America - Front
America - Back
04th Jan 2010 | 1,631 views
Team 17 have attached Unreal powered electrodes to the Alien Breed franchise and given it new life for today’s gamers on XBLA, PSN and PC.
Alien Breed harks back to Commodore Amiga era of the 1990’s. It was an ‘Aliens’ inspired, brutally hard, 2D top down, maze-shooter. Gamers of a certain age remember the original with fond memories and probably numerous broken joysticks.
So, does Team 17 repeat their Amiga success with a new generation of machines and gamers?
Alien Breed: Evolution makes jump to 3D via the ubiquitous Unreal Engine. This is usually seen powering the likes of Gears of War and Batman, not XBLA games. Now fully 3D, Evolution remains true to its top down shooter origins with an elevated camera POV.
This is a great looking game; the Unreal Engine provides some nice lighting and particle effects. Monitors glow, fires blaze away and electricity arcs around rooms etc. These additional sources of light are as just as well, because the game is very dark and you may well be reaching for the gamma settings after a while.
The player can rotate the camera for a more classic top-down, or an isometric POV, but it cannot zoom in or out. Occasionally, it is necessary to shift the camera around, as your view will be blocked; small passageways, windows and canisters can be obscured. Sometimes, the camera is little too close. This combined with the darkness and the small amount of screen real-estate, can make encounters feel a little unfair, especially when Breed charge in from off-screen and score a few cheap hits.
The core of the gameplay about as formulaic as it can be; this is run and gun, combined with a scavenger hunt across the two maze-like ships. Players control Conrad, the Chief Engineer (the typical gruff marine type) of the ship, who is assisted by Mia, an officer (typical feisty, non-combatant female) on board the ship. Other forgettable characters also help out along the way.
Control of Conrad is simple and follows the typical twin-stick shooter conventions; the left stick controls direction, the right stick aims, and the right trigger button fires the selected weapon. The left trigger allows you use selected items, such as health kits or grenades.
The throwaway plot unfolds via some poorly realised, comic book style panels. A ship of unknown origin has collided with the Leopold. The ship is badly damaged and needs repairing, or all on board are doomed! Evil insectoid aliens have boarded and proceed to slaughter everyone they find!
The Leopold is a serious mess with myriad systems off-line. Everything constantly explodes around you; it gets a bit wearing as explosions constantly rock the ship and your pad. It would have been more effective to dial down the frequency – the ship’s buggered. We get it.
Players navigate from waypoint to waypoint, weaving their way through the maze-like ship to specific locations, following the Aliens-style motion tracker, cum GPS. This displays enemies and the next objective, but not the distance to it, so, you have no real idea how far you actually are from a waypoint. Getting to the next damned waypoint is usually more problematic than fending off the alien swarm.
On arrival, you usually discover you either need a key card, or put out a fire, release some toxic gas etc to progress. Even with the waypoint system, this usually devolves into a lot of backtracking, as you slog from one side of the ship to the other. As a lot of the ship looks the same, monotony starts to set in.
To fight off the Breed, players have access to the usual array of sci-fi weaponry, which is recovered along the way. Players start with the typically weak blaster pistol with unlimited ammunition, an assault rifle, shot cannon, a flamethrower, laser rifle with reflective fire, and the Ion Spike, a rail-gun like thing, which I barely used. It would have been good to see an upgrade path or some customisation here, but alas, this is sorely lacking.
You also have stun and frag grenades that do exactly what they say on the tin. The system for throwing grenades is a bit flawed – the cook off time is too slow, and using grenades is risky; half the time, an alien will charge you from off screen, and as grenades explode on contact, the frag more often than not, goes off in your face.
The Breed themselves are an over familiar bunch, and range from small Face Hugger wannabes, that hatch from egg pods, to the larger Warrior Bugs from the Starship Troopers. Some attempt at creating original alien designs would have been nice to see. As it stands, they aren’t particularly well realised or animated.
The aliens spawn from the floors and walls in front and behind you, but their attacks lack any attempt at AI. A couple simply charge at Conrad; one alien type hangs back and has projectile attacks, one heals damaged aliens, one attempts to stun you, and one attempts to block your fire with armoured forelegs, but that’s your lot. The lack variety in the aliens is disappointing, with some simply recycled in a different colour.
