I’ve got something of an odd needle to thread today. I’m going to try and convince you that Dolly the cloned sheep has a connection to Alien Trilogy, an old PC/PSX/Saturn game that I’m rather fond of. Not only Dolly, but Ronald Reagan has something to do with it as well. …Oh and grunge as a musical genre.
So let’s get started shall we?
If – from a US slanted bias, the ’70s were about industrial decline and the aftershocks of the civil rights movement, the ’80s – with the supposed “trickle down wealth” of Reaganomics. Corporate expansion, overreach and deferment as well as a creeping military industrial complex and the ’90s were a desperate attempt at people distinguishing themselves against both main and counter-cultures, while trying to navigate fears of rising crime rates and trends of multiculturalism; then the ’00s would have been a greater consciousness of environmental issues and new scientific discovery in fields of cloning and genetics – all while the morality and ethics of the situations are trying to catch up. What does that leave us with now? …Identity politics and victim culture.
It’s quite handy really that the Alien series of films matches up with and take influence from the events and culture of the decades they were produced in. If the Alien series wants to continue though, and continue successfully – it needs to have a social and political arena conducive to the story before it attempts to release a new entry. Otherwise; it is just fucking the cooling corpse of the series, thinking, hope against hope that it can inject some life into it.
It’s going to be worth looking at this in greater detail as it all connects together. Let’s start with Alien (1979). It’s production and development took place during the 1970’s. Something of a UK/US co-production, the social and political climate of the time was to put it mildly – grim. The UK had been brought to the brink of crisis by Trade Unionists, the US still had the aftershocks of the Civil Rights Movement and the atmosphere was turbulent. Industrial production was in something of a flux as it geared itself towards a greater focus on commercial electronics. A service based economy was quietly rumbling and after the retroactive haze of the 1960’s the cold realisation that “Free Love” and “World Peace” were nothing but a pipe dream and an effective marketing strategy. The individual was stuck in a mire with little chance of escape. The war in Vietnam had left deep scars on the US psyche which it would be many years (if arguably ever) until they were fully addressed. Quite fitting really then that Alien gave us a vision of a blue collar group of people, stuck in the ass end of space with little choice but to follow – through no alternative or awareness otherwise the orders of their employer; the crew being “expendable” and shrouded by cloak of grey as they silently drifted through space, just counting down to calamity. While Cold War tensions were not as high in the ’70s as they had been the previous decade, they were still apparent. This was a world still on edge; be it on the basis of ideology, race or economics.
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from
the governmentWeyland-Yutani and I’m here to help.”
Aliens (1986) was developed and released during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan; in a period that for good or ill, has I believe defined the decade we live in currently. After the war in South-East Asia the US sought to tackle the Vietnam question in part through the medium of film. Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Hamburger Hill and Platoon all attempting to explore, understand and in various measures heal the issue. After what is essentially a defeat – the US; as a nation so dependent on a positive perception of itself, sought to assert its capabilities and reaffirm its character. It’s little wonder then that the militaristic presentation of Aliens combines a blue collar group with which we are encouraged to identify with and support as well as them being out of their depth, enveloped within circumstances that are beyond their control. With the ever increasing dominance of corporate capitalism the Weyland-Yutani Corporation fills the pantomime villain role beautifully. Its actions don’t particularly surprise us which perhaps shows how far we have sunk as a society in terms of our moral and or ethical tolerances. There is a tendency whenever there is talk of continuing the Alien series for either a return in tone or outright replication of Aliens. Congratulations. You’re a bunch of fucking recidivists; your crime being trying to shoehorn a set of socio-political circumstances where they don’t belong. Unless you recreate the ’80s – it’s just not going to work! If there is a lesson to be taken from Aliens; it is that the “individual will prosper” (up til a point that it becomes inconvenient for the corporate structure), it’s an attempt to apply a soothing balm to a ruffled personage, to work within the constrains of a corporate society and score a small win – just enough to keep a person going. It’s a rallying cry that knows deep down, you’re already fucked …and people are then surprised that Alien 3 was so grim.
