Every once in a great while, I have my own personal award ceremony for the games I play. I think of them in terms of enjoyment factor, how much they wanted me to come back for more, and how many times I woke up in a cold sweat, having just dreamt my way through a level of them. Yes, folks, there are times I dream games... but every so often, a game will come along that earns a special distinction, an innovative creation that turns my game-level dreams into nightmares.

Aliens Vs. Predator 2 is one such game.

If you haven't heard of Fox Studios' Aliens franchise, then you've either been living under a rock, or just got off the last Delorean from 1955. Sparing the sordid details of the backhistory, the plot takes place on a poisonous, unforgiving world, and involves mad scientists, Alien hives, Predator hunts, and a band of hapless Colonial Marines, each with their own agenda. The races can be played in any particular order, and unlike its predecessor's lack of plot, AVP2's storylines for each race tie in at certain points, with the effects of your actions in one plotline showing up in another. Granted, it's not a plot-melding that is terribly involved or (thank God!) as convoluted as the likes of Deus Ex but it does add a nice touch.

The graphics have been vastly improved over the somewhat hokey single-player demo, released several months ago. A pulse rifle looks like a pulse rifle, right down to the muzzle-flare pattern when it's fired. Lights flare and strobes flicker, clouds of steam or smoke disperse and flow believably through the atmosphere, and the animation of dropships landing is nothing short of amazing. Predators retain the ability to become nigh-invisible as before, but can still be seen by a faint flickering when they go into motion, and the explosions are nothing short of spectacular.

Sound is likewise quality, and is in some ways more important to setting the mood for the game than the graphics. The weapons all sound precisely like they did in the movies, the music follows the action nicely, and often gives you more of a warning to nearby enemies than your motion-tracker does. Many's the time that I heard some unidentifiable sound and had to stop and think about what it might be, usually checking my arsenal in the process... or worse yet, hearing the trilling, clicking call of a Predator around the corner and realizing that unless a miracle happened, I was the trophy of the day.

I've mentioned mood, and this, I feel, is what truly sets the game. In each instance, you've been cut off from your comrades, and have to find your way back to them somehow, usually taking out a number of the other races' members along the way. Often, you'll think you're safe, when next thing you know, a bloodcurdling screech later, you've got half the Hive in your face. Times like that, it would've been nice to have some help from your fellow Marine squadmates, however you don't see them in anything but a non-combat capacity, a 'rest stop' between encounters and as voices over the radio, giving you objectives. Not a lot of help from that quarter. Even with this in mind, the team at Monolith certainly did a fine job of setting the pace for the game, interspersing the plot with engine-driven cutscenes between key missions. And finally, finally, you can save anywhere you want to in the mission, though a hardcore mode is still available for those who want to prove their prowess.

There are a couple of issues, however. The game has a few minor instability problems out of the box, however these are far between, at least in my testing. The game retains the old character-clipping problems of the original, with a good swipe from Alien claws being able to send a poor Marine halfway into a wall as he dies. Finally, and this may just be a purist view of mine, several of the Predator's weapons which before fired while allowing you to remain cloaked now fully decloak you when you fire... in direct contradiction of the canonized movie effects. Also, several interesting play modes were removed from Multiplayer, including 'Skirmish,' a mode where players could team up against an endless horde of AI Aliens. Even lacking that, there are still some merits to multiplay, with LifeCycle mode offering an interesting challenge in which Alien players must start as a Facehugger, implant a host, and survive to adulthood. If they die, they get to repeat the process. Perhaps Monolith will address these issues in a future patch with enough commentary from players.

Overall, this game is quite the enjoyable experience, despite the nitpicky yet sorely missed features from the original. The trio of races to play makes the game three-in-one, and the multiplayer aspect adds some replay value... So turn off the lights, warm up your mouse arm, and prepare to get the heart rate up a bit. Me, I'll be hunting for my sleeping pills.