Sunday 20 January 2013

Dark Pondering - Counting Xenomorphs

Dark Pondering Image

Counting Xenomorphs

By Casey Douglass

Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?” The immortal words of the world weary Hudson, pondering the likely events of the next few days of his life. Whatever is thought of the later Alien films, it seems to be accepted that Alien and Aliens are the two best ones in the series. I always felt that the claustrophobic air vents and lack of weapons in Alien make it seem the far more dangerous film. When it comes to recent video games however, the action infused Aliens is the broad mould from which the latest games are formed.

Before first person shooters loomed into view, early Alien games manifested in different styles. The earliest that I personally played was Alien3 on the Amiga, a side scrolling platformer in which you took control of a shaven headed Ripley stranded on Fiorina 'Fury' 161 as she fights her way through the penal colony, with weapons that she didn’t have access to during the film. It was a decent blast, and nailed one of the things that really makes an Alien game: the guns. It was extremely satisfying to fire an under-slung grenade at a charging Xenomorph, or to listen to one sizzle at the end of a flame thrower.

However in 1999, the Alien Versus Predator game was released, drawing together the two creatures that would ruin any colonial marine’s day. It was first person, fast paced and scary, whether in multi-player or playing alone. I had the good fortune to play it at a LAN party and was amazed at the immersion I felt. The game was mostly shadows, the sound effects ratcheting up the tension with the usual motion tracker blip-blipping, the hisses of unseen aliens and the battle cry of the predator. It was a truly fun experience, the dynamic lighting and dark corners all adding to that feeling of claustrophobia and danger. It received an HD remake in 2010 but it was largely more of the same, although under the added layers of gloss and grit, it was missing something. It just wasn’t that scary.

It is now 2013 and Alien fans are waiting for the emergence of the next marine based Alien game to emerge from its cocoon, and the only thing that is scary is that it looks like it might miss the mark once more. I have been following the previews and news that has slowly filtered out about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and while it sounds like it could be a bit of fun, a competent game with a few more game play mechanisms to add some freshness to the formula, it just sounds like another remake; albeit one with a new plot written for it that interleaves with the films. I think whichever studio ends up making the next game might do well to look at the diversity of the earlier games, and also to some of the creepiest games that have come out in recent years, such as Amnesia and Dead Space.

What I am getting at is that I think a game based more on the style of the first Alien film might hold more scares and more interest rather than another pulse rifle infused acid fest. Imagine a game taking place on the Nostromo or even the Sulaco (after the events of the second film have played out). It could still be a first person game, but you take control of Ripley and it is only you, and one Xenomorph on board. You cannot kill it, you don’t have the weapons or tools. All you have are some flares and a map of the ship. There then ensues a game of cat and mouse, in which you try to move around the ship to gather your arsenal, access the ships systems and find where the alien has set up its nest, all of the while trying to avoid said alien until you are better prepared to deal with it. All that would be needed to add more tension would be the knowledge that the ship is slowly heading back to Earth, and you can’t afford to let it get there with this thing on board. Is it just me or does that sound scarier? It does sound doable as well. With only one Xenomorph to pit against you, all of the AI programming could be focussed on that single enemy, making it cunning, random and deadly. If an element of randomisation could be added to where it nests, what ship systems are working etc. for each game playthrough, the re-playability would be excellent as well. If that wasn’t possible, a more scripted game that played out the same way each time (in the vein of Dead Space) could still be well worth playing.

Aliens: Colonial Marines does look good, and I will no doubt buy it at some point, even with my misgivings. I can understand why the gung-ho marines are always the focus, it is fun to enjoy that aspect of the story. I just feel that game makers are missing a trick and still overlooking the possibility of making a game that could ape the style of the first film and truly be a tense horror encounter, rather than a “Come on! Come on! Come and get it, baby! Come on! I don't got all day! Come on! Come on! Come on you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you!” blaster. Ah Hudson, you glorious sweary bastard.