Curiously, the Breed can burrow though a metal ship which is presumably constructed from some space-age, fangled, hyper alloy, like intergalactic woodworm (metal worm?), but have problems getting through internal doors. Hmm...
The designers at Team 17 say that you can play tactically; the idea is players prioritise targets and work out each aliens’ vulnerability to each weapon type, which in theory sounds great, but the execution is a bit off.
Unfortunately, trying to cycle through to the correct weapon on the D-pad is simply too cumbersome. Combine that with limited visibility, and fast moving aliens, leaves you no time for any kind of strategy. As it stands, you just hose them with whatever you have pointed in their general direction, which is effective 99% of the time.
If the pacing of the game had been a little slower, a more tactical element to the gameplay would have worked and been most welcome. Scavenging is key to survival; extra ammo and health packs can be found by rifling through lockers and human corpses. Searching for items and performing actions takes a few seconds; a timer bar counts down to indicate the complexity of the task.
Annoyingly, this mechanic is then constantly used as a cheap trick to spawn in aliens to attack you, which just becomes predictable and annoying.
Those looking to play through the main campaign with a partner, will be disappointed to learn that Team 17 have made co-op an entirely separate entity.
Playing with a friend is a frenetic hoot to begin with, but quickly palls when you realise that the fun and tension of carefully creeping forward in the dark, and even sharing the meagre supplies of loot have both been completely trivialised; as when you die, 10 seconds later, you respawn with full ammo. This greatly diminishes any tactical play, or sense of threat, as your partner simply retreats until you return with a full inventory.
Unfortunately, other issues creep in to the co-op experience. Both players confined to the same screen and the ability to rotate the camera is disabled, leaded to POV issues.
Alien Breed Evolution is another game I really wanted to like, but unfortunately it’s another mildly disappointing retro-remake. The game is by no means poor, but it lacks the imaginative and progressive design required to make it the truly outstanding experience it should have been. The repetitive 90’s gameplay really doesn’t cut it anymore; most of what you experience in the first 30 minutes, (or indeed the demo) is largely all you get, repeated for five hours.
While simple enough to pick up and play, Alien Breed Evolution never really captivates the player and quickly becomes a chore. The game degenerates into blasting the same half dozen types of unoriginal aliens repeatedly, with the usual clichéd sci-fi weaponry, and slogging around similar looking corridors, ‘solving’ an endless array of key / door ‘puzzles’. The final nail being the disappointingly generic boss fight at the end.
Curiously, Alien Breed: Evolution suffers from similar problems to Dead Space. Had Team 17 made more of what Conrad is – a glorified space mechanic, and required the player fix the hull breaches, made more use of the ship and environment to kill the Breed. (E.g. blow them out of airlocks, ramp up the pressure to crush them, or mash them in machinery etc.) This would have made the levels more compact, more tactically interesting and ultimately less boring, as you find new and interesting ways to kill off the Breed.
The ability to augment and customise makeshift 'weapons' would have added much to the strategy and fun. Also, I want to be able to place sentry guns where I want them! Not just on predefined spots! Even Shadowgrounds lets you place them!
I’m sure some fans of the original Alien Breed would in uproar if Team 17 had strayed too from the original formula. To that end, it feels like the dev team have pandered too much to the (usually vocal) diehards. However, the core are a minority compared to the tens of thousands of gamers that haven’t played Alien Breed in the past decade and a half, and who want and expect something more. The lavish visuals have probably help raise gamers expectations on the gameplay front too.
Perhaps Team 17 should have tested the water and re-released the originals in HD, rather than going the hole hog with Evolution, especially with development costs coming in at around $3m. While the move to 3D and enhanced visual flare is welcome, Shadowgrounds and the Unreal Tournament mod, Alien Swarm, have already trodden this path. While not as polished, they slightly diminish the impact of Evolution's visual makeover.You get the feeling that had it arrived a couple of years earlier, it would have certainly made more of a splash.
Based on this unimaginative remake, it remains to be seen if many will buy episode one, (the poor ‘pilot’ / demo doesn't help) and then pick up the next two. This would be a shame, given the effort and costs that have gone into Alien Breed: Evolution’s production and its gaming potential.
It really is time for some of these recent retro-remakes to move on, as they cannot afford to remain so slavishly rooted to their past. I hope that future episodes do expand on the simple gameplay, otherwise Alien Breed: Evolution is something of a misnomer; bar its graphical update, it really hasn’t evolved at all.