For years, developers have been trying to create a game that embodied the intense action of the Aliens movies, but no one's had much luck. Alien Trilogy might have been a good PlayStation title two years ago, but its PC translation was a huge disappointment, and Mindscape's Aliens was an even bigger flop.
But just when it seemed that no one could make an Aliens game that was worthy of the name, along comes Aliens Online. It's far from perfect, to be sure, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.
Based on the hit movie Aliens, Aliens Online lets you play as either a colonial Marine or an Alien creature in one of five settings: a terraforming facility, a mining colony, a derelict spaceship, a space station, or an agricultural colony. After logging on to Aliens Online, your first job is to create a character: as a Marine you choose name, gender, appearance (head, torso, chest), and specialty (scout, heavy weaponry, medic, or infantry); as an Alien, you only get to create a name and play as a face hugger, drone, or queen (once you earn enough points). Whichever side you pick, you can create up to three characters and play as any of them on each outing.
Marines then head to the Staging Area, the meeting place where all players can chat and review the status of any missions in progress, while Aliens move on to the Hive, which is essentially the same but with an Alien-ish hue to the interface. As a Marine, you can either enter a mission alone or as part of a fire team. Kills during solo missions add to your service points, but you won't get medals and other honors; you also forfeit the right to carry heavy weapons like the smart gun and flamethrower. Aliens, on the other hand, aren't given the chance to form teams before the game starts. Fire team members can use as much time as they like during prelaunch to settle on tactics and decide who should carry which weapons, but Alien players are taken directly to the Hive when entering a mission - no big drawback, since there's almost always plenty of time to discuss strategies after you're in the mission.
Gameplay is a first-person affair via mouse and/or keyboard, and when everything's going well - the players on your fire team or in your hive are dedicated to working as a team, latency is acceptable, and you've got a machine that can deliver a good frame rate - Aliens Online offers an experience that's so immersive it's frightening. As your team of Marines creeps down corridors, you'll find yourself spinning around to check your six: Aliens move quickly and silently, and the hallway that was clear a few seconds ago can be teeming with enemies in no time flat. Firefights are fast, bloody, chaotic affairs, and regardless of whether you're a Marine or an Alien you can expect to die early and often during your first several outings.
Communications are critical for Marines and Aliens alike: If you head out alone on a mission where you're facing human-controlled Aliens, you're almost as good as dead. Aliens stand a better chance of spreading out for solo hunting, but if you run into more than one Marine you're likely to find yourself being fried to a crisp in your own acidic blood.
Audio effects ranging from the whooshing chatter of pulse rifles to the whiplash crack of a face hugger's tail put you right in the action, and other touches add to the ambience: A dead Marine can be searched for ammo and health packs, for instance, and the Aliens see everything in a reddish tint.
Yes, when everything's going well this can be one of the most enjoyable online action games around; unfortunately, the odds of everything going well vary wildly from player to player. Without a doubt, the biggest problem here is the frame rate. GameStorm recommends a 90MHz Pentium with 16MB RAM and a 2MB video card, but on a 133MHz Pentium with double the RAM and video memory, the frame rate when playing as a colonial Marine is simply unacceptable. (The frame rate is just fine when playing as an Alien, probably because the entire game display is more or less monochrome.)
Drawing a bead on a fast-moving enemy is almost impossible with chug-a-lug animation, so my first impulse was to knock down the graphical detail. No dice. The only way to speed things up is to decrease the view. And when you consider that the actual view of the action comprises just a little more than 40 percent of the total display, that's not an appealing prospect. What makes this more frustrating is that the sluggish animation can't be blamed on high-quality graphics: The objects and creatures here look OK, but that's about it. And you can't blame the lousy performance animation on latency, either - the two are independent of each other, according to postings from GameStorm tech support.
Latency is a problem that's pretty much out of GameStorm's hands, and to be fair, I rarely experienced major lags - but if the numerous complaints from other players have any truth to them it could well dampen your enthusiasm for the game. Another hindrance is joining a team only to find out your teammates either don't give a damn for teamwork or are out-and-out player-killers. Luckily, there is something you can do about that: Note the players you enjoy going into combat with and ask them if they'd like to form a squad (or see if you can join an existing squad).
There are also a few bothersome design decisions. Remember that small viewscreen I mentioned earlier? Well, all in-game messages like "an Alien hit you" or "Brutus just entered" appear there as well, obscuring your view - a true pain when those words cover up a face hugger scooting along the ground toward you. Some of these messages aren't even necessary - you know damn well when you've been hit, and you can see in the roster display who's entered - and a glance at the interface shows that there's plenty of room to stick that stuff elsewhere.
The lack of an auto-run button might be "realistic," but that doesn't make constantly pressing a key in order to trot down hallways any less of an annoyance. Then again, maybe it's for the best - because you can't even shoot when running! Your ability to look up and down is extremely limited, and this really impacts play: Aliens can hide at the bottom of an elevator shaft without worrying about you leaning over and pounding them with fire, and they can hide high up on a ledge without fear of taking hits.
Despite these issues, though, there are a couple of good reasons to try Aliens Online. The first is price. You get unlimited play of Aliens Online with a GameStorm membership, which only costs $9.95 per month - and the first month is free. Even if you try Aliens Online and don't care for it, there're still other great games like Multiplayer BattleTech or Air Warrior (all three versions) that feature unlimited play, all for the same $9.95 per month. But perhaps the best reason is that it's an online-only game: As improvements to the engine are made, you'll be updated automatically.
Of course, I'm not sure if the frame rate can be improved with engine tweaks alone. But with so much to gain and absolutely nothing to lose, any self-respecting Aliens fan should give Aliens Online a try. If it runs smoothly on your system and you invest enough time in it, you might find yourself logging some very long hours trying to stamp out the Alien menace - or trying to annihilate the foolish Marines sent to destroy your race.