Predator: Concrete Jungle

Predator: Concrete Jungle is a game that caught me quite off guard. Going in, I was basically expecting something that would have a clear foundation in the Predator's playstyle from the 1999 Aliens vs Predator game, but with more polish, or maybe less polish, as you so often see from games that don't really get why the thing they're imitating worked. Plot-wise, I'd already heard it was borrowing heavily from Predator 2's plot, with the player Predator hunting gangs in city streets and various more specific plot beats being replicated, so I figured the plot would largely be an excuse plot framework for the gameplay.

Instead, the beginning of the game is... confusing. We start basically in media res, only it's even more confusing than usual because the Predator is effectively a silent protagonist and the game doesn't, say, use the panicking police officers and so on to infodump for the audience's benefit. You're a wounded, mask-less Predator brawling your way through the city streets, with your objective being to get back to your ship for... some reason, and that's about all we know at this point. The gameplay itself at this step is basically a simple 3D third-person beat-em-up with some Predator-themed elements thrown in but not made very relevant, and it's not a very interesting beat-em-up.

Stuff happens in the plot, but the audience doesn't really have context or clarity. It takes until several missions in to become fairly clear, but here's what it is:

The first chunk of the game is the tail end of the Predator visiting 'New Way City' in 1930. For unclear reasons, it violates Predator taboos, abandoning chunks of its technology and instead of honorably suiciding itself sets its ship to detonate, wiping out the entire city. To atone for its crimes, it's sent into exile on some deadly desert world for a long time, possibly just short of 100 years outright, and when its exile is over it comes back to the rebuilt New Way City (Now called Neonopolis) in 2030 and starts hunting with only the tools a Predator who was first hunting to prove theirself would have. However, in the 100 years it's been gone, the chunks of Predator technology it left behind have been reverse-engineered, so this near-future is one equipped with plasma-spitting pistols, Predator cloaking fields in human hands, new medical technology (Which we mostly see in the form of drugs, but more on that later), and so on.

This is actually a really interesting premise, and it takes a surprisingly long time for it to become clear, in part because the game's framing device takes a bit to become properly consistent, not to mention get to key details. Initially, you're just following random, unexplained objective markers, fighting and killing people because... uuuh... gameplay? The framing device in question is that a critical female character provides her theories of what was going on with the Predator, as best she can, which works because her family is in a position to know a lot of the relevant details: they're the family that built an empire on the basis of recovered Predator technology. They are, as it happens, a criminal family/empire, which ties things together surprisingly neatly, with you starting the game doing the Predator 2 thing of hunting down criminals naturally leading into the Borgia family getting upset with their goons failing to keep the flow of goods going and eventually coming to realize this isn't some gang war they're losing even though they almost literally own the city but rather is a Predator returned and murdering all their people.

Right around the time the plot is coming together, so too is the gameplay. The first several missions are heavily focused on the weak beat-em-up mechanics, with a particularly egregious point being two separate boss fights that are not really possible to take out with non-melee gear (Inadequate Speargun ammo, inadequate energy for the Plasmacaster, and anyway some bosses in this game will just block spears, which is pretty much exactly as believable as parrying bullets: not very) and have way too much HP and are just generally obnoxious. Then, quite suddenly, the game actually does transition to something like the 1999 Alien vs Predator experience, except you're incredibly mobile (You can charge up your jump to reach several stories up, can athletically climb several different kinds of surfaces, wall-crawl in some cases, and even perform a walljump for additional height/distance) and okay it's also third-person... except it allows you to enter first-person to more precisely aim ranged attacks, scan enemies in your different visor modes, and perform voice recording effects years before AvP 2010 incorporated the Distraction mechanic.

It's still got flaws at this step, but there's a shocking leap in quality from the opening hour-ish of gameplay, so much so I'm genuinely curious what went on in the development process.