Alien 3 (1992) had a particularly troubled development that could have seen it set on an orbiting wooden planetoid, inhabited by a monastic order – a spectacular vision that was never to be. Instead, during a decade featuring fears over crime, social upheaval and the LA Riots we instead got a prison planet and a soundly underlined realisation that the 1980’s corporate dream was a sack of shit. Culture and Counter Culture collided. The “Grunge” movement gave a voice to some who were trying to find or express themselves – desperate to distinguish themselves as individuals (just like everyone else). We spent more time than we perhaps ought to of naval gazing as we searched for answers that were never there and perhaps not even needed. The market for lifestyle gurus and self-help literature though was booming. In a society looking for a quick fix where everything was readily disposable, is it truly a surprise that Alien 3 took place on a planet full of “no hopers”? In the hangover of the ’80s with financial aftershocks, some caused by individuals that still cause problems today, we were in our own Fury 161, counting down the time til it (hopefully) gets better – a handless clock stamped on our foreheads and collectively too stupid to realise it. The ’90s were a decade where we looked for hope. In amongst the crime, suspicion and nihilism we also saw potential, or at least it was marketed to us with vigour. Technology and Science were in some respects becoming a religion in their own right, a protest against initial social structures and expectations being torn down for a future of “diversity”.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) perhaps embodies this. Humanity was playing the role of a deity and meddling in areas it had no comprehension of. Dolly the sheep, genetic science and advances in fertility treatments saw us as a species take leaps that we celebrated for the sake of their existence, taking control away from nature – we don’t have the best track record when upsetting the natural balance however and have a concealingly short memory regarding these types of occasion. Socially liberal/anti-traditionalist policy was gaining traction and weakening pre-existing foundations without a long term plan to replace them, while morality and/or ethics were struggling to keep up with the changes – societal fractures ever so faintly beginning to form and something that would cause headaches in the next decade. Ending Alien 3 with Ripley sacrificing herself could be construed as a gesture of “enough is enough”, an expression of the sentiment of the era and that we wanted something, anything different – we got Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the US; and without a specific vision in mind we ended up with the ’00s and another hangover after having gotten screwed royally for the long term. Everything changed and nothing changed.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Prometheus was released. I honestly believe that as a property, the Alien series missed its best opportunity here. The ’00s were a decade defined by paranoia and insecurity around the globe. We had called out for something to look forward to and instead we got little but fear and distrust. Greater social surveillance and restrictions. Military intervention and ideological extremism combining with forced multiculturalism that led to increased divisions and tension. “Global Warming” had been re-branded as “Climate Change” and once again we were to be terrified of the next day, the next year – every eventuality and possibility. Behind every blade of grass a new threat to be scared of and for us to rely ever more strongly on the State to “protect” us from. Society was whipping itself in an act of self-flagellation and then taking it out on someone else down the line. It was a vicious circle that has seen us in the mess we find ourselves in now. In such a political and social climate surely there are enough elements of fear to draw on with which to create a stunning entry for the Alien series. The decade’s military interventions give rise to a visit to a potential Alien homeworld. Fears over ecological stability and global pandemics fit the notion of the Alien as a biological invader. The unsurprising mismanagement in the corporate and financial sectors and their egregious excesses raise the spectre once again of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. The ’00s were the decade that had all the ingredients for a standout entry in the series.
“You can tell alot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans.”
Instead… we got Prometheus. Our current decade is one of Identitarian politics, victim mentality and a denial of uncomfortable realities. It is a decade of burying our heads in the sand for fear of being uncomfortable or having our feelings hurt. When our response to external threats is to empathise with and empower them, it is harder to then care when the inevitable destruction occurs, unless it happens directly to you – by which point it is too late. We’re still looking for answers but now, if we don’t like them we throw a tantrum and then seek to redefine what we found out in an effort to spare our feelings. Our mentality now is one of blindly walking into our own destruction; as long as it feels right. Prometheus was an example of getting an answer to a question, then wishing you’d never asked.
