Alien vs Predator (Jaguar)

At least from a U.S. perspective, 1993 to 1995 were confusing, cluttered times in video game history. I personally had just gotten a Super NES in 1992 and was merrily exploring its catalog through Blockbuster rentals. But in the gaming rags and on the shelves of Babbages, it was clear that a lot of companies other than Sega and Nintendo now wanted to muscle in on my pastime.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Sony’s PlayStation’s dominance squashed all these contenders. In the meantime, I remember giving quizzical looks to the likes of the CD-I, the 3DO, the TurboGrafx-16, and over in Europe, the Amiga CD32. It was clear multimedia was the big push behind these new consoles, but I had a Sega CD. Based on my experience with its library, “multimedia” wasn’t working out that well. Sega seemed to be panicking with a flustered launch of the 32X, the Saturn, the promised Neptune, the Nomad – it was hard to see “the future” in any of those scattershot releases. The 3DO sold for a bananas $700, so it was all the way out of my reach. The CD-I was an… education system? And finally, there was the Atari Jaguar.

Those pesky Aliens are at it again!

All I knew about the Jaguar was that it could run Doom, and that was a big plus because my parents wouldn’t let me play it on the family computer. Beyond that, nothing particularly caught my eye. I think I remember in-store videos of Cybermorph looking interesting, but I also remember PC flight sims with basic polygon graphics were common on those same demo TVs, so the effect wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before. The different consoles and their marketing messages just blurred together in a way that, in retrospect, was probably the closest I’ve experienced to the ’83 video game crash. There was Nintendo, there was Sega, then there was a muddled mass of “the rest.”

Then AvP showed up and it became my mission in life to own a Jaguar.

See, now you were speaking a preteen’s language. I had worn my censored copy of Aliens (taped off of a Fox broadcast one night) into magnetic dust. I had the Kenner action figures and the little Dark Horse comics that came with. I had Alien 3 for the Game Boy. Xenomorphs were my jam, in just the same way that Doom had captivated me as a completely new way to play video games. And like manna from heaven, here comes a game that looks better than Doom (in magazine stills – we’ll get to that in a bit), set in the Aliens universe with all the coolest weapons, and lets you play as the Alien and Predator to boot. NO ONE ELSE had all three cinematic badasses in a killer next-generation game – but if you wanted them, you had to live in Jaguar Country.

Alas, I was a kid. If I could have bought a Jaguar with a pocket full of nickels and dirt, I would have traded all that I had. My parents pointed to the Super NES they bought last year and made it clear they weren’t buying another system. All that was left was for me to re-read the same magazine previews and dream. Until the present day, when I had become a big enough boy with no one in a position of supervision to stop me. There will likely be more reviews for Atari’s final console in the future, but for now, let’s take a look at the game that would have twelve-year-old me streaming tears of joy, and others to likely seek out their own Jaguars on various auction sites.

Mr. Tin Grin will wreck a lot of Marines.

The game documents a disaster at a distant Marine training station from the perspective of the three “heroes.” The Aliens arrive first in the chronology, attacking a station full of unsuspecting humans. Then the Predators respond, where 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 overrun with Xenos. None of the events in one game make a difference in the others – so don’t expect any Resident Evil 2 style crossovers – but it serves as a decent explanation for why you’re going through the same station levels while fighting different opponents.

The Alien game is the least complex of the bunch. You start in a docked ship reminiscent of the derelict in the first film. You must find and free the Queen, held by the Predators five levels up. You’re quite fragile and cannot leap, climb, or crawl along walls, but you do have the fastest foot speed in the game. You can slash to open most doors, but cannot use elevators. You can only progress to new station levels by using maze-like air vents. The station is mostly filled with Marines in this game, who are set up pretty explicitly to shred you from a distance. Most of the strategy here relies on your speed to strike and then round corners quickly to avoid hails of gunfire.

The full arsenal of Alien weapons is available; 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 holding down a certain attack, which has the effect of pacing out combat and forcing you to be smarter about your attacks. Marines often end up in groups, and you won’t have the stamina (or the life bar!) to kill them all at once. While there’s no official “hiding” mechanism in the game, the effect of scurrying off and waiting in ambush still sort of comes across here.

Cocoons are the key to surviving the Alien game.

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. You’re limited to three cocoons at a time, which works as a system of plantable checkpoints. Through proper cocoon management, you can never truly die, so cheesing this system is how you’ll actually get through the Alien game. The Marines’ firepower and overwhelming numbers mean one drone won’t last for long. Remember, the Alien in the films only tore hell through a bunch of unprepared space truckers, while its lifespan against a burst of pulse rifle fire was measured in fractions of a second.

