The Games Of Christmas ’10: Day 13

Surprises can be great, like, “Surprise! I’ve bought forty cream cakes.” Or rubbish, like, “Surprise! Your entire family’s been killed at sea.” Advent calendars usually don’t offer much of a surprise. Will my chocolate be bell-shaped or snowman-shaped? Who really takes long enough to notice before scoffing it down? But the RPS-o-calendar is a daily treat of festive surprisity, and as a bonus, today’s game was a surprise at the time too. Intrigued? Take a look behind the thirteenest window of them all.

Ha ha, Jim's all dead.

Watch out! It’s Alien Swarm!

John: Not many games companies say, “Surprise! We’ve got a game coming out on Monday.” Most tend to prefer to spend sixty months building up to it, releasing one screenshot every six weeks with accompanying press emails entitled, “MEDIA ALERT!” And even fewer would add, “Oh, and by the way, it’s free.”

But mysterious are the ways of Valve, as they hoover up indie developers and modders from around the world, and have them recreate their work in the shiny Source engine. Announced on the Friday, released on the Monday, it was one of the stranger moments of the year. And what a treat it was too.

If you know me, then you know I like to game on my own. Other people have expectations, and I can’t handle that sort of pressure. I play alone. So it’s with nervous micefingers that I approach any game that requires me to align with others. Especially when they’re people who might be better at the game than me. Like Jim. Sure, he seems nice. And sure, he is nice. What if I mess up? What if I let him down? He’ll think so little of me. What if, when exploring the gloomy corridors in our four-man team, I do something epically stupid, like kill all my team mates and then release a virus onto the internet that destroys all the computers in the world? EVERYONE LEAVE ME ALONE!

But oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed my times playing Alien Swarm. Which is a game about walking down corridors from a top-down perspective and shooting swarms of aliens. Complexity appears in the form of making sure your team are kitted out with enough variation of skills, and the right unlocked bonus equipment to make mincemeat of the Giger-esque extra-terrestrials. But it’s more about coordination. Which is achieved through shouting down microphones.

For the seasoned TF2 player, which is almost everyone else, the experience of playing while other people are talking inside your head is familiar. For me, it’s one I usually only experience when delusional with tiredness. But fortunately with lovely people like Jim, Sponge and John G, the experience is far more friendly than the angry nighttime voices.

Most fun, I thought, was the second or third attempt to clear a level. Perhaps we’d come soooo close, one survivor left, desperately trying to destroy the last alien egg, before getting swarmed at the level exit door. So as we started again we’d be more determined. Jim, inevitably the leader, issues sensible instructions. “And stick together,” I’d add, as Jim rushed off ahead. But knowing what we were likely to be up against, we’d play smarter, and we’d get further. And that’s very rewarding.

Which of course makes it similar to the ever-splendid Left 4 Dead in very many ways. Valve: bringing people together. With John.

Jim: The first time I encountered Alien Swarm was in its original mod incarnation, which was played at PC Gamer LAN event some five or six years ago. It was ludicrously intense. I don’t think we got much past the first couple of sections, but that was okay, because the dying was so much fun. It was one of those few games where I was fine with the difficulty curve being a brutal, spiky cliff, because it was so rewarding to die with friends. I wondered whether the same would be true of Valve’s surprise remake. The answer was “kind of”, but no. This game is much kinder, and that’s probably for the best.

Here’s another angle: the top-down model for shooters is one that I’ve always loved. I am not sure why that perspective should be appealing, but ever since the 16-bit era I’ve had a head full of it, and I’ve always been keen to check out games that play in that way. In the case of Alien Swarm, this classical approach game with all the modern trappings of unlocks, and all the contemporary co-op cleverness – at least after a patch or two – of games like Left 4 Dead. It was slick, it made sense, and it had some shiny things going on under the hood. All that while still feeling like we were delving back into the past – to that LAN party, to my first games of Alien Breed – so that nostalgia and up-to-date game features merged into one splendid, hybrid beastie.

There were a couple of things I remember being unsure about in Alien Swarm: the lack of ways to counter the face-hugger things being one, and the crouch that doesn’t allow you to duck under friendly fire being the other. Not all the weapons really made sense, either, but the shotgun was great. Not that these quibbles really mattered on the scheme of things, of course, because this was a free, well-made game that ate up the best part of a week and gave RPS’ extended family a good reason to play together. That, for me, is pretty much the best kind of game, and it sealed Alien Swarm as one of the most important games of the year. What I haven’t done yet, and really must get around to, is taking a look to see how good the community-made campaigns are. I bet there are some corkers by now. Anyone got a recommendation?


  1. Davee says:

    I never played the original one. This one was fun playing with a few friends, unfortunately it didn’t have that much content and only lasted a short while. But it might still get fired up at the occasional LAN-party ;)

  2. Rich says:

    Unfortunately my antiquated PC can’t handle the biomass level, so I’ve yet to really get into this. Should be building a new PC in the new year, so I’ll try to remember to give this some time… between all the other games I’ve got that my PC can’t quite do justice to.

