Undoubtedly one of the biggest recent releases in the PC gaming arena has been this little game. No, it wasn't a Triple-A, hotly anticipated, big budget game. Alien Swarm generated headlines because it was free despite being a rather substantial game, which is more than enough to be considered a big release.
Alien Swarm (PC)
Released: July 19, 2010
Alien Swarm is a four-player co-op top-down shooter, and that's a lot of hyphens. As the name implies, the game's main focus is on cutting down relentless armies of extraterrestrial fiends who have wiped out a planetary colony. As one of several eclectic marines, players arm themselves with assault rifles and shotguns to take on a teeming mass of bug-like monsters.
On paper, the game sounds a lot like Aliens, and that's because it basically is. That's not a bad thing, however, and Alien Swarm does an impressive job of making players feel like they're in the classic James Cameron movie despite the original creature designs. From the wave-based attacks to the hard sci-fi environments to the ever-satisfying use of sentry guns, Alien Swarm is a classic bug hunt in the purest sense of the word. You'll almost wish some real Xenomorphs were there.
At its core, Alien Swarm is a classic shooter where running-and-gunning is the key to victory. Each map has a set of simple objectives that must be completed before the way to the exit is clear, and the game more or less remains the same from beginning to end, save for new enemies with rudimentary weak points. Some players may find the game repetitive, but those with a love of simple shooters will know what to expect, and will leave the game satisfied.
The fundamental shooting gameplay has been given a little depth thanks to a class and ranking system. There are four classes to choose from -- Officer, Special Weapons, Medic and Tech. Each class has access to unique equipment and some levels actually require the presence of a certain class. The use of classes is crucial, as success can sometimes hinge on co-ordinating roles with the other players so there's an equal mix of offense and support. A good Medic who focuses on healing more than scoring kills, for instance, can make all the difference between success and death.
Experience points are collected after each mission and as players gain in level, they'll unlock new weapons and secondary items of varying degrees of use. Customization is limited and players won't feel like they have a completely unique character, but the ability to pick and choose different weapons to find the loadout that suits their playstyle is a very welcome addition and the new toys give players something to keep fighting for.
Alien Swarm is a fun and addictive shooter, but it's not without its issues. In a wave-based shooter, the last thing players need to worry about is ammo conservation, but weapons and abilities can run very dry very quickly. As the game goes on, it actively tries to waste precious resources as well, with things like Infestation Parasites that require huge amounts of Medic supplies to be destroyed. A player with an ammo dump is always useful, but even they fail to account for how much the game can drain one's ability to fight.
Some of the hit detection can be a little off as well. Aiming melee attacks is unnecessarily difficult, and it seems that aliens can often hit players even if their attacks appear well out of range. The presence of friendly fire seems counter-intuitive in this kind of game as well, especially on the harder difficulties where your own players end up as just a big a risk as the aliens.
Being based off the Source Engine, Alien Swarm looks pretty damn good despite missing the bells and whistles from bigger titles. Lighting effects and good character designs help the visuals greatly, although the same can't be said for the rather muted and uninspired sound effects, which go a little way to making the game feel slower and less exciting than it perhaps could have done.
Despite the issues of repetition and somewhat contrary design choices, Alien Swarm is an enjoyable shooter at an absolute steal of a non-price. Even if you grow bored of it in five minutes, that's five minutes of free entertainment, and many players will doubtless be hooked on Alien Swarm's relentless and often challenging levels for much longer than that. It's not the greatest game in the world, but it's damn solid, damn fun, and damn well worth your time.
Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
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