Last week saw the release of Alien Swarm, a top-down science fiction shoot-em-up, over Valve’s Steam service for the bargain price of $0. That’s right, as a token of appreciation to their ever growing user base, Valve are giving this game away completely free of charge. The last time the company gave something away for free gamers got Codename Gordon, a 2D platformer set in the Half Life universe. Little more than a web-based flash game played in full screen, it was more of a promotional ploy to increase the hype around Half Life 2 than a real game. Don’t think that Alien Swarm is more of the same, however.
Coming from the team that created the original Alien Swarm, a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, this new game is full of potential. After the mod team were hired by Valve and put to work on Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2, they found time between projects to secretly convert their pet project to the Source engine. For those unfamiliar with the original mod, you guide one of eight elite marines through abandoned mining colonies, space ships and alien home worlds from a top down perspective. The excellent co-op gameplay has been designed for teams that communicate well, requiring co-ordination to avoid friendly fire as you take on hordes of bug-like aliens that can quickly overwhelm unprepared soldiers. If you think of the movie Starship Troopers, the level of carnage on screen at any one time becomes clear.
Now running on the Source engine, the game looks fantastic, and will run well on a broad spectrum of PC setups with minimal tweaking. No word yet as to whether this will see a release for Mac, but given Valve’s commitment to the platform, it seems highly likely. Regardless of your platform of choice, teams of four can take on the campaign mode; completing objectives and gaining experience, unlocking skills and extra weapons in order to better prepare you for stronger, more plentiful enemies in the later levels. Each character class grows in ability as you play them, almost a necessity for the appropriately titled “insane” mode.
Much like Left 4 Dead, Alien Swarm is best played online with friends. jumping into games can be done almost instantly using the Steam friends interface, and built-in voice chat means gamers don’t have to have another program running to handle communication. While there is an offline mode available to practice tactics and learn map layouts, your teammates are controlled by the computer AI rather than human players. Sometimes they can go a bit Mad Max, running all guns blazing into battle – often getting killed in a swarm of enemies far away from your screen.
Although much of our gameplay experience involved shouting panicky quotes from Aliens into our microphones (“They’re coming out of the god-damn walls! Game over, man! Game over!”), it was when we were silent that we noticed how atmospheric the game is. The musical score is tremendously ominous, building tension as you desperately try to blowtorch your way to safety through a locked airlock door, as ever growing numbers of aliens rush your hopelessly outnumbered team.
While it’s pretty mean to pick out negatives in a free release, Alien Swarm isn’t perfect. The vanilla game is very short; while the original UT2k4 mod had several campaigns, the Source version currently only has one, which can be completed in well under two hours. Whether more official campaigns will be offered further down the line is unclear; what is obvious is that Valve intends to let players build on the base game, rather than support it to the degree Team Fortress 2 has seen over the years. With the development kit being released at the same time as the game, quality third party content will greatly extend its shelf life. Being a secret project, few map makers and modders were prepared for the release, so have had no time to plan potential levels and extra features. While Valve fans are legendary for their ability to mod custom content, and indeed levels have already started to appear online, only time will tell if Alien Swarm proves as popular with the bedroom coders as previous Valve games.
Considering gamers are getting this for free (minus the time it takes to download the 2GB game files), Valve have cunningly provided another demonstration of how versatile the Source engine can be, over six years since its release. Excellent cooperative gameplay and an atmospheric base campaign make for a great online experience with friends; it’s just a shame that you’ll be repeating yourself quickly if you were hoping for replay value. Once the map-makers get their hands dirty though, and masses of extra content is sure to be within easy reach.
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