06/05/2012

ALIEN TRILOGY (PS1, MULTI)

In space, they say, no-one can hear you scream. Unless you're in an air-filled, pressurised environment like a mining vessel, a terraforming colony or a distant prison planet - then your screams will be heard for miles around, especially if you're a young girl called Newt. No wonder she survived as long as she did, her ultra-sonic whine can probably pop xenomorph heads at thirty paces. In case you haven't figured it out, (and the article title is a pretty big clue,) today's article is about a game based on the first three movies in the Alien franchise: specifically, it's Probe's 1996 stay-frosty-em-up Alien Trilogy! This is the Playstation version, which I'm playing because it's the version I had as a kid, but there were also versions for the Sega Saturn and MS-DOS.


I'm sure I don't have to explain the Alien series to you, because the H. R. Giger-designed xenomorph of the title and its explosive breeding habits have become firmly ingrained in popular culture. Turns out there's nothing we like to be entertained by more than a remorseless skeletal monster that pops its babies down our collective gullets and waits for them to burst out of our chest cavities like the universe's worst strippagram jumping out of a gore-soaked cake. Who knew! We also like seeing them get destroyed and that's where Probe come in, by turning the first three Alien films into an action-packed first-person shooter. "But VGJunk," I hear you cry, "surely the terror of a single alien overwhelming a group of woefully underprepared humans, as seen in Alien and Alien 3, isn't a very appropriate setting for an all-guns-blazing blastathon?" Well fret not, because Probe took a long, hard look at the tone and setting of those two films, pondered how they could use them in Alien Trilogy and then decided "fuck it" and set the whole thing in a parallel universe.


So, Ripley's a Colonial Marine now? Obviously this intro is heavily based on the beginning of Aliens, and it says that Ripley has previous experience of the xenomorphs, but she's looking very similar to her appearance in Alien 3, shaven head and all. In fact, Ripley looks an awful lot like she did in Probe's Alien 3 games. Not even poor old Hicks survives the alien attack, and Ripley's transformation from plucky Warrant Officer to fully-fledged purveyor of alien carnage is well and truly complete as she picks up a gun and heads into the colony. Hang on, she picked up that gun on the colony floor! Are you telling me she saw all those marines getting slaughtered and ran into the dark, monster-infested, maze-like structure without so much as looking around the military vehicle she was in for a weapon to take with her? Sorry Ellen, but you've gone from "badass" to "deeply stupid" already. However she chose to go about it, Ripley is in the colony now and the game can begin.



We've got a gun, there's a facehugger scuttling towards us, it's dark and gloomy: yup, looks like we're ready for an Aliens FPS game, all right. If you've ever played Doom then the gameplay in Alien Trilogy is going to be very easy to explain because it's pretty much just Doom: Aliens Edition. Not much vertical height to the levels, exploding barrels aplenty, medikits instead of a regenerating health / shield system - we're firmly in the realm of the early-Nineties shooter here. Face towards your enemy, press fire and hope they die before you do. If you've never played Alien Trilogy before, probably the first thing you'll notice is the awkwardness of the controls. I mean, I played this game a lot when I was a kid, and it still took me quite a while to get used to the mechanics of the whole thing. AT is from a time before analog sticks, and years of playing first-person shooters with a mouse and keyboard or dual analog sticks have ruined me, made me soft. How dare I expect to be able to turn around quickly! Instead of a modern control system, the d-pad moves you forwards and backwards and rotates you left and right, while the shoulder buttons make you strafe and X is fire. That took some getting used to as well, not using a shoulder button to fire. It's... cumbersome. Yeah, that's a good word for it. This is particularly noticeable when you strafe, because strafing moves you much slower than your standard movement, making Doom-style circle-strafing a no-go.


OH GOD GET IT OFF! See, I was struggling so badly with the controls that a facehugger managed to latch on to me and it's not nearly as charming as the phrase "face hugger" would suggest. Luckily I'm not with (alien) child now; all that happens is you take a little damage because I guess all the facehuggers in this game are sterile? Yeah, the facehugger as a videogame enemy is a hard one to get right. On the one hand, having a tiny, fast, hard-to-shoot monster than can instantly kill you would be incredibly frustrating, especially given that in Alien Trilogy they're more numerous than reprehensible comments on YouTube. Making them an unthreatening nuisance enemy rather takes away from the horror of them, but that's what they are here and you will be seeing a lot of them. What else is there for me to shoot?


