[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]
The Sigma Campaign
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.
The Sigma Campaign
“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--
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.