With Alien Covenant (2017) we’ve reached the likely position where it has become all about the self, willingly regressing to an infantile state to spare the weight of adult considerations or the challenges that come with. It wasn’t enough for the Alien to be a mystery, its origins a tantalising spectacle. It has to be rationalised, understood and explained, made approachable and understandable, its power lessened and our fears projected onto ourselves instead. Self loathing as a species or localised culture is so much more appealing that the challenge of “Adulting” after all. The human or human substitute must be either in control or to blame. We play games of social conditioning and artificial construction then drop our toys in shock when it blows up in our face. We are idiots that are perhaps not worthy of the sympathy of falling victim to a perfect predator, we knew it was going to happen. It was just an inconvenient realisation for our feelings to bear. It was neither surprising nor unexpected. And this… This kills the suspense;
it kills the horror.
In my bored moments I like to imagine that there’s a Welsh guy that stands ready to appear and present me with the offer “Would you like some soup?” – go on, say it in a Welsh accent. Let the Oooo in “soup” tumble out your mouth. When he asks, I reply – “some Alien soup?” and he tucks his chin in towards his chest as though a small bird warming itself against a chill, winter breeze. Thinking for a while he then says “Yes” and then I end up playing Alien Trilogy – again.
It’s 2017, not 1996 but I’m still playing this game. I hunted high and low for a copy of it in good condition, boxed with its manual, argued with DosBox to get it to work and why? There are titles out there that perform better in terms of mechanics, sound and visuals. There are titles that are easier to run and more readily available. Memories, nostalgia and enjoyment have this tendency to blend together into well… a soup. You’ll see that soup is something of a recurring theme with this game and this review.
It’ll help to have a little background though. I remember playing this at a friend’s house on their computer, this was when the computer was for work, while the console was for games. Sure I’d played Doom and Command and Conquer at other friends’ houses and been suitably wowed by them also. I’m still playing those titles now too. There was something else, something more about Alien Trilogy – maybe it was the struggle we had trying to play it with an uncalibrated joystick, causing us to spin round on the spot endlessly. Perhaps it was our inability to think of a sensible control setup which led us to have one person control movement while the other got to change and fire weapons… give us a break, we were only young. All these things give a tinted view of the process – the ritual almost that went into playing this game.
A couple of years had gone by and we’d started secondary school, we’d play it before setting off, more for the amusement that came from struggling against the awful controls when using that uncalibrated joystick. Eventually though my friend tired of the game and seeing my continued enthusiasm for it let me have the disc.
Once I’d gotten a PC I gleefully installed the game. Now bear in mind that the same friend gave me a demo disc to try with Quake 2 on it and you’ll have an idea why I have a bias towards these memories and nostalgia – these were formative games for me. Titles that have been followed by others that add, experiment and improve on the formula but their appeal still remains as strong as when I first played them beyond simply being nostalgia. There must be something there though that keeps them playable despite that passage of time otherwise I wouldn’t be enjoying playing Alien Trilogy again – now.
Back to the ’90s though – so with Alien Trilogy installed I went through the setup process for the soundcard and then realised that my joystick was an uncalibrated mess as well. I tentatively looked at using the keyboard. I also realised that I could redefine the configuration and so a love affair began.
There’s something oddly compelling about how sluggish the controls and movement in general are with Alien Trilogy. So much so that when I was thinking about writing this review I tried to think of a suitable way to approach the topic. So naturally I was stood in the kitchen waiting for some toast to pop and trying to physically recreate the movement from the game – you know what? Strafing is surprisingly sluggish. Sure you can move forward and back pretty swiftly and turning round is also fast but strafing? Unless you’re up on your toes and bouncing like an electrified Jane Fonda it’s still a sluggish process and then it started to all click together. The creeping, sluggish movement, the lurching aim and rapid 180° turns – they all combine to give a sense of awkward presence to the player. I love the frantic circle strafing of Doom and Quake, their ease of movement and swiftness of control but it just feels slightly off. With Alien Trilogy, its very awkwardness felt oddly “right”.