    • rei says:

      My non-antiquated computer couldn’t really handle that level either, so I think it’s more the level than your computer. I also seem to recall them patching it fairly fast, so if you haven’t tried it since right after release you might find it playable now.

    • subedii says:

      How long ago did you play that level? Because it had some performance issues for most people on release, but they tweaked it a while back to address those problems.

    • Rich says:

      I’m pretty sure there had been a few patches before I played it. I should point out that I mean “couldn’t handle it while looking fairly pretty”. I could turn everything off, but I like the pretty.

    • wcaypahwat says:

      my antiquated internet connection couldn’t download it on release… I ought to give it another go and see if anyones still playing

    • itsallcrap says:

      People ARE still playing, loads of them, but they have a tendency not to be very nice.

      Lots pubescent boys who’ve played every level at least fifty times and get very angry if you don’t choose precisely the loadout they’ve decided is the most efficient for your class.

  3. Gabe Kotick says:

    I’ve been waiting for Valve to announce an item store for this game.

  4. Mccy_McFlinn says:

    I’ve not played this enough. It’s one of the few games I’ve enjoyed playing with randoms, usually I get lumbered with cretins who shoot you in the back or, more likely, I am that person and get kicked for utter ignorance. The tension is not as fierce as the original Mod but it’s still a joy to play through each level.

    I’ll get back to it in the new year – can I assume the community is still vibrant?

  5. subedii says:

    I imagine Team 17 must have cursed out Valve something fierce when Alien Swarm released. Not only did Valve release a much better game, they did it for free.

    Whereas Alien Breed, well frankly it just felt kind of dull. The art style reminiscent of Gears of War and its Chunky Chunk visuals didn’t exactly enamour it to me either. It’s a style that works for Gears, but it’s almost like some companies have difficulty moving their UE3 games away from that art style (Epic goes without saying. Even UT3 suffered quite badly from that, and Bulletstorm’s looking to be stuck in that visual style as well).

    • Stephen Roberts says:

      Team 17 might be annoyed, I’m guessing the Natural Selection 2 developers feel annoyed too. This would have been a massive leg up for getting to work on NS 2, right? You got your dynamic lighting (in places) you got the commander view sorted out, you got a handful of textures and models to reuse. It’s all up ons.

    • Urthman says:

      I’m really curious about that. Do similar games compete each other out of the marketplace? Or does Alien Swarm create an appetite for top-down bug shooters that gives Alien Breed a boost?

      I’ll bet it depends largely on whether your business model depends on getting 90% of your sales from a big splash the week you release your game or whether you can make a profit from a slower stream of sales spread out over a year or two.

    • Starky says:

      It wouldn’t have impacted the Natural Selection 2 Devs at all, given that they from the very start of development intended to build their own engine – NS2 isn’t a source mod, or source game – it’s their own work.

      Which surprised me a lot at first, I figured that Unknown Worlds (the guys behind NS1) were a sure fire fit for being hired by valve/partnering with valve and NS2 becoming an official part of the Valve line up. Maybe they did and Flayra refused who knows.
      NS was the second most popular Half-life mod (after CS ofc), and by far the most advanced/ambitious of all HL mods.

      Still it seems they’ve worked out a deal for steam works distribution/beta testing at least, which is nice.

  6. Flint says:

    I enjoyed what little I’ve played of it but unfortunately I just happened to be on a holiday around when it got released and by the time I had returned my friends circle had lost the “ooh shiny new thing” mood of playing it constantly, and if anyone wants to play together these days it’s the always trusty L4D2. I love a good challenging co-op (about the only time when I actually love high difficulties AND playing with other people) but I just can’t get anyone to play this.

  7. gulag says:

    Great list this year lads. This is the halfway point right?

    I’m quite pleased with myself due to how many of this years list I’ve played, mostly due to sales. I think we’re going to look back on 2010 with a huge amount of deserved fondness. Players got served, indies got payed, publishers finally ‘got’ digital sales.

    Alien Swarm was a fantastic surprise, but may have been hurt slightly by appearing out of no where. It was incredibly hard to get some of my friends to pay it any heed.

    ‘I haven’t heard of it’
    ‘Haven’t seen any ads for it’
    ‘If it’s free, it can’t be any good’


    Screw it, pick-up games with strangers will have to do. John has good reason to be fearful of playing with the unknown. People are dicks. But somehow AS manages to sidestep the usual problems. Of course you do get run ahead know-it-alls, but they only seal their own fate. Sticking together is key. Being able to see where your squad-mates were in relation to you, and seeing what they were facing as xenos pour in from every angle offsets the usual allegations, post party wipe, that someone wasn’t doing their bit. If you get overwhelmed, it’s because the squad has failed to be squad-y enough, not because an individual player has failed to be marine-y enough.

    And finally, AS proves yet again that Valve are the masters of weapon balance. Every unlock brings a new set of possiblities that have to be weighted against the liabilities they impose.

