“Being outnumbered by murderous aliens has never been this much fun!”
Once I believe that nothing interesting can happen on the Source engine any longer, something comes along that blows me away. The latest game to do so is Alien Swarm, a top down shooter that plays much like some classic oldbies such as Machine Hunter, or the top down Contra titles.
The unique thing about Alien Swarm is that it combines fast paced top-down shooting with heavy team play that is very reliant on tactics. The icing on the cake is the game’s very prominent survival horror overtones. In Alien Swarm, you’re plunked down onto a planet that has been infested by deadly aliens. There are thousands of them and only two to four of you.
The survival horror aspect of the game comes from not knowing where the aliens are lurking, or what’s going to happen next. You never know when aliens will burst through objects or suddenly flank you. Fortunately, the game isn’t scary at all due to the fast paced shooting gameplay. You rarely have time to relax unless you literally kill every single alien in a specific section of a level and stay there. Of course, nobody would want to do that. In games like Alien Swarm, you are pressed hard to keep moving.
Alien Swarm is mostly online, and you can play with strangers or your Steam friends. There is an offline practice mode that runs through the game’s campaign, but killing aliens and completing levels will not grant you any experience points. Online play utilizies a leveling system where, whenever you clear a stage or get game over, you and your pals are taken to a screen where experience points are distributed based on the performance of each player in the level. If you kill tons of aliens and assist the team greatly, you’re bound to get a motherlode. When you acquire so many experience points and gain a level, you are rewarded with access to new weapons and accessories. The higher your level, the better the rewards.
Gameplay can be very unique based on what class you choose. There are four to choose from and they are Officer, Special Weapons, Medic, and Tech. Officers are fantastic front-line gunmen with all around decent stats. They aren’t particularly bad in any fields and are a welcome addition to any team. Special Weapons characters get access to high powered guns with vast amounts of ammunition. They are essentially mobile tanks, strong and extremely deadly when used appropriately. Medics are the essential healer class. They are able to deploy health regenerating beacons and can heal their squadmates with a gun that restores health. Bizarre concept, but it works well and you will find yourself falling in love with the medic on your team as they keep you alive. Finally there is the tech, a class that is able to hack doors and consoles. Techs can also use a prototype assault rifle with slight auto-aim properties, and they are able to set up sentry guns quickly. They also carry handy motion sensors.
It is imperative to form decent teams when playing online. Two people alone are probably best off going with a medic/tech team, while variety improves slightly on three player teams. I have never played a four player game except with AI bots in the offline practice mode, so I can’t judge it too well. All I am aware of is that four player teams offer lots of variety and tons of potential. Medics and techs are usually the only required classes, so make sure that you have them on your team when you play, especially on the higher difficulty settings.
The alien swarm is a lot of fun to plow through. Initially, you will only encounter one kind of alien that bears a slight resemblance to the antlions of Half-Life 2. Eventually, you will encounter larger and more dangerous aliens as well as poison spitters and small parasites that resemble facehuggers from the Aliens series. Parasites are exceptionally annoying as they can sneak up you quite well, and aren’t always easy to hit. Flamethrowers are typically the best way to dispatch them. Once you hit the third or fourth level, there’s a fantastic variety of aliens and it is difficult to predict what you will find around every new corner.
The sound in Alien Swarm is passable. Most of the player sounds are forgettable, including the guns they use and commands they shout out. An NPC who seems to be in charge of your mission also informs you what to do in each mission as well as providing updates on things that change in the levels. He sounds a little bit like Craig T. Nelson, which is really awkward, but what’s worse is that he sounds like a Craig T. Nelson who isn’t really sure of the role he’s playing and delivers a very fake sounding performance. The only sounds in Alien Swarm that are particularly nice are the growls and hisses that the aliens make. The poison spitters are especially cool sounding, as they let out these slow, raspy demonic growls that immediately identify them.
The graphics are quite nice for a Steam game. If the game was played in the first person view that most Steam games take advantage of, the graphics would probably not be as impressive, but from an overhead view they look quite good. The lighting is especially nice, and flashlight beams are very convincing and realistic looking. A lot of environmental effects such as smoke and steam are also pulled off well and are definite positive in Alien Swarm’s favour.
The game also comes with an SDK, allowing devoted modders to create brand new levels. Considering that the main game is only one campaign with about seven levels, it’s certainly a good thing that modding is a possibility.
If you like games that involve survival horror, squad-based team play, or just fast paced shooting, then Alien Swarm is probably worth checking out. The best part of the game, though? It’s free. Hop on Steam and give it a download. Since it’s not putting a dent in your wallet, I fail to see how giving this pleasant game a go could ever be a bad thing.