Alien Swarm: The Longest 30 Yards

By Quintin Smith on June 4th, 2008 at 3:33 pm.


[Since Quinns’ last piece on a mod he loved went so well, he’s done another one. Hurrah for Quinns! Also, Alien Swarm for UT2004. This article includes profanity and mild-bullying of PCG deputy editors]

Deep Space
The Sigma Campaign
Mission #3
23:49

For the first time in hours our squad was experiencing a period of speechlessness. We were all looking back and forth between the smoking barrel of Schach’s shotgun and the bloody smear where FiveEight used to be. The dismembered chunks of the alien that had been attacking FiveEight bounced away from us all into the shadows. Silence.

“Schach? You’re a dick” I barked into my headset, the tension twisting my voice into something cruel. I slipped my mouse cursor over his head, keen to punch a hole in him with my rifle. I didn’t, in the end. What was the point?

We’d just gotten half way to the landing zone without a single scratch. The four of us had conserved ammo, moved as as single unit and generally done all the things required of a team trying to get through an Alien Swarm level without any casualties. And then in the blink of an eye a fully grown alien had gotten amongst us, and Schach, our designated Explosives marine, had employed his special skills to explode FiveEight. Our rule was, if you end up toe to talon with one of Them then it’s up to you and you alone to kill it. Trying to provide supporting fire was too dangerous, as Schach had just demonstrated.

“Shut up. Let’s just… try again”, said Schach.

We’d been ‘just trying again’ every evening for three days now, stuck on the same mission. The knowledge I was developing for each room made the prospect of actually finishing the mission nerve-wracking. The next level would be a maze of unknown quantities and hateful surprises. Then again, getting to know this level so well was causing a bigger problem. With no surprises left in the mission itself, our failures were only ever our own fault, and that’s hard on a team’s morale.

And we were a team. There’d be no mistaking us for anything else. Early on we’d found a that a diamond-shaped formation worked best, and within that you wanted Schach and his assault shotgun at the front, while Thesper the Special Weapons guy had the tricky job of walking backwards behind us. I was the Techy, required for hacking, and FiveEight was the medic. Which perhaps makes it more understandable why I lost my shit when Schach reduced him to paste.

But it was our Teamspeak channel that rocked the hardest. On some nights our friends would join it just to listen to our cinematic chatter. The stress we were under came out in our quips about ‘Weld that door closed’ or ‘Schach, clear the room’ or ‘FALL BACK, FALL BACK’. At one point Tim Edwards from PC Gamer magazine turned up in our channel, before leaving and excitedly telling everyone it was ‘Just like Aliens!’ What he didn’t know is that we caught wind of him coming and just left our game on a menu screen while I screamed ‘THERE’S TOO MANY OF THEM’ and crap like that for five minutes until he left. What makes this even more amazing is that Schach showed up half way through my dramatics and asked what I was doing in between mouthfuls of cereal.

Alien Swarm is like no other co-op game I’ve played. It’s a weird mix. From the fixed top-down perspective players and aliens alike dash about like mice, and a fight with any single alien’s usually going to be over in a split second. But really, it’s a game that should only ever be played slowly. Sprinting through a level is going to mean one lonely marine limping to victory with his friends so much dead meat behind him, and that’s not an option in Campaign mode because marines gain experience. Even injuries are bad, removing that character from your pool of soldiers for the next mission. So we were drifting through levels like violent flotsam, pausing to patch up our wounds or divvy out clips from the ammo bag when necessary.

So, anyway. We figured we’d try the mission again.

Deep Space
The Sigma Campaign
Mission #3
23:56

Loading…

“Good luck, lads!” barked the ever-chipper FiveEight, apparently unoffended at his untimely liquidation. The map flashed into existence and began with a clatter of bootsteps as we all shifted into formation.

“We good?” asked Schach, which after a lack of protests he punctuated with “Let’s do this.”