Well, there are aliens, obviously. Here we see the universe's most perfect predator, (but not, like, a Predator,) completely oblivious to the lady with the gun and more concerned with investigating the fine Weyland-Yutani-constructed corridors of Hadley's Hope. A 12-gauge blast in the hindquarters should get its attention. Thankfully I've found a shotgun to replace the frankly useless pistol, unless you include shooting the myriad crates that litter the levels as a use. I think this counts as a close encounter, and after a few shots the alien is dead. Whenever you do kill an alien they live a great big acidic corpse on the floor that hurts you if you step on it, and given that Ripley is a bit of an ox to control you'll be taking many, many small hits through the course of the game because you've coated the floor in the remains of your enemies.


The thing is, and this is something that rather hampers the game, the aliens just aren't very menacing. The terror of facing these things as enemies is usually that they're silent, they're almost invisible and they can attack you from any direction, like ninjas with a penchant for facial impregnation - this was the case in the Alien vs. Predator PC games and it worked very nicely too. Sadly the aliens in AT are just too easy to spot for you to fear them overmuch. You've got the motion tracker, an iconic piece of kit from the film that works great in videogames where the aliens can appear from any angle but here they just walk around the corridors looking a little lost, your motion tracker letting you know exactly where they are all the time. They're also very noisy. They're constantly chirruping and hissing and giving away their positions, which rather ruins any element of surprise they may have had. Even worse are the facehuggers, which make a constant rattling noise like a bag of pine cones strapped to a pneumatic drill that rather undermines their ability to not get shot.


Perhaps rather than going for a head-on assault, the aliens have decided to irritate Ripley to death by removing every battery from every door control panel in the entire facility. So much of the game is spent wandering around looking for batteries that it feels like Christmas morning and you just got a hundred electronic toys, and after a while it starts to get a little grating (and very dark). There are a lot of crates that have to be destroyed to progress too, and most of them are filled with facehuggers and chestbursters, slowly sapping your health and ammunition. I can understand that a lot more than the battery shortage, because the Company are popping aliens in every box they can find in order to ship them back to Earth, but hunting down the batteries is a chore in both its prevalence and its nonsensical nature.


I feel like I'm being slightly over-critical here: there's the core of a fun game here, and it's always a pleasure to play through recreations of locations found in the Alien films, even if the chunky PS1 graphics aren't exactly stellar. It's just a shame that there are so many minor niggles that they eventually pile up to make Alien Trilogy a less fun experience than it could have been.
Never mind that now, though: look at all those eggs!


Eggs everywhere! So who's laying all these eggs?


Why, it's the Queen of course! Here she is in all her swollen-abdomened glory, guarding her brood by... not doing much of anything. Sitting there while you murder her offspring, mostly. Presuming you have enough ammo, the fight against the Queen is very straightforward because she doesn't disengage from her egg sac until you shoot her. This means you can make your way around the nest clearing out all the eggs and facehuggers and collecting any pickups before hitting the Queen and getting her mad enough to attack you. Once she's active though, oh boy: you better watch out because she's a real mean mother... no, not really. She's a big target, she's slow and she has no ranged attack, so you can easily keep your distance and plug away at her until she's dead. This is why I say you need plenty of ammo, because it's very easy to waste bullets in this game. When you hit an enemy, they go into a hit animation. That's fine and dandy, but until they've recovered from their hit animation they become completely incorporeal, your bullets passing right through them and doing no damage. Maybe Ripley’s trying to give them a sporting chance, but whatever the reason firing too fast will waste a lot of ammunition. You see what I mean about all these minor irritations?
Luckily I'd p-p-p-picked up a Pulse Rifle, so there was little chance of the Queen lasting for long and the iconic sound of its gunfire is something that can always raise a smile.


Once the Queen is dead, you get a nice little cutscene of Ripley escaping from the colony and being picked up in the APC by Bishop. Androids: always reliable, be it as a spaceship's science officer or picking you up and giving you a lift. Ripley announces that she's picked up signals from the detention center and she wants to go and look for survivors. Bishop once again shows that robots are the superior intellects by staying aboard the armoured military vehicle while Ripley heads into the prison for the second chapter of the game.


