One of iD Software’s initial ideas for Doom was to make a first-person shooter set in the world of James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’. When a licensing deal couldn’t be worked out between iD and 20th Century Fox, Carmack and Romero’s team fell back on a more generic ‘space marine kills everything’ setting, and an FPS classic was born. Doom sold so well iD could have easily afforded 20th Century Fox’s terms when it came time to do their next game, but iD saw no reason to drop cash on a license when their own in-house work cost them nothing extra. It didn’t take long for fans to make the connection anyway and do the hard work themselves using Doom‘s modifiable assets. Justin Fisher’s spectacular Aliens Total Conversion for Ultimate Doom gave everyone a look at what such a game might have looked like, even provoking John Carmack to publicly comment, “Aliens TC kicks ass”. Two years later, 20th Century Fox got Probe Entertainment (developers of Alien 3 across multiple systems) back on the phone and said, “Give us an Alien-themed FPS.” Probe delivered Alien Trilogy for PC, PlayStation, and Saturn in 1996.
I’m going to get this out of the way right at the beginning: the premise for Alien Trilogy can best be summed up as “completely fucking absurd”. Rather than cast the player as someone like Drake or Hicks, the player steps into Ripley’s sneakers. That’s all well and good, but this is an FPS with a story that drops you into a worse meat-grinder than any of the Colonial Marines faced in the second film. Ripley, the game’s intro tells us, has landed on LV-426 with a squad of marines. All well and good until the marines decide they need someone to clear the way for them to move in and naturally this group of ultimate badasses points the finger at a civilian. So, hold on, let me make sure I’ve got this straight: Goreman sends Ripley in to clear the area so his soldiers can, what, come in with buckets and squeegee up the acid splashes? Probe, I love you guys. Alien 3 was tons of fun. Great conversion of Mortal Kombat II for home systems. But how does something like this get past the design document phase? Ripley might be a badass, but she’s a reluctant badass. She doesn’t lace up her Boots of Groin Stomping +5 until she’s left with no choice. I know, I know, ‘Nobody plays a first-person shooter for the story.’ That only applies to games not based on preexisting source material. Alien Trilogy‘s protagonist isn’t “Nameless Space Marine #6”, she’s Ellen Ripley: last survivor of the Nostromo, caretaker of Jones the cat, mother of Amanda, friend of a half-dozen murdered shipmates, victim of outrageous neglect at the hands of a faceless company that values profit above human lives, owner of a Class 3 license to operate a power-loader. You don’t get a pass on this one. There’s no excuse for taking a crowbar to the source material like this to make it fit your game. We clear on this? Good. Let the room air out a bit, then we can talk about what you guys did right.
Thankfully for Probe, what they did right is pretty much ‘everything else’, at least where the PC version is concerned (we’ll talk about the PlayStation version’s issues later). Alien Trilogy sticks to the Doom formula like some sort of secreted resin, but only because Doom so blatantly borrowed from ‘Aliens’ that doing otherwise would be impossible. Nevertheless Probe offers up enough new goods to stand alone with weapons like the flamethrower and seismic charges, a usable items inventory for things like battery-powered lights, the ever-present and creepy motion tracker, and mission objectives more varied than Doom‘s basic “kill everything and move on” fare. Levels see you tasked with breaking down barricades, restoring power to areas of a facility, clearing out egg caches, recovering personal effects, re-stocking your supplies, and other nice touches. Exiting a level without fulfilling all your primary objectives is sometimes possible, but you’ll get a stern lecture and sent right back in to finish the job, which is an amusing but ultimately pointless design feature.
The graphics haven’t aged well at all, but they still manage to get the job done. Alien Trilogy would have been fine had it come out a year or two earlier, but by the time it hit shelves in 1996, gamers were either blown away by Quake‘s smooth, full 3D environments or laughing at Duke Nukem 3D‘s in-jokes and parodies. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s not terrible looking. The 2D sprite-based models work fine in conjunction with the 3D level designs, and it makes the most of its atmosphere with plenty of dark areas, fog, and colored light effects. Level design is competent for the most part, but there are times in later stages where you can hit a point of no return if you aren’t careful, and these aren’t marked in any way. If you don’t like trial-and-error, make sure you’re consulting a FAQ by the time you reach the third of the game’s three ‘episodes’. Also, unlike Doom, the levels in Alien Trilogy must be tackled in order as one giant episode instead of three smaller ones. Ripley’s got to nuke the colony on LV-426 before she can exterminate the brood on Fury 161, and she’s got to clean out the prison before she can take the fight to the xenomorphs in the downed ship from the first film. That’s more than thirty levels, which makes for plenty of action, but it’s annoying you have to resort to cheat codes if you want to jump to the content from ‘Alien’ or ‘Alien 3’.
Alien Trilogy further cranks the tension by exceptional use of sound. Pulse rifles sound like pulse rifles, smartguns sound like smartguns, and plenty of sound bytes from Ripley are pulled directly from the films. The motion tracker, with its sinister, insistent radar click and beeping alert, induces plenty of tension, especially in dark areas. The soundtrack by Stephen Root, who previously handled the audio for the Saturn port of Hexen, is both menacing and inspiring, referencing themes from the films without thieving from Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, or Elliot Goldenthal’s work on the original scores. Finally the FMV scenes themselves are great for the day, utilizing moves from motion-captured actors translated onto polygonal characters which gives them a far more fluid look than your standard mid-90’s era CG offered. In one of the best touches of all, Ripley’s death scene changes based on what caused her demise. Death by facehugger results in a video of Ripley collapsing with one wrapped around her face, getting blown away by one of the human enemies shows her taking a bullet to the chest, and demise at the hands of an Alien Queen means means she’s run-through with the tail and subsequently ripped in half. All the gory bits happen off-screen despite the game’s Mature rating, but give props to Probe for going beyond the standard “You Died” screen everybody else is still doing to this day.
Beyond the issues with the story, Alien Trilogy has other downsides. While the controls on PC are fine, the PlayStation controller will cramp your hand like mad since there’s no support for dual analog. Dying in the console versions boots you back to the title screen without so much as a ‘restart level’ option. Write down those passwords you get after each level, or get used to starting from the beginning again. It’s also one of the least-balanced games in terms of difficulty I’ve ever seen. Playing on Easy ensures you’ll never be short of health or ammo, turning the game into a mockery of a franchise where death lurks around every corner. Normal is fine for a decent challenge, but if you want to tackle a harder mode once you get better, all I can say is, “Don’t bother.” At higher difficulty, enemies have more hit points and dish out more damage, but there’s no corresponding increase in ammo to compensate. This means it’s impossible to kill everything the game throws at you without resorting to cheat codes, and unlike other first-person shooters, ignoring or running past enemies isn’t a viable strategy. Your options are literally “Preschool, Normal, and Impossible” with nothing in between. I’m not sure why Probe didn’t take the time to ensure better balance, all I can assume is they had either Acclaim (the publishers) or 20th Century Fox hammering away at them to get it on shelves to build hype for the pending theatrical release of ‘Alien Resurrection’.
What to make of Alien Trilogy? Overall it’s got more going for it than against it, and I can respect that, but it’s not enough to hold the average player’s interest today. The aforementioned Quake and Duke 3D are so well-respected that the designers themselves are releasing whole new episodes and mission packs even now, twenty years later. All two decades have done for Alien Trilogy, on the other hand, is showcase how little attention we paid to it at the time, how much the genre has changed, and how much we’ve all moved on since 1996. That said, we dug up a couple of ads from the retro vaults to keep you busy until the next installment arrives. This is Michael, last surviving editor of Retro Gaming Magazine, signing off.