Story-wise, the initial portion is fairly weak above and beyond how long it takes for the audience to know what's going on. You're seeing signs of a dystopian future, but initially they're just sort of there: the police have massive, heavily-armed walker robots that if you sneak up from behind and jump on them the Predator tears off their front to reveal some poor android is held inside in a distinctly unpleasant-looking manner, but you don't really get context on it. There's 'deadheads', a gang of junkies who are constantly stoned and have done hardcore drug stuff to render themselves incapable of feeling pain, but the story doesn't do much with them other than have you kill them. You raid a don's private island for... some reason... and part of this involves 'secretly' (Probably not secretly) escorting a deadhead who's operating a stolen police robot so she can bash in the front door for you, which is sort of an interesting spin on an escort mission but it's all just sort of confusing why it's happening and especially the timing and the last we see of the don he was being escorted in a hoverwheelchair to go watch a (rigged) match on TV: you just kill a bunch of his people and... leave? I guess?

But as the story's framing device gets more solid, we also meet a gang with a distinctive and memorable leader, el Hongo. The internet tells me this means 'the fungus', which is probably entirely intentional: el Hongo's whole thing is a combination of being fairly confident in himself and yet utterly (justifiably) terrified of the Predator. He's shockingly entertaining from a game that prior to his appearance has been confusing and boring (And the sheer silliness of his gang being visually patterned after luchadores while being called The Matadors actually doesn't take up much 'space' in the plot, making it easy to gloss over and take the story somewhat seriously), especially as he becomes increasingly panicked -which itself leads into the audience being properly introduced to Framing Device Lady AKA Lucretia AKA one of the most delightfully awful people I've seen in a story in a long time.

Lucretia is domineering, demanding, unsympathetic to her underlings, impatient, and just has a fairly steady stream of really great Casually Horrible Villain lines. She's a fantastic villain, and her interactions with el Hongo in particular manage to hit a lot of the right notes in general: el Hongo repeatedly calls her up to ask for help while talking about how he's being hunted by a demon and whatnot, which Lucretia is utterly dismissive of and assumes he's just engaging in supernatural exaggeration of some rival gang member or something similarly banal, and their interactions are perfect, with el Hongo doing his best to convey to Lucretia that no seriously he's dealing with some kind of monster and it's just not getting to her because Lucretia is already convinced he's a worthless idiot. It's not until she sends in a team of combat cyborgs she clearly views favorably as, among other things, competent, and they also die horribly that she starts taking el Hongo's claims seriously.

This even itself leads into one a... okay, let me just describe how I experienced it first.

Lucretia sends el Hongo to go hole up with her elite crew of... ex-porn stars. Who still dress like porn stars, incongruously carrying around rifles. Having had my standards for the game's writing rise, I was hanging my head in despair at the story suddenly shifting to a totally ridiculous sequence handled in a completely ridiculous way. And it got worse: excepting enemies that got actual health meters, every prior enemy always died instantly to a Speargun shot. These ex-porn stars dressed in barely-there outfits that certainly didn't include armor would tank a single Speargun shot unless it hit them right in the head, which had me shaking my head in disgust at gameplay and story segregation in action; yeah, let's just up enemy HP right as the plot is calling for the player to be fighting nearly-naked people. That makes sense.

And then you destroy a critical device, knocking out a lot of the special technology in the area, and it turns out these women are actually all wearing 'chameleon suits' that cover everything below the neck and were projecting the ridiculous porn star outfits. The gameplay hadn't been segregated from the plot: it was an early indicator of a plot point! And while 'ex porn stars wander around looking like they're still on set, aside the assault rifle' is still very strange and no motive is provided for this particular choice, the payoff is sufficiently delightful I'm willing to look past that I'm not sure there's actual thought put into in-universe reasons here.

This eventually leads into the player Predator getting captured by Lucretia's forces, and this is where the game's early storytelling problems crop back up again: you get a few missions where you're flashbacking to the 1930 incident, with it taking a bit to become clear that it's a flashback. It's thankfully quicker than the beginning of the game to become clear, but it's still a bit of a weak moment that could've been handled more elegantly.

The flashback itself boils down to: Lucretia and her father (Who we've just met and is kind of being treated as the primary villain now?) are the descendants of a crime lord by the name of Bruno Borgia who the player Predator killed back in his 1930 hunt, among other gangsters he killed. We also get a 'name' for the player Predator that makes for a good segue into a bit of a different topic: Scarface.