My heart was already pounding out of my chest. Alien Swarm’s titular aliens are animal-quick things that don’t leave room for mistakes, though anything else would be a let down after you’ve seen one of Alien Swarm’s official levels, which are all flickering lights and hissing steam vents. But what really makes the game tense is the give and take of working as a team. If any of you screw up, if any of you let a parasite past or gets separated, everyone can die very quickly. So not only do you have three other people relying on you, you have your life in the hands of those same people. And when dying means restarting a level that can take upwards of 15 minutes, that means tension.

A few minutes in and a sick screeching signalled the beginning of the first tricky part, an ambush in a corner. A half dozen aliens barrelled up the corridor behind us and I could only watch as Thesper went to work, the thudding of his Smartgun making for a reassuring sound in a world of clanking and chittering. Two seconds later we were alone again, the hostiles reduced to so much green splatter, the world silent except for more clanks and chitters. We moved off again, six bullets poorer.

Tricky as it is, everything in mission #3 of the Sigma campaign is just a prelude to the last, open-air room. The few times we’d managed to reach it we’d been butchered by the final challenge, a ceaseless torrent of aliens that arrive the second you let off a signal flare to call in the dropship. By now, the game was starting to exhaust us. Then again, we were making things harder for ourselves with our team’s cardinal rules. We had to wear headphones, and we could only ever play at night. Because we were, and still are, men. Stupid, idiot men.

That corner ambush set the tone for the rest of our run, and we went on to clear every room we entered with beautiful precision. Parasite aliens were shredded like so much lettuce the second they burst out of vents or lockers, and neat firing lines were formed when we disturbed dens. No one went too fast or too slow, and we stopped for breathers in safe, well-lit areas, a practice established after prior run-throughs involving breathers in unsafe, dark areas. But this time we even managed to finesse the train yard. Here’s how our train yard plan went:

When you reach the centre of the train yard alien adults come at you from every direction they can, so you want to cut off as many angles of attack as possible. When you arrive you weld the door closed behind you, then you make your way across the yard by hugging the wall. When the aliens start coming and your muzzle flashes turn the place into a strobing green-guts disco, stop moving and focus on shooting. Stand in a semi-circular formation against the wall to enable everyone to bring their guns to bear, and only move on when the aliens stop coming. When you think the aliens have stopped coming, send one of your squad to scout the room for any surviving pockets of aliens. Finally, when comparatively safe in the corridor on the other side, pump fist in the air many times.

I can’t speak for the other three, but this is why I played Alien Swarm. There’s a golden thrill in not just being part of a squad, but playing your role within that squad and watching your friends play theirs. Any Planetside fans out there should know what I’m talking about. A large slice of gamers won’t mind doing something mundane or even boring as long as it has important repercussions for other players. Anyway, one of the cutest moments we had playing Alien Swarm involved a nightmarish warrior alien running down a corridor straight towards us and neither me or Schach firing a shot because no matter how close that monster got we both calmly knew the other would deal with it. So neither of us dealt with it and the thing tore me a new, figurative asshole.

From the train yard it was only two more minutes of teamwork and careful shooting before we reached the landing pads. The final room. It’d never gone this well before, but none of us said a word as we assembled outside the door. There was no need to go over the plan. We’d spent so long discussing it in the wake of our failed attempts that each of our roles was etched into our minds.

It was a screech from behind us that spurred us into motion, I think. Whatever it was, the four of us thundered onto the landing pads and got to work.

Schach instantly set about exterminating each and every alien egg in the area before they could hatch. Thesper and I ran up onto the room’s single raised platform where I began setting up the automated sentry turret I’d had on my back for the entire map, and he dumped our duffel bag of ammo behind it. FiveEight sprinted over to the LZ and set off the flare, drowning the place in an ominous red light, then he and Schach ran all the way back across the room and up onto the platform. Textbook. We all hunkered down around the sentry, and we waited.

