Be honest – does my pulse rifle look big in this?
The next Alien game to come squelching out of the Alien Game Queen’s egg sac was the 2001 Game Boy Color title, Aliens: Thanatos Encounter. This was by all accounts a fun little number that had you exploring the Thanatos, an Alien-infested freighter (Thanatos being the name of the Greek god of death, hint hint marines!). Players could choose from a pool of specialised marines, and when they were finally overwhelmed by Aliens, he or she was dragged off to be cocooned. At that point, you had 200 seconds to choose another marine and rush off to rescue your fallen comrade, or else lose them from the pool of available marines altogether. Despite some dodgy Alien AI, it’s a well-regarded title and was another small hit for THQ (before they died in 2012).
Just before we get to the Monolith-developed Aliens vs Predator 2 (pictured above from the Predator’s point of view), I wanted to touch on an interesting trend in Alien gaming history that extends from 2001 until 2011. In this time, every purely Alien game released (as well as some AvP titles) featured a colon in its name, from Aliens: Thanatos Encounter in 2001, to Aliens: Unleashed and Aliens: Extinction in 2003, Aliens: Extermination in 2006, and Aliens: Infestation in 2011. Of course, there’s also Aliens: Colonial Marines and Alien: Isolation in 2013 and 2014 respectively, but they stand well enough on their own that I don’t consider them part of this trend of Aliens: Word naming. Other than boring coincidence, one explanation could be the influence of the Dark Horse comics, which tended to favour this type of short, sharp, brutal naming convention themselves – for example, Aliens: Reapers, Sacrifice, Crusade, Countdown, Labyrinth*, Salvation, Havoc, Purge and so on.
Anyway, after Thanatos Encounter came Aliens: Unleashed in 2003. This was a mobile game that tasked you with shooting ‘Synths’ – synthetic Aliens created to give the USMC something to practise on. Of course, the dummy Aliens do a Westworld and turn on you, requiring you to wipe them all out (both of which points sort of seem like what you were doing to each other anyway, but oh well). A further three years after that, in 2006, San Jose, California-based Global VR unleashed the Aliens: Extermination arcade cabinet on us. Like SEGA’s Alien 3: The Gun back in 1993, this was a light gun game. It also featured rogue androids, an Alien 3-style “Dragon” Alien, was set in the wreckage of Hadley’s Hope, featured a climactic battle with an Alien Queen, a gigantic explosion at the end of the game, and some unseen drool menacing the survivors as they flew off into obscurity again. Still, the cabinet looked pretty nifty, and unlike Alien 3: The Gun’s generic plastic machine guns, this one had cute little pulse rifles to shoot with. Nice.
Pretty nifty eh?
There then followed something of a drought for Alien games, with the only titles released between Aliens: Extermination in 2006 and Aliens: Infestation in 2011 being some Predator mobile games (including two 2010 Predators film tie-ins (we’re in the Gameloft era now)), an AvP: Requiem film tie-in for the PlayStation Portable (also by Rebellion, but this time very poorly received)) and Aliens vs Predator (2010). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s rewind back to 2001, just after Aliens: Thanatos Encounter.
2001 is the year of Aliens vs Predator 2, which also offered three separate campaigns for Aliens, Marines and Predators, but this time around tied them all into one story. Development duties went to Monolith Productions, creators of the LithTech game engine and purveyors of some excellent games in their own right, including No One Lives Forever 2 in 2002, Tron 2.0 in 2003, and The Matrix Online (Rest in Peace, dude) and F.E.A.R., both in 2005. Most recently, they made the astonishingly successful, critically acclaimed Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. So, no slouches, Monolith. Certainly, their work on Aliens vs Predator 2 was very well received, with the biggest criticism being simply that it was too short. But the game saw a Mac port in 2003, as well as a Gold Edition bundling the original and the expansion together a little while later.
* Also notable for lending a concept to the execrable Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure.
Aliens vs Predator 2 again – Note the four-fingered hands. This hand configuration was established in Alien Resurrection and retained throughout the AvP films too. The original Alien had six-fingered hands, while Cameron’s Aliens had three-fingered hands.
Whilst the story was different, the gameplay was pretty much the same, which is no bad thing. The graphics were a bit crisper, the UI more colourful (for better or for worse), and the Aliens themselves more in line with the slightly stylized, ‘ribbed’ look that had evolved over the years since the Aliens film in 1986. (These are described in Alien lore as being Warriors, as opposed to the original Alien’s smooth-headed, bronze-coloured Drone). An expansion pack, Aliens vs Predator: Primal Hunt, this time developed by Third Law Entertainment, was released exactly 12 months later, in August 2003. The expansion added maps and more weapons to the Multiplayer, and a new single-player campaign that began slightly before AvP 2, explaining some of the events leading up to it. Unfortunately, the expansion was not very well received, with many critics calling it uninspiring and linear, and lamenting the playable facehugger as being hard to control. Not much is known about Third Law Entertainment, but it seems likely that it’s some form of Third Law Interactive, a Dallas-based firm founded in 1998 that used the LithTech engine to make the bonkers KISS: Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child.
As we creep cautiously forward into the new millennium, 2003 brings us the PS2/Xbox Aliens: Extinction from Zono Incorporated. Zono was a relatively short-lived California outfit, best known for the 1997 SEGA Saturn classic Mr. Bones, as well as the PC port of the Patrick Stewart-voiced D&D beat ’em-up Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone in 2004. (That woke up the D&Ders and the Trekkers all at once). So far, so forgettable. But apart from the ever-popular one-word naming motif, Extinction is also notable for being none other than an RTS!
Not only an RTS, but a console RTS!
Although it wasn’t hugely well received critically, being mostly damned with the faint praise of being ‘alright, but could have done with a few more months in the oven’, I think it deserves a bit of love for daring to be different, not only from other Alien, Predator and AvP games, but also from RTS games generally. There was no base building or construction in Extinction, with each of the three adversaries having their own unique means of generating new units. For the Marines, this meant spending credits earned for killing enemies on reinforcements that were booted out of passing dropships. For the Predators, it was all about accruing honour for their kills, which would then attract more Predators to come and join their glorious hunt. And for the good old-fashioned Alien, this was all about their Queen, who could stay in the hive to lay eggs or even come out to attack. In a really nice touch, the facehuggers spawned from the eggs would then create new types of Alien units depending on what they’d face-shagged for breakfast that day, up to and including Predaliens. Comparatively, only Chris Taylor’s classic 1997 Total Annihilation or Relic Entertainment’s first WH40k RTS, Dawn of War in 2004 stand out as being so innovative so early in the RTS genre, so it seems a shame to me that Aliens: Extinction didn’t do better, or at least get a PC port (we could always emulate it, I suppose).
So, now we skip forwards again from 2003 to Aliens vs Predator (2010), Rebellion’s fourth entry overall in their series of tripartite inter-species disagreements. Peering through our APC’s slitted windscreen, we crash through seven years’ worth of mobile games, arcade cabinets and handheld titles, mostly Predator-based, but with a few (already mentioned) AvP games too. Although Fox’s movie monsters are never too far from our gaming screens, it’s arguably all chaff to the few pieces of wheat we got in the last decade. (One particularly delicious, golden bundle of wheat that we all missed out on was Bioware’s Aliens RPG (a temporary name), which by the middle of 2009 was announced to have been cancelled, presumably as part of the Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco). Surely 2010 would be kinder to Alien gamers?