Opinion might be divided about Rebellion’s latest title in the Aliens vs Predator franchise, but that ambivalence isn’t something that the seminal 1999 shooter shares in. In fact, though the older AVP – or Aliens vs Predator Classic, if you prefer – has some very obvious problems, it’s still regarded as a masterpiece.
The reason for that reputation is simple; Aliens vs Predator is scarier than almost anything you can imagine. Arguably, it’s even more dread-invoking than it would be to live through the events depicted. Hallways are long and dark. Enemies are omnipresent and unpredictable, either attacking in random waves or creeping up invisibly. The supplies are sparse. The audio is so convincing we think it could actually be an recording from the grimy future the game is set against.
Oh, and the difficulty is atrocious. Aliens vs Predator provides three different campaigns for players to try and survive; Alien, Predator and Marine. Of the three you’d think the Predator, with his invisibility cloak and combo of ranged attacks and raw power, would be the easiest. You’d be right too, but it’s still no cake walk. Not unless the cake is asbestos flavoured and contains arsenic-coated shards of glass anyway.
At one point this was the scariest thing in videogames
AVP is almost abominably difficult on any setting and with any character thanks to the limited save slots and almost instant deaths, but it’s certainly the hardest as the Marine. With only a motion tracker, crummy night vision and few flares to light the gloom, humans don’t last long in AVP.
It’s exactly this high difficulty which makes AVP such a memorable and brilliant game though, even though it also renders much of it inaccessible to all but hardcore gamers. Singleplayer and multiplayer both are unendurably tense at times and offer willing gamers something palpably terrifying that leaves a lasting impression and requires actual skill to negotiate, not just the trial-and-error persistence of learning enemy placements and hammering quicksave.
There was a lot of disagreement over this title within the office, but it’s telling as to the quality of Bullfrog’s games that the conversation was focused not on whether or not there were better games from other developers, but rather which Bullfrog game we should choose. Clive and Richard demanded Theme Hospital. Alex wanted Theme Park. James wanted Syndicate.
But I’m writing this article and I wanted Dungeon Keeper. So, there.
Throughout the 1990s Bullfrog Productions, headed by industry mouthpiece Peter Molyneux, was a force to be reckoned with. Every title the team touched was an almost guaranteed classic, from Populous to Magic Carpet and as time went on the studio cultivated a reputation for an irreverent sense of humour – something which was most brilliantly showcased in Dungeon Keeper. Whether you were slapping imps, sacrificing chickens or building torture rooms to appease your S&M mistresses, there was never a lack of wit. It ran through the game like a vein of gold.
Even the premise of the game – that you are an evil lord trying to bring ruin to the world – was deliciously anarchic and completely antithetic to all other games at the time.
Aside from the topsy-turvy world it’s still an intelligent game, with characters that ooze personality (sometimes literally) even through the muddy, dated visuals. That personality was often closely tied to the actual abilities of a unit too, such as with the Horned Reaper’s diva-like need to be kept separate from the main army and the Bile Demon’s gluttony.
Bullfrog made a lot of truly great games and some of them are probably more technically accomplished than Dungeon Keeper when it comes to things like balancing and pacing, yet Dungeon Keeper represents such a highpoint of humour and wit that we couldn’t have considered not having it on the list. Not while that Horned Reaper is watching anyway…