I managed the “Good” out of a “Good luck” before being drowned out by firepower of our happy turret, which was already roaring bullets at offscreen enemies. An obscene amount of aliens began pouring out of pipes, pits and vents, furiously throwing themselves down the barrels of our guns as they struggled to get up either of the two short staircases that led up to us. It was endless. This wasn’t marksmanship, it was crowd control. It was trying to fight back a tide made of spit and claws, and it just didn’t end. Every time an alien slipped past our guns someone managed to catch it at the last second with a desperate shot, but there was no way our luck could hold out. I was taking my turn to rummage through our sob story of an ammo bag when I heard FiveEight’s dulcet tones- “It’s the dropship!”

We’d done it! We all watched out of the corner of our eyes as our floating exit drifted down right above the flare. The flare… on the other side of the room. And through our continuing gunfire and panic we all began to understand that this wasn’t the end of the mission. We were going to have to make our way down from the platform and across the landing pads through a literal alien swarm to get under the ship.

I like to think we all shared a little moment of abject agony right then.

“We have to move! We’ve got no ammo! We have to MOVE, NOW!” I shouted into my headset, by which I meant that I had no ammo and was down to my last clip. The sentry gun roared in approval.

“LET’S DO THIS!” yelled Schach, and with that he leapt down into the horde and cleared a huge space for the rest of us with a single shotgun blast.

We only had to move thirty yards in a straight line but it might as well have been a mile. Straight away we were overrun by converging streams of aliens and it was all each of us could do to keep shooting. Separated and alone we each tried to carve our own path of least resistance, taking hope from the fact that every last bullet we fired was slapping into an alien somewhere. At some point I made the mistake of looking at the squad’s health meters and saw everyone was getting torn apart. We’d never make it. And then before I knew it I was there, under the dropship, the aliens too thick even here for me to see if I was alone, and I didn’t think I had any horror left to feel but when I saw I’d automatically swapped to my pistol my heart sunk and I knew it was over, we’d be dead in–

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

We’d all made it.

Over my headset I heard some laconic, geeky cheering. I listened to it for a bit, then just rested my head on my desk and started laughing.

“Shit! How many missions are left?” asked Schach.

“4” I replied, my eyes shut.

“Man” he said, sounding disappointed. And I knew exactly why. Because if all the missions were as easy as this one, we’d be done in no time.

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64 Comments »

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  1. Flint says:

    Played this a few times with friends. We didn’t finish a single level, but I loved every desperate, panic-filled moment of it. This story kinda makes me feel like trying again.

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah – I don’t think I ever finished a mission either. But who cared?

    KG

  3. Rook says:

    We ended up editing the game files to give our characters a boost, but it became to easy and thus boring when you did that.

    Great game that’s worked for many LAN. Still wondering where Alien Swarm: Source is.

  4. Schmung says:

    Looks entertaining. I think I may even have a copy of the relevant version of UT hanging around somewhere as well. For some reason this entirely passed me by – I never saw mention of it on any of the forums I frequent. Does it have a vaguely active community?

  5. Cian says:

    Fantastic game, and a great write up. Think I’ll have to reinstall 2K4 for a LAN party now theres as little as intense as a day of Alien Swarm.

  6. Quinns says:

    Oh my goodness I had no idea you were all so WEAK. Rock, Paper, Sherry And A Nice Hot Water Bottle But Not Too Hot Mind, more like.

  7. NewName says:

    My friends and I are playing this right now, we’re up to the second last level on sigma. For anyone having trouble I have one word for you; stims.
    These things are pure hax, they arn’t like stims in regular games that just give you some percentage boost to your stats. These stims slow down time for both you and your team for a little while, making manoeuvring around aliens and picking targets far far easier. But most importantly as a medic they give you the time to actually defend yourself and think about who best deserves that final medpack.
    These things are so good that half our team now equips them, and I wouldn’t even dream of equiping anything else for my character.