This is the Alien 3 portion of the game, with the prison relocated from Fiorina 161 to LV-426 for the sake of convenience and so that the game isn't called Aliens and a Bit From Alien. Nothing has really changed in terms of gameplay - batteries need finding, switches remain woefully inactive until caressed by Ripley's loving touch and I've got a flamethrower that I picked up somewhere along the way. Oh, and there are some new aliens to fight, too. They're the dog aliens, as seen above, and much like the normal warriors they're not much of a threat unless there's a group of them all playfully nipping at your toes like, well, puppies.


Then the dog aliens grow up and become a bit tougher. Still no ranged attacks, so if you've got a bit of space you can just keep backing away from them and taking advantage of their stun animation. Weyland-Yutani are going to be in a for a bit a shock when they finally, after many deaths and billions of dollars, they get the alien back to Earth for some serious bio-weapons R&D and it turns out their new super-weapon can be easily neutralized by someone who walks backwards slowly.


Ah yes, The Company. Because a big slice of the point of the Alien movies is that humans are a much bigger barrel of cocks than any race of acid-blooded killing machines could hope to be, you get to fight some Weyland-Yutani personnel who have orders to get rid of Ripley and bring the aliens home. Some of them are rogue marines, some of them are androids...


...while some are Imperial Stormtroopers who have wandered into the wrong sci-fi movie series. The marksmanship training provided by The Company is obviously far better than that found in the Star Wars universe, because these guys can actually shoot straight. Unlike the aliens, they're very quiet and they can do ranged damage, although they do die more easily. The white mattresses that these Stormtroopers (sorry, alien Handlers) appear to have stapled to their armour were sadly not as effective as they had hoped.


On a personal note, I'm one of a fairly small group that really likes Alien 3. I honestly think it's a tense, heartbreaking film that made the right choice to move away from the action of Aliens and return the xenomorph to a single nightmarish entity that cannot be fought. It's certainly not better than the two preceding films, but considering the amount of changes and compromises it went through before making it to the big screen it's impressive that it came out as well as it did and I can't see why some people straight-up call it a bad film. So, it's nice for me to be able to play a game (kind of) set amongst the prison / mining facility / bonkers cathedral that forms the backdrop for Alien 3.
You know what Alien 3 didn't have? An alien Queen. Well, it sort of did but I don't think we can really count the one that makes a mess of Ripley's shirt right at the end of the film. Alien Trilogy has another one, though!


It's almost identical to the last boss fight except this time I have a Smartgun, the most powerful weapon in the Colonial Marine's arsenal. It's also the only weapon that's even vaguely interesting in its operation, because it can fire at up to three separate targets simultaneously. This will come in very handy in the enemy-packed final section of the game, but right now I've got to deal with this Queen. No, wait, she's dead already. I've got a Smartgun, you see. Maybe you should have had a few of those alien warriors in the hive with you, your majesty.


Your reward for killing the second Queen is another cutscene. Ripley leaves the prison and heads back to the APC, only to find that Bishop has scarpered. Once again, androids prove their superiority. Ripley announces that it’s “time to finish this, once and for all,” and she drives over to the derelict spaceship from the first Alien movie to kill all the aliens forever and ever. Taking off and nuking the site from orbit wasn’t an option, huh? Mind you, judging by the mad-dog expression Ripley’s wearing in the cutscene she won’t be happy until she’s killed every xenomorph and corporate scumbag with her own two hands. It’s her eyes. Her mad, staring eyes. I’m a little worried about her, to be quite honest.


Here we are in the derelict ship (or the Boneship, as it’s referred to in-game) and as you can probably tell from the screenshot above the overwhelming theme of this part of the game is that it’s really, really dark. Extremely dark. Frustratingly, can’t-see-any-doorways dark. Luckily the enemies don’t fade into the darkness too much. The black warrior aliens can be difficult to see, but the facehuggers and chestbursters are pale enough to pick out and the dog aliens are bright orange, for Christ’s sake – sort of useful if you’re stalking through a metalworking facility, but when you’re trying to operate in near-total darkness being the same colour as a traffic cone is not the most effective camouflage.