    A cracking game, and a clear demonstration that the power of ‘free’ is that it makes your company look like a pack of stellar bastards.

  8. Nick says:

    I’d like them to release more campaigns. I’ll happily pay.

    • Rich says:

      How’s the community doing for 3rd party campaigns? I’d have thought there’d be a few knocking around by now.

    • Gabe Kotick says:

      @Nick, Would you pay for items too?

  9. UsuallyDavid says:

    Ooh, forty cakes! Is that a reference to the 40th comic strip here? (My fave of the lot.)

    link to

    • dalziel86 says:

      Pretty sure it’s a reference to this: link to

      … to which the Nedroid strip is almost certainly also a reference.

    • dalziel86 says:

      … and that’s terrible.

    • Mccy_McFlinn says:

      Is it just me, or were all of those comics utter shit? I only read to number 20 (just read the rest so that I’m not accused of failing to give them a fair chance) but god they were pointless. If there’s some higher level reference or meaning then I’m afraid it was lost on me and as such they’ve failed. Stand on your own first and layer reference on second so goes the wisdom….

    • Qazi says:

      Well, they’re “200 Bad Comics” under the “The Bad Comics Challenge.” So…

    • RadioactiveMan says:

      Nedroid always has a strange sense of humor. I find them funny, but I can see how it may not appeal to everyone.

      Can I have a straw?
      This is the last straw… EVER.
      Curse you, Big Oil!

    • Mccy_McFlinn says:

      @ Qazi

      ah, so there was a higher level reference – slightly higher up the page. Observation -1, Embarrassment +1.

  10. MartinNr5 says:

    Do they sell aliens, swarms or swarms of aliens?

    If not I’m going to be very disappointed.

  11. Navagon says:

    Wow, and I thought that the bot selling forked up shoes was crap.

  12. Navagon says:

    I’m finding it difficult to get a game lately. Maybe RPS could organise some?

  13. ManicMarvin says:

    Some decent community campaigns:
    link to
    link to
    link to

    PC Gamer also recommended these, but I wasn’t so impressed:
    link to (survival tedium – would be better if there were more special swarm to mix things up)
    link to (insta-death frustration – might be okay if AS had an instant restart option)

  14. S says:

    how polite!

  15. AndrewC says:

    John has found a multiplayer home, joy is gained in the act of playing rather than victory over a game and the true meaning of christmas is revealed as a family being found wherever souls come together in support, no matter where those souls come from. It is beautiful.

    I am so alone.

  16. MikoSquiz says:

    Swarm Fortress next, please. Attack/defend gameplay with TF2-ish classes against swarms of hundreds of feeble AI aliens. That would be fantastic.

    • Chris says:

      feeble AI aliens with hats

    • Dagda says:

      Feeble AI aliens that are hats.

      (I originally intended this to mean giger-esque creatures that can adorn your space marine’s head as a trophy of war, but I will also accept a hilarious first contact faux pas where a bunch of humans mistake a Hattalian aparment complex for a giant, fully stocked hat store.)

  17. Napalm Sushi says:

    Me and my friends played this again recently for the first time since the new Onslaught mode was added.

    To be on that Skype channel the first time we ran into a shield bug early on level 1 was to truly know the sound of terror.

    I sincerely hope Valve doesn’t leave this game for dead, no pun intended.

  18. Fumarole says:

    There were a couple of things I remember being unsure about in Alien Swarm: the lack of ways to counter the face-hugger things being one[…]

    The electrified armor will kill a facehugger that has latched on.

  19. MrBRAD! says:

    Sarge’s lack of sexual-tyrannosaurus-enabling cigar ruined this game for me.

  20. day says:

    I got Alien Breed: Impact for the singleplayer and got bored quick, keycard nonsense.
    Maybe I’ll try this..

  21. Lucas says:

    I still want a roguelike version with the random level generator built into the game and looting in between maps.

  22. Tusque d'Ivoire says:

    I’ve probably played this more than any other game this year, except maybe [Censored] (will be on this list, too).

    Though the downside to it is that it is probably not going to be maintained as actively as the other Valve games. There has been one additional content release a few months after release, which only introduced new difficulty settings and a higher level cap, no new official maps/campaigns. Sad, but perfectly understandable, considering Valve have been very busy with the games that people have actually paid for. once. maybe 5 bucks, the current price for l4d2.

    I have only checked out a few custom maps/campains, they’re really neither convenient to install, nor to play, as getting other players to install them is equally complicated.

    Still, the one campaign is still fun, and opposed to other comments on here, i always find a good few games with decent people, especially now that the game is less frequented, and there’s less newbies around (except me, sometimes i still get kicke). But feel free to start now, it’s no HoN!

  23. Nogo says:

    This site has wormed it’s way into a lot of comments recently. Methinks the Spam-o-tron hungers for a specific snack.

  24. Ateius says:

    Ooh, Alien Swarm, I remember thee. With mine mingun I did mow down many a wave of creepy-crawlies. And then die because I was awful at placing the defense turret.