  8. Ian says:

    Gutted. I don’t have the game and so can’t get the mod and give it a shot. Or is the multiplayer community for it effectively dead anyway?

    Sounds like a blast.

    “There’s a golden thrill in not just being part of a squad, but playing your role within that squad and watching your friends play theirs.”

    I wouldn’t have really understood this untiul quite recently when I first started playing WoW. I know it’s very different in WoW and, certainly at the early stages, not as fast paced but it helps me relate. When I was doing my second instance (Wailing Caverns) we had a group who all wanted to do it and couldn’t find a proper tank. I was a Hunter so because we were impatient we decided to try and make my pet boar (the menacingly-named Oinky) our tank. None of us were particularly above the recommended level for the instance but just through a little careful planning (i.e. Healers make sure the damn pig is healthy while he draws the bosses) and making sure everybody knew what to do we got through without even one death.

    As I said, very different to what you’re talking about there and small potatoes for most online multiplayer, MMO and WoW gamers, but for me this was a relatively new kind of gaming satisfaction as I’d hardly ventured online before.

  9. Quinns says:

    We never ended up using stims, despite the ludicrous cock rock that kicks in for their duration. Not sure why. I guess you’ve pinned it down by saying they feel like pure hax. They’re more like a power-up and less like a piece of legitimate equipment.

  10. Ben Abraham says:

    Wow. What game is this a mod for and why have I never heard of it before?!

    Edit: Haha! Yay for reading.

  11. Chaz says:

    @ Schmung

    The online community was one of the worst I’ve ever encountered, I thought CS players were a bunch of nobs but the Alien Swarm community made them look like saints. That was a good 2 or 3 years back though, so things might have changed now.

  12. Quinns says:

    Ian: Yeah. It’s kind of embarrassing how good it feels to be a distinct part of an efficient machine. It’s got to trip some kind of primitive switch in our brains.

  13. cyrenic says:

    For those of you wondering if there’s a source version of it, it looks like there’s one in development: http://www.blackcatgames.com/swarm/

  14. Schmung says:

    hrrrrmm, I suppose I may have to try and get some friends together and try it over Hamachi or something, though the odds of getting it all sorted at such short notice are not great.

  15. Flint says:

    A quick question: one of the classes could equip a cigar (or something like that) as their item of choice. We never tried it, does anyone know if it’s just a fun gimmick item or something entirely different?

  16. Quinns says:

    Gimmick. If you can call the option of ditching a first aid kit or proximity mines for a pack of cigars a gimmick. I’m pretty sure the only thing you can call it is ‘Hopelessly bitchin.’

  17. Ging says:

    It’s just a fun gimmick as fair as I’m aware.

    My housemates and I played through the entire “original” campaign – I think it took us two weeks worth of entire evenings…

    cyrenic: the ASI website hasn’t been updated in ages – I’m not holding out much hope for it ever coming out.
    We followed that with the SWAT 4 campaign – things got worrying when we were discussing taking down tangos with headshots while sat around a table enjoying a pizza hut buffet… I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many concerned looks!

  18. Feet says:

    Awesome mod. Many fun nights have been had with it on private servers with friends, though it’s a git to get a server running sometimes and all the public ones are full of elitist crazy people who don’t like n00bs.

    The cigar was just a fun gimmick, the marine Sarge would give off puffs of smoke though.

    The Source version has been in development for aaages. No idea what’s taking them so long!

  19. andthensobecause says:

    Pretty interested in this game now.

    “It’s kind of embarrassing how good it feels to be a distinct part of an efficient machine. It’s got to trip some kind of primitive switch in our brains.”

    Yeah, that’s always the biggest thrill. Something like spiritual alignment. It’s quite well and good with friends, but I think some of the most joy-filled moments in gaming are when a group or pair come to a seamless understanding without communication. Their doings just resonate and all of a sudden: perfection, bliss.