Bear in mind that I was born in the mid ‘80s so when the TV re-runs of the Alien films were shown more frequently it was around my early teens. Before we were saturated with Alien related media as is the case now things were a bit more sparse. There was a freshness still to hearing Bill Paxton’s one liners, before they became the go to resource in anything communicating through the written word to do with the Alien series and Alien Resurrection hadn’t happened yet so we weren’t quite so bitter when regarding the series. Sure it would be a year or so after Alien Trilogy’s release that Resurrection slumped out and a few more years till Aliens versus Predator (film) would walk cross-eyed into a doorframe dribbling, but before all this there was still some vibrancy to enjoy in the series. There’d been numerous Alien related titles released across a variety of platforms; Alien 3 on the Amiga/Mega Drive remains a favourite for me in particular. I spent a family barbeque cooped up inside playing the game, the passing waves of cooking sausage scent unable to pull me away from my entertainment, that and the pinball. It was being able to experience the world of Alien in a first person perspective within Alien Trilogy though that peaked my interest. I’d missed out on the Jaguar FPS Alien vs Predator after all.
These titles for the most part act trapped in time. They build on and refer back to what has inspired them, they aren’t necessarily subject to the influences that inspired their progenitors. There is a consistency to them that brings to mind planning law. Ordinances that exist to maintain a pre-existing character to an area or to at the very least, be sympathetic to its tone – a deliberate anachronism for the sake of the inhabitants expectations and/or mindset.
“…[I]t is of the highest importance that there be no breakdown in our planning and zoning standards. The situation actually demands the strengthening and more effective use of such controls.”
Jefferson B. Fordham, Legal Aspects of Local Planning and Zoning in Louisiana, 6 La. L. Rev. (1946) [Page 495]
Where the films have been influenced by the socio-economic climate of the time they were produced, the games have been more a case of time capsules – willingly conforming with planning ordinances if you will, a self imposed restriction that I think has been something of a strength for these same titles. Alien Trilogy and the worlds that it contains still remain a major draw for me – which brings me to the soup. Alien Trilogy is a mix of the first three Alien films. The player character is Ripley; but now she’s a marine. You’re sent to LV426 (Aliens) the shit hits the fan and the incursion team is decimated (Aliens) and you’re now looking to escape. The thing is – you end up going to the prison of Fury 161 (Alien 3), which according to the manual is another planet – but seems to be the same one that you are currently on in the game. The soup is starting to simmer at this point.
Once you’ve gone through Fury 161, you’re now in the Boneship (Alien) – throughout all this you’re taking your orders from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation – as a marine supposedly, and by this point the soup is getting some chunky bits added and bubbling nicely. By nicely; I mean it’s a confusing mess that at heart is little more than an excuse to romp through the settings from the films. If you’re looking for narrative consistency, then you’ll want to curl up in a corner and cry at this point. Me? I just wanted to visit the locations and the game gleefully let me do so. Three films, three decades of social circumstance and change – conflicting influences and draws. If the game had tried to embrace all these conflicting points of interest, addressing their aspects, it would likely have turned the soup into something more closely resembling a pot of bolognese that an elephant had shit in.
By sticking within the parameters of Alien 1 – 3’s “planning laws” the game was able to be that compilation of greatest hits, concentrate on delivering that experience and sidestep the challenge of delivering on the social commentary or meta influences that would have quite likely been a millstone around the neck of a game – that at its heart, is a love letter to the Alien series and an opportunity to shoot things. It has no aspirations beyond this and to pretend otherwise would have hamstrung the game. Where there is currently a trend towards a greater imitation of filmic style within games; it has been accompanied by conflicting motivations and priorities – that when they are successfully balanced; result in brilliantly executed experiences. But when the pressures and requirements are too much; have led to unsatisfying and underdeveloped mechanical gameplay and impressions of pretension in narrative – games afraid to be games. Alien Trilogy, despite its mechanical faults, avoids these pitfalls. It pays tribute to the films which inspired it; without being restricted by their form.
“HistoryAlien teaches that warcarnage begins when governmentsWeyland-Yutani believe the price of aggressionlife is cheap.”
Its combination of 3D environments comprised of animated features and items, multiple levels, hidden areas and destructible sections and the 2D sprites for enemies just about come together to make a cohesive whole. It’s the sprites though where visually the game has a bit of a “wobbly” as my Mum would say. By wobbly I mean it doesn’t do too well. Low resolutions pervade but are nicely covered by the lighting which for some reason I still enjoy – it’s worth noting that you’ll get a couple of extra lighting/fog effects and generally smoother geometry on the Playstation release of the game. There’s a griminess to the games visuals though, regardless of the game version and a sense of threat that still stimulates the amygdala; saying “It’s a bad idea to go in there” – the problem is that when you see too much of the Aliens themselves in all their questionable sprite glory that the illusion does tend to go belly up.
