Saturday, 4 August 2012

Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction (PS2 Video Game Review)

There are some ideas which just don't work in practice. No, not the idea of combining Aliens with Predator, in spite of the films that has been a largely good - I mean this game specifically. AvP has consistently been an FPS series with the option of playing as a predator, a xenomorph or a remarkably durable colonial marine. It was an easy thing to do, two classes had big guns and a fun variety of gadgets in their films while the xenomorphs they gave the ability to run up walls. So you have to wonder what the developers were thinking when they decided to make Extinction an RTS.
The story behind this one is, well, not much of a story at all actually. No really, you’d be lucky to remember anything besides the bare basics behind each faction’s backgrounds. For example the predator campaign has your clan claiming hunting rights on a planet, going down there and hunting. You end up with fights against another clan infringing upon your hunting rights, hunting down very dangerous creatures, but that’s about it.
One mission quite literally came down to “some o’ them smartgunner boys are great warriors, so let’s go get rippin’ their skulls! YEEE-HAW!!” Admittedly this is usually what the stories come down to, but they tend to at least be passable due to a good atmosphere. In this case the presentation comes down to a loading screen with about two paragraphs of text and possibly some actual meaning to the mission itself. The only good thing you might see in it is the occasional bit of decent artwork. So if the story is uninspired what does Extinction bring to the table?
Well, it’s from the PS2 era so you know the graphics don’t hold up well. It’s an RTS so there’s going to be no really recognisable or fun characters, so that just leaves the gameplay and level design.
The levels themselves will feel familiar if you’re someone who grew up reading the AvP comics due to the overall look of the environments and some background elements. For example, the three key types of locations seem to be desert areas, places overrun by xenomorphs with that classic LV-462 look, and jungle environments. The first of these is especially evocative of the first planet from the comics, Ryushi, with the same vehicles flora and fauna present all over the place. Aside from the nostalgia though the levels are actually well designed and seem to have been made to make the best of each faction’s unique abilities. Large areas are left wide open to allow for killzones to be made with the ranged specialised marines, varied levels of terrain for the xenomorphs to take advantage of with their greater manoeuvrability. Also stuff for the predators to actually stand a remote chance of winning. Yeah, they got shafted in this but it wasn’t due to favouritism, simply trying something which didn’t work.
You see to try and make the game unique they gave each faction a very different play style relating to how they gain cash. The predator economy is based upon killing things. No, quite literally the more skulls from heads the more moolah you get. On paper this sounds great, it fits in with the hit and fade tactics the designers were going for and forces players to balance out casualties with potential kills. Why doesn’t this work? Someone had the bright idea of making predators completely reliant upon an un-cloakable, slow moving shrine for purchasing new units. Meaning that you can easily get dragged into full scale battles which will just screw you over.
Xenomorphs meanwhile can come down to being “zerg who can’t zerg rush”. While they have an advantage in terms of moving over terrain and can turn an enemy’s numbers against them due the way they gain new units, I.E. facehuggers, they have an unsteady recruitment rate. They can’t simply call down new reinforcements and need comatose bodies to make new units. This combined with the attrition rate of the more fragile drones and warriors means that it’s rare to have any advantage in terms of numbers.
Humans meanwhile, despite usually being the ones to die the most, have a huge advantage over the other two. They have units which can see through predator cloaking, have a high population cap, the largest number of long range weapons, and upgrades which buff starting units up to obscene levels. To give an obvious example – you can instantly upgrade basic infantry to have grenade launchers and com. officers to deliver orbital strikes. To make this more obscene they can easily get more cash in a few minutes than others can gain in an entire mission due to their ability to repair atmospheric processors. Perhaps their only weakness is that you need a mixed variety of units to work rather than just bringing down swarms of infantry, but that’s not much of a hindrance.
Even were it not for the faction imbalance though, there are still problems present with the units. Namely their navigation. Now if Hundred Swords had a few problems with this, Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction is a digital monument to how not to do it. Oh they’re fine when guided individually but when moving large numbers of units en-mass someone will bounce off any tiny piece of terrain and ricochet around the map like they’re in a pinball machine. A good nine times out of ten you’re going to trigger something early or find an enemy stronghold because a rogue unit has gone in completely the wrong direction and stumbled into them. This really isn’t helped by the interface which makes selecting units far more tedious than it should be, turning what should be a minor irritation into a frustrating chore.
Rather than clicking and dragging, a circle expands out of your cursor the longer you hold it down and you select anything which ends up inside it. Upside – this gets around the monumental problems consoles have with clicking and dragging. Downside – this comes at the cost of speed and precision. Rather than split second selects you have in most RTS games it can take a good four seconds to select your entire force, something which makes movement remarkably frustrating, and you can kiss co-ordinated strikes goodbye.
The real shame in all this though? There’s never any time playing this that you can’t see the potential this title had. No, really, even when you’re suffering from all the problems in this game you’re constantly thinking “this could have been really good.” The playstyles of the xenos and preds, the lack of base building, the different ways of getting money; all were really good ideas. The bad pathfinding, balance issues, story - all that could have been sorted out with a couple of months more development, two or three tops if the developers were focused. Instead we just ended up with a failed experiment which ended up delaying Aliens: Colonial Marines by close to a decade.
If you’re looking for a good combat focused game with RTS elements and no base building try Confrontation. It’s not perfect but it is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than this one. Otherwise just stick to the classic AvP FPS titles.

Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction and all related characters and media are owned by Electronic Arts.

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