The Predator’s game starts in a docked Predator ship, similar to the design in Predator 2. Your task is to find and kill the Alien Queen somewhere at the station’s lowest level. You’ll mostly face Marines in the upper levels and Aliens in the lower, but the occasional Alien or facehugger will pop up throughout to keep you on your toes. Four weapons are available to you – the wristblades, a staff, discs, and the shoulder cannon – but you must earn the last three through a system of “honor points” (read: your score). I respect that the developers don’t make you hunt around levels for Predator gear, and putting restrictions on himself in the name of honor seems pretty on-brand. In practice, it means this game really does play differently from the rest. While both Alien and Marine will be looking to avoid fights, you want to scrap as often as possible as the Predator.

Pred-o’s weapons act just like the Alien’s. There’s no ammo to worry about, while each attack weakens with repeated use. You won’t get a long-range weapon until you unlock the discs at 350,000 points. Similar to the Alien, pacing yourself and using hit-and-run strategies will be key to surviving. 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 gets his vision modes while cloaked.

The biggest challenge to the Predator’s game is that there are a lot of Marines, and they will all dump their guns into you on sight. The Predator’s a brick shithouse in this mode, but he’ll still get worn down by the sheer number of grunts wandering the station. There’s no way to lure them around – with recorded promises of candy or otherwise – so much of a successful Predator’s game is watching the patrolling AI for safe opportunities to strike and fade away. It’s about as close to hunting as you can get inside a space station with a ceiling.

The Pred does have the ability to heal, by collecting human medkits (the only pickup in the Predator’s game) that combine into a “use anywhere” kit on the “5” key. Finding these kits is critical to making it through the campaign. Stealth tactics will only get you so far – how long you’ll draw the Pred’s game out is dependent almost exclusively on how many medkits you’re finding as you skulk around.

Key to skulking around is the Predator’s famous cloak. Pressing the “Options” key renders you invisible to Marines (Aliens see right through it). At a distance, you can move around unmolested. However, if Marines get right next to you, they’ll see through your ruse and start firing. The cloak is smartly tied to the honor system, forcing you to decloak to gain points. If you make a kill while invisible, you’ll lose points. If you go below the point threshold for a weapon, you’ll lose access to it. Still, there are times you might have to make dishonorable kills to survive, or to thin the numbers before making those points up for an overall gain. The choice is yours, but you will definitely want better weapons than the wristblades to take on the Aliens in the lower levels.

Let’s break here a minute and talk about the AI Marines. Every single Marine carries both a rifle and a flamethrower, and they will cycle between them when they shoot. Thankfully there are no auto-targeting Smart Gunners or such, but it means that every one of them is surprisingly deadly and equally bland. Literally every Marine you fight is the same. They will beeline toward gunfire or similar commotion, so it’s annoyingly common to see four or five clones advancing down the corridors after what you thought was a quiet kill. Or they’ll appear suddenly from around the corner, announcing themselves with the red screen flash you get when taking hits and sending you spinning to find them.

AI won’t fight each other, which is horseshit. They’ll practically work together to kill you!

It’s hard to call them advanced, but they are doggedly persistent – showing no fear once you’re spotted, while chasing and shooting you even if you recloak. You can never shake them once they’ve seen you. Yet the greatest sin is that they can never be surprised. Yes, you can creep up behind one, but he will instantly – in the next frame of animation – turn 180 and fire. I never, not once, killed a Marine without taking damage as either the Alien or Predator. I’m pretty sure it’s flatly impossible, and that knocks the feeling of being one of cinema’s most legendary nasties down a few pegs.

On to the Marine game, which is clearly the focus. The Alien and Predator games feel like side bonuses or afterthoughts by comparison. You play as Pvt. Lance J. Lewis – I’m guessing a Rebellion in-joke – who has just come off an automated sentence in the cryo-brig for punching an officer. It’s a familiar plot device that I assume is meant to make you a bad ass lone wolf who doesn’t play by the rules (though your punishment is… a nap?), but it also conveniently leaves you as the last human alive on a station full of extraterrestrial meanies.

You find a shotgun about two steps from where you start, and must find the rest of your arsenal around the station. Unlike the other two games, Marine weapons absolutely require ammo and you’ll constantly need to search for supplies. It makes this game much more of an exercise in survival horror – compared to the action focus of nearly every other Aliens game – and it fits the theme as tightly as a facehugger on a blue collar worker.

The Marine game makes the most use of the levels, primarily featuring useable computer terminals whose messages leave breadcrumbs to the next area. As jammed doors or Alien hives block your way, you’ll use computer maps and air vents to find alternate routes. And of course, the entire Marine game is one big scavenger hunt. Winning means you’ll find three additional weapons, ten security cards to raise your clearance level, make it back to Operations to set the base for self-destruct, then run to the escape pod and be home in time for Corn Flakes.