I’m guessing they made clay sculpts of each figure, similar to Doom’s production, then posed and captured images of each frame of animation to then import into the game. The thing is – they look awful when you can clearly see them and it lets down the effort that the environments have put in towards generating an atmosphere. It was nice to have a range of enemies; from the Facehugger and Chest Burster through to the Alien Warrior, Dog Alien/s and Queen. Each fits the location well and provides some variety – when you’re in a dark environment their skulking in the shadows before lurching out at you works. You can’t really make them out and they manage to feel threatening; the “pings” on your motion tracker surrounding you encourages that sense of desperation that is inherent to an “Alien” experience – somewhere around page 46 in the: “Alien Planning Ordinances“. It’s only when you can see what you’re fighting clearly that it tends to instead draw a smirk, something that can affect horror no matter the level of visual fidelity and hard for me to justify ragging on the game too much for. Seeing what you’re supposed to fear has a habit of diminishing its effectiveness. No wonder they had the Chest-burster perform a dance number in Spaceballs. If you can’t make them cry then make them laugh. If you can’t make them laugh though then you might as well look to frustrate them. The Alien Warriors/Drones in particular have a fondness for flanking you and getting behind you. I can’t fault the enemies artificial intelligence for that behaviour. The problems arise on the mechanical level from how you move relative to them and how damage is dealt when defending yourself.
collegeuniversity offered me the chance to play footballAlien Trilogy for fourthree more years.”
Once your new found opponents waddle towards you under bright lights and you’ve contained your sniggers you can get on with the process of actually fighting them. Weapons from the films make their appearance, each sounds roughly the same as its source inspiration (better quality sound effects are present on the Playstation release of the game however), the 3D, pick-up models are quite nice for ’96 and the in-hand sprites do the job as well as any other – so much so they were used in a very good WAD pack for Doom 2: Aliens: Colonial Marines TC 2014. Weapons have magazine capacities and reload automatically. Oddly, on picking up ammunition a reload animation plays as well (not in the Playstation release though). You’ve got the ability to aim up and down, a secondary fire on the Pulse Rifle and “Seismic Survey Charges” when using other weapons. I’m still a bit puzzled all these years later on what exactly the noise when you use the Charges is meant to be but there comes a point where you just stir that soup and chug it down.
Fire a weapon too close to an Alien and its blood will damage you, tread over the body and you’ll be damaged also. Comparatively, health is restored via med packs in the world, boosters are available to take your health over the typical cap and armour as well as a temporary invulnerability booster are all also available. The mechanics that define the combat and interaction are pretty much what you’ll be used to if you played an FPS title before regenerating health became the go-to mechanic. There is however one aspect that can cause a little teeth grating until you adapt to it. When you fire on an opponent they enter a frame of animation indicating they have been attacked. That is the point at which they take damage, however if you’re using an automatic weapon with a high cyclic rate then until the opponent leaves that animation state they will not take any extra damage which can cause you to waste ammunition unless you are aware of the restriction. The flamethrower is particularly susceptible to this. Controlled burst fire is very much in order. It takes a little getting used to and when you’re surrounded the temptation to open up on full automatic is there regardless of how much ammunition you’ll waste. In its own way though, that adds to the thrill. If by comparison though you’re the type of player that looks to focus on efficiency then you’re likely to be gritting your teeth at this point – in particular, you’ll just love when you get to “The Gauntlet”.
