AvP: Extinction

Aliens vs Predator: Extinction is a weird game.

It's an RTS made exclusively for console systems, which is already a bit oddball, but it also has no multiplayer, no skirmish mode, nothing but three seven-mission campaigns, one for each faction.

Once I saw the gameplay in action, this made a bit more sense, though it just emphasized the weirdness. The fact is, Extinction's gameplay is just fundamentally oriented toward a singleplayer type of experience where the player mows down hordes of mooks. The Marine faction is the only one that can generate resources or troops without having to kill anything, and even then Atmosphere Processors only give a fairly limited amount of resources before giving up the ghost. The gameplay dynamic for Marines is pretty clearly that you call in troops, maybe secure an Atmosphere Processor and as it runs down buy upgrades and purchase more troops, and then seek out the next Atmosphere Processor while using Medics and Commtechs to undo all damage between skirmishes: you don't really have the resources to be able to afford casualties, particularly in the early missions.

The game is actually kind of fascinating, in that it's very clear the developers have a reasonably solid grasp on critical RTS principles, but then the execution doesn't really end up bearing things out. The Predator faction is the easiest example to talk about: it's so obvious what the developers intend for the Predator dynamic to be, and it's a really interesting one. They'd be a raider faction, using a small crew of early-game Predators to pick off isolated enemies, harvest their skulls, and then retreat to a Shrine to rapidly recharge, then buy some troops with the 'honor points' earned and head out and do it again. I've seen RTS games that shoot for a raider faction, but never anything with quite so much clarity of vision in this regard, and it makes perfect sense for a Predator faction to be a raider faction. Of course the Predators wouldn't want to perform open combat if they can avoid it, and of course they'd be so good at killing from the shadows and escaping to do it again later.

And then the gameplay only kind of bears it out.

When you're fighting Predators, the AI doesn't even try. They spawn waves, the waves approach under cloak, and they just relentlessly attack until you or they is dead. They don't try to retreat to a Shrine so it can rapidly recharge their energy, heal up, and come back to fight again. They don't produce small teams to raid, instead tending to throw massive hordes at you.

And even more disappointing, playing as the Predators yourself doesn't really support the raiding style either. Just as the Marine style of play tends to be 'form up on an Atmosphere Processor, build up, move out, repeat', the Predator style works out more often to something like 'head out, kill things, harvest all their skulls, and have the Shrine roll up and recharge you while ordering in units/upgrades, and then repeat'. You can approach with more of a raider mentality, but it's not often necessary, and often not very effectual: Aliens in particular have a mechanic where any of their units that can see through cloak at all makes the cloak essentially worthless for several minutes afterward, because units seen by Alien detectors can be seen wherever they go even if they're under cloak. (Which, mind, is a really fascinating approach to a detector mechanic, but it's still a factor in why the Predator campaign isn't very raid-y)

The Alien faction is probably the best faction from a design standpoint, as the campaign's conceit is pretty much a perfect fit for the Aliens: you want to have legions of enemies all over the map, so you can harvest them as Facehugger fodder. They're actually quite fun, and there's a lot of fascinating decisions, most obviously the one where their economy works completely differently from the others: where Predators and Marines collect a single resource by killing enemies and collecting skulls/repairing Atmosphere Processors and then spend that resource to purchase units and upgrades to units, Aliens produce units by having a Queen lay eggs for essentially free (It costs 100 'infestation points' to switch into egg-laying mode, but there's no charge per egg) which hatch into Facehuggers, which then of course latch onto other lifeforms to give birth to Chestbursters that grow into Drones/Warriors/Predaliens/Runners/Praetorians. Aliens get resources for killing enemies -including via Facehugger- but they spend these points primarily on building 'Hive Nodes' (Immobile buildings that detect stealthed units and passively heal Aliens in an area around them), purchasing upgrades, and on Praetorians. (Normally a Facehugger produces an Alien based on what it latched onto: Predaliens for Predators, Warriors for humans, etc. You can spend Infestation Points to convert an egg into a Praetorian Egg, which produces a Praetorian Facehugger, which produces a Praetorian no matter what it latched onto. Then you can also morph individual Praetorians with even more Infestation Points to get a hold of Ravagers and Carriers, not to mention replacing your Queen if she dies)

As such, the Aliens just plain operate completely differently from the other factions, not to mention the usual RTS conceits, and it's really fascinating to see in action. It's still flawed, but not to nearly the same extent as the Marine and Predator factions.

There's also just larger patterns of decisions that are interesting. Every faction in Extinction is a mobile faction: Marines order in troops with Commtechs, and while the player has no control over where Dropship beacons exist on the map they're generally designed so that as the player moves through the mission new troops will still arrive fairly close to the action. The Predator Shrine is mobile, and Predators outright drop-pod in right around it, with the only limitation being that if the Shrine is indoors you obviously can't order in more troops. And of course the Alien Queen can pick up and move at will, acting as a terrifying combatant in her own right and able to plant down wherever else you like, while Hive Nodes can planted anywhere you can get a Drone to.

Compare and contrast with the usual RTS conceit of being anchored at a location by immobile buildings and immobile resources: even when you have a faction like the Terrans in Starcraft, the Night Elves in Warcraft III, the Eldar in Dawn of War, or any other faction that experiments with mobile infrastructure, the need to set down atop resource pools and the ensuing need to defend these locations tends to lead to clustered infrastructure with a ring of defenses. In Extinction instead the Aliens are the closest to a faction that actually puts down roots, and Hive Nodes are sufficiently cheap/Infestation Points sufficiently plentiful that it's not particularly burdensome to abandon an old set if you feel the need to move elsewhere. You can even drag your eggs to your new location!

It's actually a really fascinating game design all-around, and it's genuinely disappointing that the final product doesn't arrive at its vision, that the brief three campaigns are all there is to play, and that the closest thing to a sequel in the ensuing years is a Warcraft III map/mod. (That was never fully completed anyway, as far as I can gather)

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Plot-wise, the story is mostly a mixture of the obvious (Aliens and Predators and Colonial Marines all share a planet, and so fight each other) and justifications for ensuring each faction fights representatives of itself in addition to the other two. There's not much in the way of twists or meaningful story progression, just 'here's why this RTS experience is happening, more or less'.

That's not a criticism, I'm fine with a minimalist plot, but RTS games have basically always leaned plot-heavy, so it's another way the game is odd.

It also means I don't have much to say about it: I could roll my eyes at the main strain of Aliens feeling a need to 'keep the species pure' by exterminating the K-series Aliens, but it's so obviously there purely to justify Alien-on-Alien combat that I don't really care about any narrative/worldbuilding problems involved. I'm perfectly happy, in fact, to see an RTS make a concerted effort to represent all possible matchups -a recurring complaint I have with RTSes is how often the campaign is reluctant to represent self-on-self combat, and even more obnoxious is how often two or more 'team good' factions will be forbidden from fighting each other in campaign play.

Unlike Concrete Jungle, Extinction is not a game I can really recommend as play-for-fun experience. There's just not enough there, and the Marine and Predator campaigns in particular just end up fairly tedious and repetitive.

But it's a really cool idea that contains even more cool ideas, and if you want to see a game that really tries to explore the idea of the Aliens as a collective there's not many other options and Extinction is actually a really interesting execution of such.

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