Gameplay is much the same as the previous areas, except with the added irritation of walls that aren’t solid which you can actually walk through unimpeded. I don’t know if this was Probe’s attempt to make it look as though the aliens are coming out of the god damn walls or if they just ran out of ideas that weren’t rubbish. The aliens, despite looking exactly the same as they have for the rest of the game, are now much tougher and take a lot more shots to kill, and as a result Alien Trilogy starts getting pretty difficult once you reach the Boneship: aliens will swarm you, the small corridors mean there’s little room for a tactical retreat and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Ripley has no-one to blame but herself for this: she couldn’t have just waited for Bishop to get back with the dropship, could she? Nooo, she had to kill every single alien all by herself. Well, now’s her chance because they’re all right fucking here.


Still, it’s interesting to be able to wander around the Boneship, an area that hasn’t really been explored that much in the movies (yet). Things like these foetal Space Jockeys embedded in the walls are a nice touch. And speaking of the Space Jockey, he puts in an appearance towards the end of the Alien section of the game.


The special effects people working on Prometheus are going to have their hands full trying to improve on this! Okay, that’s a bit harsh – when I first came across Alien Trilogy’s Space Jockey as a young Alien fanatic, I was pretty blown away by it. I could walk right up to it and everything! As much as I’m looking forward to Prometheus, I can’t help but be a little worried that it’s going to destroy some of the mystique that’s made the Space Jockey so fascinating to me for all these years.
We’re nearly at the end now, folks. Just the final boss battle to go. Do you want to have a guess what Ripley will be facing?


I’m not sure this planet needed three Queens, you know. There weren’t that many people here to impregnate in the first place. At least one of these Queens must have just been sitting there, twiddling her multiple thumbs and waiting for a fresh shipment of people to impregnate. Well now’s her chance to shine! Except she’s dead already, because it’s the same boss fight as the last two times. It’s all rather anticlimactic. Couldn’t we have had a new type of alien for the final encounter, a super-queen, a guest appearance by a Predator? Anything would have been better than the same battle I’ve already been through twice. Down goes Queenie for the third and final time, Alien Trilogy has been completed and Ripley can get some well-earned rest.


Not before the entire planet explodes in what I like to call a “Konami Ending”. Nothing says “job well done” like the destruction of an entire planet. I’m still a little hazy as to exactly why LV-426 is now nothing but space dust, but at least the alien menace has been totally eradicated with possible chance of an alien surviving. Well, apart from that one alien that survived by stowing away on another ship, but I’m sure he’ll spend the rest of his life locked aboard that ship, hurtling through the vast uncharted depths of space. Kind of sad, really.


Oh, Alien Trilogy: I so desperately wanted to love you as I used to in my youth but I just couldn’t do it. It’s not a terrible game: it’s a solid-enough first person shooter that captures enough of the movies’ atmosphere to keep an Alien fan interested. It’s just old, that’s all, and no games suffer more from the ravages of age than early Playstation games. All the advances in first-person shooter gameplay over the years have left AT feeling sluggish and awkward, particularly Ripley’s leaden pace and the lack of free aiming, and the graphics have not held up well at all. The music... well, I’d recommend turning the music off. There’s no music from the original movie scores, and while the replacement tracks that Probe created aren’t bad in their own right, they’re just not very appropriate for the game and playing in silence broken only by the Pulse Rifle’s chatter and the hissing of the aliens is definitely preferable.


A relic from an earlier time, then, and an interesting take on the Alien franchise, but I think I’ll be waiting for the release of Aliens: Colonial Marine rather than playing through this again. At least I got to climb all over the Space Jockey like an unruly kid on a museum exhibit.

5 comments:

  1. Quite a nice, long write-up. I recall playing this a million years ago, and thinking it was okay, but not great. I also agree with your sentiments - that PS 1 games do show their age worse than most I think, but that was when the processing power became a bit more capable of emulating real-life images. It bridged a gap that got us to where we are today graphically, but it's easier to forgive the intentionally cartoonish graphics of older systems than the PS1 's 3D rendered visuals.

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  2. It's great to see a write-up of the whole game like this! This was one of the first SEGA Saturn games I got, and... eh, I didn't quite have the patience for it. I'd been meaning to try it out again, but you've saved me the effort. If anything, seeing environments from the movies recreated in blocky ol' polyogons is pretty neato; I'm a sucker for low-poly graphics!

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  3. "I think I’ll be waiting for the release of Aliens: Colonial Marine" ha ha ha... ha... Some things are funnier in hindsight.

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  4. Reading this years later and hearing your wild anticipation for Prometheus and Colonial Marines... ha.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, you'd think I'd learn to stop having expectations for these kinds of things...

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