The past Monday, Valve released a free game for everyone on Steam called Alien Swarm. Essentially, it’s made by the modders who made the original UT2004 mod that were then hired by Valve and eventually made it a standalone game using the Source engine. Pretty awesome, no?
[img_mid]center,46,2010-07-21/AlienSwarm-02.jpg,BURN BABY BURN!![/img_mid]
The gameplay in Alien Swarm is, well, the reason why Valve picked these modders up. It’s a slightly angled top-down shooter that doesn’t feel rudimentary or really like any other top-down shooters. There are two modes, co-op which allows you to play with up to three other people, or offline practice which of course gives you three bots. To start with, you have a class loadout system, which consists of picking your character and their loadout. There are eight characters (four classes) to choose from and about 40 different weapons to choose from. Variety is your friend here and experimentation is key to getting a good playthrough. There are a tonne of combinations that you could go through and I’m sure some people will go through all of them. During gameplay you are required to complete a couple of objectives. They seem rather arbitrary and are really just an excuse to move the players forward while throwing wave after wave of alien at you. Not that it’s a bad thing though. Helps give a little bit of depth to the game.
The controls are a bit weird at first and take a little getting used to but after that it’s pretty straightforward (although I do keep finding myself getting a bit confused from time to time!). Using things apart from the main weapon and melee attacks is rather simple if not a little bit fiddly, especially placing a sentry which took me about 20 seconds before it would sit the right way.
In offline practice mode, you have the option to control the other members in your team, which is very useful because a lot of the time, the bots get stuck. During my playthroughs, the bots really seemed to enjoy getting stuck in doors.
[img_mid]center,46,2010-07-21/AlienSwarm-06.jpg,Cue heroic music[/img_mid]
One thing I really underestimated the first time I played was the serious ammo conservation one must do. I was flat-out of ammo just after the 3rd objective and shortly after that, my entire squad was completely out of everything. Resorting to melee only is a quick way to get your entire squad killed. Not only this but friendly fire exists in Alien Swarm and it can get rather annoying at times. Both the friendly fire and ammo conservation really do help with the survival horror aspects.
I did, unfortunately, run into several game-ending glitches such as invincible enemies, doors not being able to open and squad-bots unleashing entire clips into each others face. These get really annoying, but I do hope that they are patched soon.
Not too much in the way of story here because Alien Swarm is really all about the gameplay. But there are still little bits here and there. For example, there are PDAs scattered around the level that give you insight as why the aliens are there and what the colonists’ reactions where. It really just helps to add to the survival horror theme that’s going on. The levels are presented as poorly lit, dark grey corridors and rooms with lots of damage and the occasional pile of colonist bodies. Grim and bleak with little chance for survival is the overall visual theme going on here and it works like a charm. During some parts of gameplay, such as the elevator part, the entire game will go into slow-mo for a short while, which kind of takes away from the whole horror theme going on. But, it sure as hell makes it feel epic. When it returns to regular speed, the horror theme comes back.
[img_mid]center,46,2010-07-21/AlienSwarm-07.jpg,Typical loadout screen[/img_mid]
The gun sounds, enemy sounds and pretty much every other sound in the game come straight from Source. While as useful as that maybe, it does get rather annoying during combat to hear sounds from Half-Life. It would have been nice if they included their own sounds but it otherwise works fine. The music is all about atmosphere and at points, adrenaline. During the majority of a level, you’ll hear nothing music-wise apart from dark, ominous tones. Combined with the atmospheric sounds that there are, it gives a semi-haunting feel to the game. During certain parts, you get some bass-heavy electronic music which is there to basically pump adrenaline! It works. It works rather well, in fact. Overall, the sound and music is fine and well above the standard for top-down shooters.
Well, the graphics are neither anything worth writing home about but they sure as hell aren’t worth bitching about either. All the models look great, the levels look grim, albeit in some cases textures can get a bit bland and the enemies look, well like scary aliens. The camera is perfectly adequate sitting where it is. Everything graphically is more than satisfactory but the real strong point is in the lighting which is always placed perfectly throughout the levels. I haven’t encountered any graphical glitches yet but I’ve heard that the number of aliens on screen can really bog down some slightly older GPUs, which is to be expected. Otherwise, it looks fine and (unless you have a GPU in need of an upgrade), you shouldn’t experience too many problems.
[img_mid]center,46,2010-07-21/AlienSwarm-01.jpg,…and bugs go squish![/img_mid]
Overall, Alien Swarm is marvellous for its price (free) but it does have some shortcomings here and there. Once you get past all the survival stuff and find a few people to play with, it’s one hell of an experience. Pity though that it feels really repetitive. But already, the modding community has started their work on Alien Swarm and I’m sure within a month, we will be swarmed with hundreds of amazing mods. How about that, a mod getting mods!