It’s tempting to wonder “what if” in regards to changes to the mechanics, developments and new ideas but the question does end up being asked – why? In its existing form it works. You navigate the space, complete objectives ranging from exterminating opponents, recovering ID tags, shutting down or turning on installation infrastructure and discovering areas. All the while you use a range of weapons to eliminate opponents. There’s a surprisingly nice variety of objectives to complete when examined. It is worth noting however that there are three levels in particular: Level 20 – The Lead Mould, Level 24 – The Channels and Level 29 – The Gauntlet which have either particularly steep difficulty spikes or a reliance on door triggering puzzles/secret hunts that can sit awkwardly compared to the rest of the games objectives. Throughout the game however, if your performance is particularly good on certain maps you’re given a time limited run through a bonus area to collect extra inventory, weapons, ammunition, armour etc. Having your performance determine your rewards does add a degree of satisfaction to the process of playing and particularly in the games third environment the chance to restock on ammunition and supplies is a boon. You can hunt high and low for secret areas to expand your equipment or you can look to do the bare minimum to simply crunch through the levels. The challenge is, aside from a small number of spikes – appropriate. You have a variety of control inputs to choose from; the addition of the 180° turn in the pc edition makes fighting Warriors/Drones and Facehuggers a more twitchy and responsive process, as well as giving a more frantic feel to combat. You are able to freely reconfigure the controls to your liking, are provided three difficulty levels and the ability to save your game. I’m not sure exactly what more there is that could be added or needed within this context beyond perhaps a manual reload option, sparing a few extra frames of animation at an inconvenient time. The mechanics present support the tasks that you’re asked to do in order to complete the game. Without a change in the objective structure there’s no reason to go diddling with the mechanics… well unless you want regenerating health and a two weapon limit?
So where does this leave you and I then? We’ve got a range of environments and challenges, a pretty solid atmosphere which is equally helped and hindered by the included soundtrack – sometimes fitting the environment perfectly and other times drawing a raised eyebrow and a smirk. I’ve just sat over the past few days and replayed chunks of the PC and Playstation releases of the game and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time I played it. Seeing and hearing occasional differences between the versions, included sound effects for locations and weapons on Playstation, voice sample taunts on the PC. Some added fog effects on Playstation, the combat influencing 180° turn on PC. Above all the game still offers you a solid romp through environments that refer back to the first three Alien films. It’s not a fast paced or frantic as the subsequent Aliens v Predator titles but it does occupy a nice niche of its own and is still worth playing – with a disclaimer. Don’t expect a consistent retelling of the films. Take it on its own value, enjoy what it references and you ought to have an enjoyable enough time. Alien Trilogy is an FPS that rewards exploration and the smart use and conservation of your weapons and their ammunition. It is in some ways quite closely comparable to Doom 3 for me. Dark environments are a prominent feature with flanking and spawning enemies. Add in a tendency towards uncovering hidden areas and they are quite similar in terms of pace and mechanics.
“I know in my heart that
manDOS is good. That what is rightVirtual Machines will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every lifeemulation.”
In terms of DRM we’re back to a happier time where the disc was needed in the drive to run the music and FMV cutscenes and not as a control measure. It should be possible to transfer and run the FMVs from the games directory once adjusting the disc path in the games .ini. Essentially you’re not going to be encountering anything along the lines of Starforce or have to jump through any clients like Steam or Origin’s hoops to install and play. It is however worth noting that the game can be tetchy over the system that it’s installed on; unless you are using Dos Box/D-Fend Reloaded – you are likely to encounter issues regarding having too much ram present or the game really wanting dos. Long story short – if you don’t have an older Win 95/98 pc with less than 64 mb of ram then D-Fend is going to be your best bet to install and run the game. I’ve tried it out on a Win 7 machine with 16gb of ram and it works just as well as on a Win 95 machine with 16mb of ram. Failing that, emulation of the PSX version of the game is going to be your best bet.
As for mods? Now things get a bit odd. I’m not aware of anything for Alien Trilogy itself but there are ports/recreations of maps from the game for Doom 3, Duke Nukem 3D and Left4Dead 2 as well as assets from Alien Trilogy being used in other mods.
Alien Trilogy is what I’d describe as a good title, equivalent to a 7/10 rating by most metrics. It’s equal parts nostalgia trip and tribute to the first three films in the Alien series. Despite slightly different feels and features depending on which version you are playing, be it PC, Playstation or Saturn it does still provide a solid FPS experience. It’s not going to blow your skirt up but I wouldn’t discount it due to that. It isn’t beholden to Ronald Reagan or Dolly the sheep, but it knew enough to not try and address the concerns of its time of production. It is a small statement of intent, a tribute; that in its own way, is just right as it is.