  20. Zeh says:

    AS was so good. Too bad their HL2 commercial port is taking forever. :(

  21. Kast says:

    Another awesome story, another awesome mod and another awesome write up from Quinns.

    It’s not much easier even with the full 6 (or is it 8?) man team playing but makes for a great regular LAN game. Something my group of geeks always look forward to.

  22. wcaypahwat says:

    Really do need more stories like this. Well written memoirs of golden gaming moments.

  23. Tim E says:

    Fuck you all.

  24. Nick says:

    Awww.

    Great story by the way, I was just about to comment on my great big “lol” at the Tim Edwards part in fact.

  25. Heliocentricity says:

    watch these

    Alien Swarm: Sigma Campain – Rescue pt 1
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwwPJ-KiN7c&feature=related

    Alien Swarm: Sigma Campain – Rescue pt 2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4qMW8g8BQs&feature=related

    That wasnt even a stressed out game.

  26. cHeal says:

    I loved this mod! That is all.

  27. The Probe says:

    This is what I’m hoping Left 4 Dead is going to capture the feel of. When I tried to play this mod, the combination of asshole strangers being my teammates and the top down perspective made me not want to continue with it, but I have high hopes for Left 4 Dead. To someone who’s had a chance to play it, do you have any thoughts?

  28. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yoshi: You were deleted as it’s an insult with nowt else to it. Also, you broke the Don’t Mention The War RPS running gag.

    KG

  29. Rosejack says:

    Researching drop ship businesses before you buy. Finding a good Drop ship can be a task in itself. Most you’ll find will only want to be the middleman for you. And by doing this, they take the profit from you and keep it for themselves.

  30. eyemessiah says:

    Any love for Natural Selection?

  31. Ging says:

    I’m suitably impressed that the spam bot behind Rosejack focussed on the mention of dropship in the post…

    I was hoping to find a site that would actually let me buy a dropship, but alas, no, it’s about tazers and stuff.

  32. Nick says:

    If they’d researched their drop ship buisnesses before they bought, it might have landed next to them instead of in the middle of the swarm of aliens.

  33. Pod says:

    Is this basically Alien Breed, 3d, in UT?
    If so, colour me interested.

    edit: Or is it a RTS/FPS combo, just all the screenshots are taken from a commander’s view?

  34. RichPowers says:

    We followed that with the SWAT 4 campaign – things got worrying when we were discussing taking down tangos with headshots while sat around a table enjoying a pizza hut buffet… I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many concerned looks!

    Did you also breach the Pizza Hut using explosives and flash bangs? “Buffet area clear! Registers clear! Secure the booth in the corner!”

    Life would be immensely more enjoyable if every mundane task was treated like an extended SWAT 4 mission, replete with hand signals and infrared door scopes. RPS should have a contest where we describe our day-to-day activities in the context of a SWAT operation. Quick, Gold 3, secure the tomatoes in aisle two and meet at the rendezvous point for extraction!

  35. Burgerboy says:

    Swarm rocks – If you’ve got some mates that are willing to try something a little more tactical and cooperative, give it a shot.

    The first couple of times you’ll get shredded, but once people start realising that you do infact actually have to work as a squad things start falling into place. Although you’ll probably still get shredded, but at least you’ll know where you went wrong :P

    The source version the team is currently developing is being done as a complete stand-alone game, and I have high hopes for it :)

  36. Moses2k says:

    Been playing this on and off for four years now. Our community forums are at forums.blackcatgames.com, btw. Do play on the public servers, as most everybody’s nice and willing to give you tips.

    We could also use more Oceania and North American servers, if you like the game enough to host.

  37. rektide says:

    this article is fantastic. this is the kind of group dynamic i want in all team based multiplayer games.

  38. Ben Abraham says:

    @Rosejack

    Go away you trolling spammer! Shoo, Shoo!

  39. Al3xand3r says:

    Don’t worry about the lack of updates on the AS: I website, the developers are as active as ever in the forums.