Scarface is pretty explicitly named for the damage around his left eye, but it's actually a really good name for how he's handled by the game more generally. Our introduction to Scarface had him barreling through city streets bleeding profusely and often clutching at his gut in pain, and mechanically Scarface becomes visibly bloodied as your health drops. (And magically un-bloodied if you use your Medicomp, but hey, gameplay) Scarface is not presented by the game as a precise, careful, perfect hunter. He's sloppy, he's careless, he leans a lot on his sheer mass and strength to get by. This is outright part of his story, and it's a notable part of his gameplay, and the intersection of the two points makes me a lot more forgiving of how the melee combat is a bit weak, because its weakness actually ends up encapsulating Scarface's sloppiness: it's weak in the sense that melee combat mostly just boils down to flailing wildly at enemies until they die, relying on your superior strength and toughness to get you through.

Scarface is probably the most characterful Predator I've seen in the various Predator and Aliens vs Predator media, and it's really neat to see a Predator game running somewhat against 'type' here, especially since it's very obviously deliberate with how the story makes a point of Scar ending up dishonored for his behavior and so on. It's particularly striking because it's not until shortly before this flashback sequence that the game starts making a more overt attempt to do characterful stuff with Scarface (In the form of him recording dialogue from people and playing it ironically or mockingly when he kills them), and yet I'd honestly found Scarface surprisingly memorable and distinctive from the stuff the game had done before while not overtly trying to give him a character.

On a similar note, I really like a lot of Scarface's animations. My two favorite animations are probably his healing animation and one of his climbing animations where he swings athletically with tremendous strength up fire escape. The healing animation involves Scarface very casually stabbing himself with a healing widget, and then his entire body involuntarily pulls into an obviously pained position while he lets out a roar, clearly trying to push through the pain. It's a fantastic little animation conveying how much this healing hurts, even if you clearly know it's coming and don't mind pain much, with the bonus of feeling like a very natural extension of Scarface's personality.

But anyway, back to Scarface waking up from his flashback and of course escaping. This actually also ties back into what I was talking about a second ago, in that Lucretia-as-framing-device explicitly tells us that she worried the techs would underestimate the tranquilizer dosage for Scarface because he's bigger than the prior Predator captures. (Which is the first we've heard of prior Predator captures, as it happens) Particularly worth mentioning is that I was initially put off by Scarface's sheer hugeness in gameplay, as it felt like it was sloppy model scaling -but no, Scarface is meant to be an unusually big and bulky Predator by Predator standards. Another pleasant surprise from a game that had already managed to sell me on how it's actually fairly competent in spite of initial perceptions.

Scarface's escape provides the game an opportunity to force a proper stealth sequence on you. You have 10 hit points (Your base max is 100, and you'll probably have gotten at least one health upgrade by this point), and none of your weapons or tech. As such, you ideally sneak up on guards and kill them with Scar's sheer muscle, at least until you've gotten yourself fixed up etc. It's a surprisingly strong sequence, and especially impressive when contrasted with the beginning of the game seeming incapable of pulling off this kind of gameplay.

It also crops up in the course of the escape that I'd actually misunderstood the framing device: it was never Lucretia at all, though I can see how I made that mistake. It was actually Isabella Borgia, who we actually met at the end of the flashback: she's the wife (presumably: we just know she had his son and they were in a relationship of some kind) of Bruno Borgia, and it turns out she's still alive 100 years later as the biological heart of a supercomputer system named MOTHER, with Lucretia as her granddaughter.

Isabella is the proper villain of Concrete Jungle. We learn over the course of the next several missions that she's the one who kickstarted the theft of Predator technology, shaped the course of the Borgia family, and even lured Scarface to Earth by making the 2030 summer especially hot for New Way City/Neonopolis. (Weather control is a thing apparently, and she's literally plugged into the city) We also eventually see that the previous flashback cut off early -before, it had stopped with Scarface facing Isabella Borgia and it seeming implied that maybe he killed her and her newly-born baby. Turns out she pulled a pistol on him, shot out or near his left eye (Leading to the scar that is what she named him after), and he fled in response, quite neatly tying back to the game's opening moments of a badly-wounded Scarface leaping out through a window. We also eventually learn the somewhat-silly detail that Predator blood can extend human life, and this is why Isabella is still around.

