Three species enter, one species leaves.
I've always been a science fiction nut, and when I was a kid I tried to read every sci-fi book I could get my hands on. But it certainly didn't stop there. I would religiously watch any TV show or movie that took place in space, no matter how awful. Reruns or new stuff, it didn't matter. I would flood my brain with images from Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, V, The Last Starfighter and even Space 1999. On the other hand, I was never really able to stomach Dr. Who.
So just imagine my disappointment when, back in 1979, my parents forbade me to watch the original Alien movie, starring Sigourney Weaver's underwear. Not to be thwarted, I snuck out to the living room late one night with a pair of headphones while my parents were asleep and watched it.
Alien scared the crap out of me. I didn't sleep for a week. I've loved the film ever since.
I also love the second movie, Aliens, although like most fans, I wanted to gouge my eyes out during the third and fourth iterations. Then we were treated to the excellent Aliens vs. Predator first-person shooters on the PC, which were almost as scary as the movies. But I must admit, I thought it a little odd when I heard that Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction was going to be a real time strategy game, and on a console no less.
The developers' odd choice, however, makes for a better game than you'd think. A little better, at least.
There's no real story to Extinction, no thread that connects the missions. You've got some fast and deadly Aliens, some strong and fearsome Predators and a bunch of gun-toting Marines. Sounds like a fight to me.
Each of the three sides has seven linear missions, usually with a couple extra bonus goals on the side. Most of the missions are of the "wipe out the enemy" variety, but a few are a little more interesting, like "defend the colonists" or "get your hive queen to the spaceship and infect it."
Surprisingly enough, the control is solid and much better than you would expect from a console game controller. Most of the button-mapping is pretty smart, and the best innovation is an expandable circle for selecting units, replacing the PC's click-and-drag box.
However, the creativity really shines in the design of the three sides, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they go about gaining resources to kill the enemy. No, you won't be mining anything in Extinction, and your base will not just magically pump out more units in timed intervals.
For the Marines, it's all about credits: the more you have, the more you can buy. Marines can earn credits by killing the enemy (as paid for by the hiring corporation) and by repairing and protecting atmospheric collectors. A man's gotta work for a living. Troops include standard grunts, medics who can heal other soldiers, synthetics who can set up auto-turrets, and smartgunners who have those giant hip-mounted gatling guns. Pretty much everyone you remember from the movies.
For the Predators, it's all about honor and trophy hunting. When you have a spare moment, you can go back to the corpses (only the ones that you killed) and pull out their skulls for your wall display. The more difficult an opponent, the more prestige you receive. The more prestige you have, the more Predators want to join your clan. Predator units also closely follow the movies, with a variety of melee and ranged weapons. They can all self-heal with medkits, have the different upgradeable vision modes, and can use that cool stealth ability.
However, the Aliens stole my heart. The center of the Alien colony is the Queen, who is a badass and can excrete a huge egg sac to lay eggs. You can breed a new queen, but you can only have one at a time. The eggs hatch into "facehuggers," which can be used to infect just about every living thing you find, from dumb farm animals to vicious beasts to any pesky enemy (or corpse) you find. You can send the facehuggers to the corpses, or you can order your hordes to drag you victims back to the hive.
The infected host bursts open with a new Alien larva, which quickly cocoons and grows into a full-sized menace. The type of Alien produced depends on the type of egg and the type of unwilling host. There is just something uniquely satisfying about playing as an infestation and using your opponent's own corpses against him.
This is the best part of Extinction and proves that the developers clearly paid attention to the movies by developing unique, believable models for all three sides. You can always tell when a producer really loves his source material.
But after having done that so successfully, they must have gone out for beers.
The graphics are a little weak, with low-polygon models and moderately bland terrain. The camera is fixed in place, which is irritating as your units always feel tiny and you can't manipulate it at your own will. The Xbox and PS2 versions look nearly identical, with the slightly smoother Xbox performance winning by a nose. If you don't have a good TV with a good connection to your console (S-Video or Composite), you'll have a hard time seeing the little units and reading the tiny text.
Things fare better with the sound. The Aliens and the Predators sound right, hissing, scuttling and screaming like they do in the films, but the boring voices for the Marines suffer in comparison. The well done soundtrack varies for each of the three species, and once again is clearly influenced by the films.
The developers must have decided not to come back from their beer break at all, because the twenty-one linear missions is all you really get from Extinction and you can beat most of those in less than a half-hour. No random maps. No skirmishes. No multiplayer!? Compared to PC strategy games, there are relatively few units for each side and only one upgrade for each type. Taken together, this lack of gameplay depth smacks of a rush job and is disappointing considering that the guts of this game are pretty good.
But thanks to good controls and a truly imaginative take on the AvP universe, Extinction turns out better than expected. You can tell the developers really loved the movies. It's just too bad they didn't take it far enough as a game, serving up a short campaign and failing to offer any extra modes. On the other hand, there's nothing quite like playing as a whole deadly Alien hive, and on your console, you simply don't have many other strategy options. In space, no one can hear you say "rental."