Review - Alien Vs Predator (Jaguar, 1994)

The Atari Jaguar is a fine machine. I still believe that. Even though it's been out for almost a year now with practically no software, I still have faith in the system. When a Jaguar cartridge comes out – any cartridge – it's an event. The arrival of Alien Vs. Predator is even more of an event. Atari has been tantalizing us with screenshots of this mystery cart since the Jaguar's arrival, teasing us with a little more information each month. Jaguar owners started frothing at the mouth months ago. Many people have speculated that AVP would be the game to push the Jaguar to the forefront of the market and let the golden sunshine come streaming in.

Now that Alien Vs. Predator has finally hit the shelves, it comes as no surprise that every printed copy is being snatched up with rabid vigor. AVP is destined to become the best selling Jaguar game yet (if it hasn't achieved that status already). But I have a feeling that those same people who couldn't wait to get their hands on it will soon be relegating AVP to the Games Closet-O-Dust. You see, Alien Vs. Predator isn't a good game. It could have been, should have been, and almost was, but it fell short and took a long drop to somewhere just south of mediocrity.

Alien Vs. Predator is a Doom clone which takes its name from the line of Dark Horse comics it resembles. You have the choice of playing an Alien, a Predator, or a space marine. The scenario differs for each character, but the general goal is always to roam the labyrinthine levels of the game killing anything and everything you find. Depending on the character you play, you may also collect weapons and other useful items as you wander around looking for targets. Since gameplay varies considerably among the three characters, I'll describe each such scenario individually.

Playing as the marine is perhaps the most difficult way to get through AVP, but anybody who's played Doom is likely to gravitate toward this selection as their first choice. As the marine, your goal is to set your ship's self-destruct mechanism and escape in the last lifepod, thereby destroying the Alien and Predator ships you are docked with. You'll start out with no weapons at all, but you'll pick up a shotgun as soon as you open your first door. The shotgun takes three blasts to down an Alien, and is practically worthless against a Predator, but you won't exactly be facing stiff odds at first. In fact, I became immediately bored with AVP after several minutes of wandering around seemingly randomly generated hallways looking for something to shoot at. When I did find a few Aliens, I was in for another letdown. Although graphically striking, the Aliens moved very slowly. Even though they are supposed to be the fastest creatures in the game, I was able to put considerable distance between myself and an onrushing beast by walking backwards. (Now that I think of it, it's a good thing I didn't need to run to escape, since AVP doesn't allow that function, a deficiency bound to bug the hell out of any Doom veteran.) That's saying a lot too, because the marine is about as maneuverable as a drunken whale. His movement is extremely slow and choppy, something I initially blamed on overtaxing the Jaguar's processors; as it turns out I was wrong about that, but I'll get back to that. Due to the blocky, frustratingly slow movement, I found the marine to be no fun to play at all.

Next I tried my hand at the Predator, a creature with both technology and biology on its side. The Predator's goal in AVP is to find the Alien queen, kill her, and get back to the Predator ship with the ultimate trophy – the queen's skull. You start out with only the spikes on your glove to kill with, but by amassing enough honor points (translation: score) you gain other weapons like the combi stick and flying disc. The Predator moves considerably faster and smoother than the marine, which actually distressed me more than if it had performed the same as its human adversary; this meant that the marine was so obnoxiously cumbersome not because the Jaguar couldn't perform better, but because the designers had willed it that way, a fact I never would have believed had it not been staring me straight in the face. But even with better movement, the Predator was no fun to play either. The biggest problem is that the Predator uses different visual filters for different environments, all of which are handled extremely poorly. Instead of making certain things (Aliens, for example) stand out more clearly, these "filters" do nothing more but toggle back and forth between preposterous color palettes. These alternate palettes, which range from a hot orange scheme to a bright red wash to a gloomy purple and green, only make things much more difficult to see, and all of them gave me a tremendous headache after only a few minutes of play. (You try playing Doom when the only colors you can see are varying shades of blinding orange and tell me how you feel afterwards.) I don't think I've ever played a game that was so bad it caused me physical pain, but the Predator segment of AVP did just that.

The Alien scenario is the only thing that saves Alien Vs. Predator from being a complete waste of time and money, not that it's a shining example of what Jaguar games should be. Your goal is to rescue your queen, which has been taken back to the Predator ship for less-than-surgical removal of her skull. The Alien is nice and fast, for once allowing you to play a game that doesn't feel like a collection of still shots pasted together. In light of the movement capabilities of the Alien, there's absolutely no reason why the marine had to handle the way he did, which is a true embarrassment for the programmers, playtesters, and all concerned. The Alien does not pick up any objects during play; instead it has three attacks you get to play with from the start: the six-fingered claws, that impressive tail, and of course the telescoping second set of choppers. The feature that most impressed me was the way the Alien's health is extended. The marine and Predator can scavenge the levels to find food and health packs, but not the Alien; instead, you must cocoon your prey by using the combination attack of claw-tail-claw, which then allows you to be reborn from an egg when your present Alien gets wasted. Unfortunately, this commendable point leads straight to the fatal flaw of the Alien phase. When you are reincarnated, even though the Aliens supposedly share the same hive-mind, you start over with a totally blank automap. Unless you've committed the levels to memory (which is unlikely, considering how bland they are) you'll spend far too much time running over previously traveled areas, trying to find the spot the action was taking place. When my game became 80% wandering around and 20% killing things and making progress, I decided it was time to switch back to Tempest 2000.

The thing that angers me the most about Alien Vs. Predator is that all the major flaws present could have – and should have – been picked up by the playtesters and remedied. Products like this make me wonder if Atari even plays their own games before shipping them off to be duplicated and stuffed into boxes. Alien Vs. Predator could have been a hell of a lot of fun, but only succeeds at being boring and frustrating at the same time. If you're a Jaguar owner it's understandably hard to resist scooping up any new title you can get your hands on, but this is one instance where you should summon up every ounce of self-restraint you've got. Rent it or borrow it from a friend if you're curious, but don't shell out real money for this game unless you're sure of what you're getting. Instead of quality and substance, AVP's true selling points are desperation, extreme hype, and blind devotion. Alien Vs. Predator should have been re-titled Turkey Vs. Captive Audience.