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.
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?