unless you get terribly close, making travel throughout the levels rather easy. You also gain access to the Predator’s multiple vision modes while cloaked. You don’t get thermal vision, or any kind of enemy highlights, they just basically turn one color (brown) into another color (pink). These are mildly useful, but often end up making your surroundings and your enemies harder to see. A limit is put on your invisibility as well, in that if you kill an enemy whilst invisible, you lose points. If you de-cloak and kill an enemy, you gain points. The result is that you must travel around the station killing enough Marines in an “honorable” manner until you get all your weapons, then drive down and whack the Queen. It’s somewhat more complex, but your ability to absorb tons of punishment, and the ability to collect human medkits into a large “use-anywhere” medkit of your own, puts this mode at a “medium” difficulty.

Persistent acid blood means you’ll need to think about where to drop Aliens.

The Marine game is undoubtedly the focus, lasting the longest and making the most use of the levels. As the Marine, you awake in the brig with no weapons and no security clearance. You’ve just finished serving an automated cryo-sentence for punching an officer – a plot element obviously designed to make your character bad-ass. You must seek out your arsenal, from the shotgun to the smartgun, find ten security cards to raise your clearance level, set the base for self-destruct, and make it to the escape pod. It’s a system common to other similar games, and a challenge worthy of what was showcased in the films. Of course, it’s also a giant keycard hunt with clues left scattered around the station’s computer terminals. It’s also the most appropriately tense and slowest-paced of the three.

The graphics are impressive for the time, and solidly beat out Alien Trilogy, released for the PC and Playstation almost two years later. There is pixelation, but there is also a nice amount of detail in the wall and scenery textures. I remember reading somewhere that the developers built models and miniatures of the characters and station, and photographed them for their bitmaps. The walls do look detailed enough to make this a possibility, and the Alien Queen certainly seems to look like dashed-together frames of the Kenner action figure. Still, they fall in perfectly with the look and tech of the Alien films without being direct copies, and the respective Alien and Predator ships are immediately identifiable to their movie counterparts.

Weapons do not sound like those from the film, and the pulse rifle especially sounds like a puttering BB gun. This is a dissapointment, especially considering other sounds (like the Alien’s screeches) do sound like they came from the library. There is no music so it’s an appropriately quiet game overall. You’ll spend most of it listening to the steady hum of the station’s reactor, the mechanical whine of doors opening, and any pulses from your motion tracker (once you collect it!) Otherwise, it’s quiet – “too quiet” – especially considering the Aliens make no noise as they approach. It’s a perfect moment when you’re pacing through the station, everything is silent, and then a whispered “Over here…” comes from a cloaked Predator in the corner. Eeep!

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You’ll need to use the air vents, but you won’t be alone!

My list of complaints is not game-breaking, but important enough to warrant warning. First and most obvious is the sluggish framerate. The Alien runs and turns at about the speed of any other first-person character from the period, so I know the Jaguar technically can crunch the frames. Yet the Marine and Predator clunk along at an estimated 15-20 fps. Perhaps this is because they have extra stuff running in their games (motion trackers, vision modes, etc) but more likely it seems that the developers turned down the speed for these characters to make them slower than the Alien, rather than having the Alien run faster than “normal” (which the Jaguar probably couldn’t handle). It’s never unplayable, even with tons of enemies on the screen at once, but it is certainly jerky.

The enemy AI leave something to be desired as well. Aliens power right at you, usually in a straight line. This works, since they’re only dangerous at close range, but don’t expect any crafty Alien sneak attacks. Their strength is definitely in their numbers, and their ability to swarm and surround you. They can’t get past doors fortunately, and many a time I’ve had a wonderfully tense moment as I rush through a doorway, hit the button, and watch the doors come together and seal off a horde of them in pursuit.

Marines AI is a bit more glaring, as they simply pace around back and forth and shoot at anything that approaches. They’ll chase you if you attack, even if you re-cloak as the Predator, but they’re still fairly easy to lose and not overly aggressive. It results in making the Alien and Predator games easier, but as if to counter this, they tend to bunch up in groups where they are more dangerous. AI Predators don’t appear particularly conniving either, and mostly rely on their invisibility to fire a powerful attack and disappear again. The Marine can track them fairly easily with the motion tracker, but they’re still awfully strong and frightening for their damage capability alone. Their initial de-cloak can also give you a good shock.

It’s also worth mentioning that the game is persistent as long as it stays on – dead enemies stay dead, powerups can only be taken once, etc. This even extends to the acid blood pooled around Alien corpses, which always damages you as you pass over them. So the game’s not just about shooting any Alien that appears – you’ll actually have to think about where it’s safe to put one down, or risk blocking off a hallway or junction with too many acid pools (or have to run through and take the not-insignificant damage).

Final battle with the dreaded Queen

Final battle with the dreaded Queen

Offsetting this difficulty is the ability to save anywhere you like, at any time. However, when you load a game, everything other than what you have on you (guns, ammo, security clearance) resets and reappears. You can make this work to your advantage by saving next to an ammo dump if you’re low on rounds, but it also means that if you’re unlucky enough to save next to a nest of Aliens, you’ve probably just ruined your entire game.

A final complaint is with the levels themselves. Though I have to give them credit for attempting to assign a clear purpose to each room (relayed through signs and computer maps), much of the station looks exactly the same, and plays like a giant maze. Whether it’s because Aliens have blocked off some passages with their hive, or because the fourth level is literally a “Training Maze” (What are they training these Marines for? Hedge maze assault?), it results in a lot of exploration that will probably end in hand-drawn maps. There is an automap feature, and it is infinitely useful, but it resets itself every time you move between levels. It also doesn’t help with levels like the air vents, which don’t logically match the levels they’re based in – after a lot of winding about on a flat, even plane, a hatch will often magically deposit you on a completely different level. It’s extremely confusing, especially when you’re required to use the vents to bypass jammed doors.

Otherwise, AvP is about everything you’d expect. It was a perfect use of the licenses for the time, and had a few forward-thinking ideas as well, namely a non-linear setting and the fantastic execution of “survival horror.” It is NOT worth picking up a Jaguar exclusively for, unless you simply must play some other Jag games, or get a killer deal, but it is certainly worth playing if you have the chance.

The Good

First of many first-person AvP games, still unique from all of them. Nice take on “survival horror” and nice, fun representations of the three characters.

The Bad

Too much “explore the maze” gameplay, some disappointing sounds, “floaty” controls, reference maps a near requirement.

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