Or, it’s a training simulation, so you probably just get a stamp or something.

You’ll have to use the air ducts to travel, but so will the Xenos.

AI for Aliens and Predators is a bit more brainless. Aliens just run and attack. No sneak attacks, no “coming out of the walls.” They may surprise you by virtue of moving silently, and they may surround you by virtue of all running at you at once, but in general, these are just happy accidents. Their best move is a zig-zag pattern to throw off your aim, if they’re given enough distance. They will also be smart enough to run to the edge of an intersecting hallway and wait you out. They’re not always going to charge after you – in this case, they’ll wait for you to make the dangerous first move toward them.

One critical point is their acid blood, which will hurt you if killed at close range, and will also leave a burny puddle on the floor that will damage you every time you walk over it. Some consideration should be given on when to shoot – such as drawing them out from doors before dropping them. Speaking of doors, Aliens can never open them. While you can’t weld anything shut in this game, tactically opening and closing doors has the same corralling effect. Many a time I’ve had a wonderfully tense moment as I rush through a doorway, smash the action button, and watch the doors come together to seal off a horde of them in pursuit.

Meanwhile, AI Predators are just a disappointment. They’re big, tough, and love to toss out deadly plasma balls, but they are anything but smart. They come in and out of cloak seemingly at random, which at best just throws off your aim. You can always spot and follow them with the motion tracker. They will play recorded taunts so you know they’re close, but you won’t get any sense that you’re being hunted intelligently. Mostly you’ll roll your eyes hard because now there’s a big, dumb distraction you’ve got to waste a lot of your best ammo on.

The Queen is apparently photos of a store model kit, and it looks like it.

You get three save slots for all three games. There’s no restrictions on how to use these – one for each, focus on one game at a time, whatever. Mercifully, you can save your game from the Pause menu at any time. However, owing to the limits of cartridge technology, you only save things like your score, weapons you’ve unlocked, Marine security clearance, and current level. Enemies stay dead as long as the console is on, but every last one will return when you power off and reload a save. It makes coming back to the game a little more exasperating than it should be, but as long as you’re aware of the limitation, you can plan your saves and sessions around it. You can also abuse it to high hell, saving and reloading right next to a stash of medkits or ammo that will return when you reload. Though if you’re unlucky enough to save next to a nest of Aliens, you’ve probably just ruined your entire game.

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 an 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 disappointment, especially considering other sounds (like the Alien’s screeches and Predator’s equipment) do sound like they came from the Fox 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.

Yes, you get a proper “run for the escape pod” at the end of the Marine game.

I really only have two complaints here. First and most obvious is the sluggish framerate. As said, the game looks fantastic in stills – however, it’s a lot more chunky in motion. 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.” It’s never unplayable, even with tons of enemies on the screen at once, but it is certainly jerky. It’s also worth noting that the state of Jaguar emulation is not great, so the physical hardware does run noticeably better than something like Virtual Jaguar.

I also didn’t care much for the level design. 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,” it results in a lot of exploration that will probably end in hand-drawn maps and definitely notes. The Marine game especially is going to depend on following clues from the computer terminals and making note of what door on what level needs what security card, because you’re absolutely coming back to it later and the game won’t mark this down for you.

There will be more than enough of the signature match up.

There is an automap feature, and it is infinitely useful, but it resets itself every time you move between levels. Bodies won’t disappear and doors will remain open – so you can at least see where you’ve been – but it’s not much fun uncovering the level over again because the map reset. Worst is when entering and leaving air ducts (which are helpfully labeled in A, B, C varieties). I had a hard time finding my way back to my original entry point, and usually ended up re-exploring the entire duct section again just to find the exit. It also doesn’t help with sections 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. The vents especially may call for a more permanent, hand-drawn reference.

Would I have been satisfied if I’d ended up with a Jaguar and this game in 1994? Given that I’ve always had little tolerance for mazes and no acceptance of drawing my own maps, it’s harder to say. Some of the areas definitely drag, especially when you’ve killed all the Aliens on the level and are just wandering around, lost, looking for a keycard. But the fact alone that there was nothing else like this at the time, with the bonus of being based on two of my favorite movies, I think it likely would have become a beloved part of my collection. No question I’d beat all three campaigns at least once (because I have!), and any technical issues with framerate and the like would be more easily forgiven without many contemporary examples to compare it to.

These days? I think you’ll find 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.

 

What on Earth gotta hold a this guy?” – Pvt. Lance J. Lewis

 

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