Aliens Vs. Predator Multiplayer Preview: Switching Bodies, HuntingS

I played as an Alien, a Predator and a Marine last night in eight-player locally-linked Xbox 360 matches of Sega's upcoming game. And it's not like I panicked too many times.

The early-2010, Rebellion-developed AvP game may be a sequel, but it is the first game in the series that I've played. The three-way species conflict set in jungles and on temples and in amid Alien hives was new to me.

I came to the game with no innate ability to play either Alien, Predator or Marine. I assumed, wrongly, that I should avoid playing as a human Marine.

It turns out that playing as an Alien is hard. I learned this the way you learn a lot of tough lessons in multiplayer games: By virtually dying a lot. Aliens in AvP wield no weapons, of course. Their strengths are movement speed and the ability to scramble across any flat surface. With an Xbox 360 controller walks the walls and ceilings by holding down the controller's right trigger and running across them. Ideally you'll get yourself onto the ceiling, hanging over some sap Marines who walk beneath you. If you hold down the A button to jump to the floor, the skilled Alien player will then press X for a gruesome one-hit "trophy kill" or start tapping the controller's shoulder buttons to perform melee swipes. That is ideal. A newcomer might — might — jump down from the ceiling and get shot up by some Marine machine guns.

So, a recommendation: If you play this game when it's out in early 2010, try the Marine. I was one of them next, taking advantage of my gun-mounted movement sensor to tell me when friends and enemies were nearby. Having a machine gun instead of relying on my claws made me more comfortable. Controls are conventional, familiar to anyone who has played a shooter. Of course, you can't smell/see the outlines of enemies through walls as a human, only as an Alien.

Before I could try the Predator in a deathmatch mode, we switched to some special modes. I tried two of them:

Infestation was a humans vs. Aliens mode. In this one we all started as humans, but one of us was randomly turned into an Alien a few seconds after the match started. As Marines, we needed to hunt this thing. But if it got one of us, the victim would re-spawn as an Alien. Eventually there would be a Last Man Standing, at which point a turret would spawn and that last human player could hope to get to it to win the match. Otherwise, the Aliens win and points are tallied.

Aliens Vs. Predator Multiplayer Preview: Switching Bodies, HuntingS

Predator Hunt was a humans vs. Predator mode. We played this one on a map that featured a central pyramid-like structure, which skilled Predators can use to stand atop invisibly, while taking potshots at panicked Marines walking around below. Predator Hunt was a timed match that started with one player randomly selected as a Predator. A human player who kills the Predator becomes the Predator. I was the Predator oh-so-briefly (though I did try him later in single-player to get accustomed to the controls). I had a shoulder-mounted laser cannon, which I failed to use in multiplayer. I had wrist blades for melee. And I had the ability to both turn invisible and use thermal vision. That arsenal didn't help me much on my first try as an intergalactic hunter. Sadly, I didn't even figure out how to activate the long-distance jumping abilities of the Predator — nor its ability to throw its voice and create distractions — until I played single-player. Needless to say, despite my ability to kill the Predator once, I didn't win the round.

So what does a lot of getting mauled teach you?

I was impressed with how distinct the three species felt from each other and how much this game in multiplayer feels like a hunt. In Infestation, I felt vulnerable while I played as a human and the Alien pack grew. Those of us who remained as Marines, for the moment, would spot the Aliens darting across walls and ceilings. As soon as I was an Alien, I felt empowered, racing through the map, slicing toward the meager remaining prey. In Predator Hunt, again, as humans, it felt, if not that we were weak, but that we were up against something fearsome. There's a special panic you get when you know the enemy is on the tower above, standing there cloaked from your sight, choosing a target and probably seeing you coated in red, ready to be dropped.

Aliens Vs. Predator Multiplayer Preview: Switching Bodies, HuntingS

The themes and style are good, as is the balance. The mechanics are tougher to speak about. I have to reserve judgment about the controls for now, though I was concerned that the Alien attacks must be on the shoulder buttons, the buttons I'm least comfortable pressing on an Xbox 360 controller. We can blame some of my Alien discomfort on the disorientation of walking on walls and ceilings during a deathmatch. But being the conventionally-controlled human was a smoother experience, and being the Predator felt like it simply required some experience with its unique arsenal to feel successfully in control.

Part of the Aliens Vs. Predator promotion involves promoting just how violent and gory these games are. Stealth kills do trigger gruesome deaths. For me, what I've liked most is this three-way balance between Alien, Predator and Marine. That may not be new for PC players, but with this game coming to consoles as well, it'll be new to me and others. It's a fun mix.