    I’d rather they take the time to make something BETTER than the original anyway, a perfected version instead of something that feels like a copycat wannabe without really delivering.

    It must be quite hard to replicate the feel and atmosphere they achieved in Unreal Engine 2 since Source is so different, it’s understandable that it’s taking a while.

    Anyway, nice spotlight. There were MANY fantastic Unreal Tournament 2004 modifications but only few enjoyed any kind of success, player numbers were always too low as if people just didn’t want fantastic new free games to play. This goes back to the mod community problems mentioned in other stories, mostly about Half-Life 2, but I could see the problem evolve since back then before HL2’s release.

    Anyone who hasn’t done so yet make sure you play UT2004 mods like:Metaball (single player)
    http://www.metaball.org/downloads.php#metaball1

    Air Buccaneers (multi player)
    http://www.ludocraft.oulu.fi/airbuccaneers/

    Troopers: Dawn of Destiny (multi player)
    http://www.ludocraft.oulu.fi/airbuccaneers/

    Carball (multi player)
    http://www.carball.net/

    Fraghouse’s mutators
    http://fraghouse.beyondunreal.com/

    And go bug the developer of Out of Hell (sp) to release it.
    http://www.outofhell.net/

    There are many other worthy tryouts if you can find downloads and friends to play with.

    Seems that Damnation mod is also going commercial, I hope they have the resources to fully realise their fantastic steam punk western setting this time. Their mod effort was flawed but pretty damn good considering they had to create all the single player systems from scratch.
    http://damnation.blueomega.com/

  40. pon't danic says:

    Also be sure to download the unofficial campaigns for Alien Swarm, which add many nightmarishly fiendish new maps and tons of new equipment.

  41. malkav11 says:

    I reeeeallly wish I had enough gamer friends to play Alien Swarm properly. It’d even be worth the gigs of UT2004 install that otherwise would collect dust.

  42. Silent says:

    Theres an active community of about 20 people. Often the servers are empty, but dont be shy to join one and wait. It wont take long till some ppl are joining. The active community isnt as elitist as someone mentioned before. They dont have any problems with new players at all, as long theyre able to accept some advices….

  43. FzzyBzzy says:

    A lot of the more elitist players have either left or changed their ways. There’s a few snobs left, but the majority are decent folks. Theoretical game occurring every day around 1600 GMT on one of the public servers should anyone be looking for it.

    Additionally: AS:I is not dead.

  44. Arcalane says:

    Ah man, I remember many a night spent fighting back the alien hordes, teamkilling Moses for teamkilling other people, apologizing profusely for unintentional TKs, getting banned from using the assault shotgun (or, well, anything vaguely resembling a shotgun or anything that fires anything that explodes) due to trigger-happy gunning…

    Good times, good times!

  45. Rogue says:

    Apparently the commercial version (AS: Infested) is being bug-tested and polished as we speak. They’ve increased the number of medals as an incentive for people to work together, as well as giving us some more marines to play with. Just another bug hunt then. :D

  46. My other account is a dropship says:

    One of the best LAN party games ever, so long as your mates are OK with getting chewed up regularly. If you LAN often it’s certainly worth getting UT04 for even if you hate FPS games.

  47. The Shed says:

    Me and my friends very briefly played this a while back, but didn’t give it much of a chance before moving onto other LAN games.

    Now we’re considering a megaLAN meetup just for this :D should be great.

    Also- quality article. Check our blog for various game-stories.

  48. malkav11 says:

    Eh. I’m sure the official server folks are fine people, but I play cooperative games to play with my friends.

  49. ROVOT ROVK says:

    the online community is definitely douchebaggy. they’re helpful to newbies but totally condescending and pretty much yell at you when you dont do as they say. I understand its a team based game with friendly fire on but aiming at stuff and avoiding getting in the way isnt really that hard.

  50. Erlam says:

    This makes me want to both buy 2k4 again, and play some Natural Selection. Damn that is a great game.