Isabella is behind everything Scarface is here to root out and stop. Lucretia and her father aren't that important except as extensions of Isabella's will.

There's a lot of aspects I find interesting to this. We have a Predator story in which the primary non-Predator character of note is a woman. There is a 'manly man' character in the form of Lucretia's father, Hunter, but while he serves the role of final boss of the game by virtue of having been genetically modified with Predator DNA and carting around Predator equipment, he's only narratively significant as the final thing Scarface needs to purge to regain his honor. This is quite unexpected, and it's further reinforced by another point.

If you've read the Wikipedia entry for Concrete Jungle or some other thing, you may have been spoiled on the fact that Aliens are in the game. I got spoiled on it, at least, but they just kept not showing up and I got to wondering if maybe Aliens were restricted to some form of non-canon bonus content or something. In actual fact, they show up when you're having your confrontation with Isabella: she sics Aliens on you while you're running about, trying to wreck her systems in preparation of killing her.

There's two layers this is great on:

There's a meta-narrative layer to this. As I've talked about before, there's a notable aspect of the Predator franchise being about Manly Men Fighting Manly Men In Manly Ways, while the Aliens franchise is a lot more female-friendly. Springing the nightmare monster from the female-friendly franchise on us to act as the agent of our female antagonist we only recently got properly introduced to is reinforcing the subversiveness of a Predator game not placing Manly (human) Men center stage in the plot.

But the game design end works shockingly well as well, making Aliens an object of horror as they should be.

Verticality has always been Scarface's friend in Concrete Jungle: your enemies may be able to take shots at you as you make your way up buildings or hop down to the street level, but they can't follow you, and you can always escape to positions they just plain can't get line of fire on you if verticality is present to take advantage of. (Which is most of the time)

The Aliens flip this truism around on you, chasing you relentlessly right up sheer walls and critically where Scarface is completely helpless during a climb the Aliens are free to take bites out of him.

The game takes some of the sting out of them by giving them shockingly low damage -1 to 2 damage a hit, when you've very possibly got 200 hit points at this point- but it's still viscerally disturbing to have a core gameplay assumption that was always an ally to you before suddenly made into an enemy. Furthermore, Alien acid blood is a serious problem in Concrete Jungle, making it so your options are to run (While they literally nip at your heels, dealing unavoidable damage), burn your limited supplies on killing them safely (While the Aliens spawn unlimitedly throughout the sequence), or try to spend no resources on them with melee attacks and end up rapidly burning through HP as they spray acid on you in death. The no-win dynamic pushes you to run, fighting them as little as possible, even as running leaves you vulnerable, and it's a fantastic period of horror and fear.

The endgame is surprisingly fantastic on several levels, is what I'm saying.

The postgame is a bit more silly, as Concrete Jungle is clearly trying to essentially connect the Predator and Aliens franchises together. The MOTHER computer system is a clear allusion to the computer from Alien, and naturally the endgame cinematic involves the Weyland-Yutani merger happening and them somehow getting a hold of the MOTHER computer system, now using Lucretia as the biological core of the system because Scarface killed Isabella.

Personally, I take Concrete Jungle as more of a 'what-if' story, as stuff like the Predator cloaking technology having leaked into broader human society is difficult to reconcile with canon Aliens, so this aspect of the ending feels a bit weird. I'm not sure if the devs just didn't see the inconsistency or if this was meant to set up for a potential sequel focusing on the Alien franchise elements or what. It's not a huge deal, just something that feels off about the ending.

Concrete Jungle is a surprisingly good game, even if its gameplay could've used more refinement when it came to details like 'what is even supposed to be the distinct roles of the Disc vs the Plasmacaster, anyway?' I'm kind of surprised it seems to have passed under most people's radar, and it's a bit amazing to me how misleading other descriptions I've run across are. The framing of it borrowing plot elements from Predator 2, for example, is practically a lie, even though it's strictly true both plots eg involve a Predator hunting gangsters in a city.

It's a cool game and I wish it had gotten more attention, maybe a sequel.


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