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RPS Verdict: Alien Swarm

Alien Swarm is out! And free! A four-player co-op alien-shooting game. What better choice for a four-person blogging team to Verdict? Except that Kieron's on a plane, and Alec's locked in a cell deep underground. So it fell to Jim and John to dispense the only correct thoughts and opinions anyone should have. Thanks to Phill and John G. for making up our numbers. Read our thoughts on the game below.

Jim:: Okay, so. Alien Swarm was a game I played at a LAN about five years ago. It was amazing fun because it was so intense. Really tooth-and-nail co-op experience. And now it seems it's back, with the same name, and all shiny and beautiful. A phoenix-like work of developmental magic. I can't really explain that. CAN YOU?
John:: I think it has something to do with the death of the Sun. I never played the mod, because mods aren't good enough for me. I only play proper games. But I've played an awful lot of Shadowgrounds.
Jim:: Yes, it's very much in that school of Oh-This-Is-Aliens-From-A-Top-Down-Perspective
John:: But unlike Shadowgrounds and others, this is four-player co-op. And without four, it's not really worth trying.
Jim:: And, sadly for Team 17, it makes Alien Breed Evolution look a bit stiff and uninspired. Which is a shame, because that's a fairly entertaining game.
John:: Yes. Valve making a free game in your genre must be a bit like entering a county fair chilli cooking contest, and finding out Anthony Bourdain is participating.
Jim:: So, we have some describing to do. Firstly, this game is free, so there's no reason not to try it. Secondly, it's co-opy. There's no real single player, but you can play it offline, taking control of all four soldiers independently. Playing it offline is missing the point, a bit, because this is meant to be the kind of game where you are hollering across voice-comms to panicking chums.
John:: You're meant to be screaming and shouting and laughing.
Jim:: Not that we panicked, because we are stone-cold logic-bots.
John:: Well, WE were. But Phill Cameron was there, gibbering like a new-born baby. And Hexapodium was like, "I can't carry on - there's too much wee wee in my pants."
Jim:: That's true. Our brothers in arms were blubbers in... fnnarmes.
John:: Qualms.

John:: So how does it compare to the original? It's still top-down four-player shooting of swarms of enemies.
Jim:: Yeah, pretty much, it's just polished up. There's a slight angle in the camera, there's more weapons, lashings if lighting effects, new enemies, the ability to dive and roll, clever equipment, physics puzzles. There's quite a lot of stuff. Including a decent front end that's roughly based on Left 4 Dead, for co-op ease.
John:: It's so much fun chatting in the lobby, working out who should bring what equipment. If you bring the welding torch, I'll bring spare ammo. And your flame thrower should compliment my minigun splendidly.
Jim:: Yeah, it's one of those games where the loadout is one of the most entertaining aspects. How your four men are equipped really matters. And we should mention they have four classes, even though you don't need to take all four. Officer, Special Weapons, Medic, Tech, and those equate to some specific bits of equipment. (I think you always need a tech.)
John:: And there's levelling up, getting you access to more weapons and items.
Jim:: Ah, the levelling up. I was almost surprised to see it, but I guess I shouldn't have been.
John:: There's no levelling trees, just new items unlocked. And it doesn't make you better at the game. So a level 11 playing with a level 1 matters not a jot.
Jim:: Yeah, that's my favourite kind of levelling. Horizontal, not vertical. More stuff, not better at stuff.
John:: And this is a small thing, but it makes such a massive difference that it loads the level before the lobby, so you go straight into it.

John:: So we should describe our experiences. Tell a story from today's play, James Xavier Rossignol.
Jim:: Hmm, kind of a tough one, because it's generally: shout, burn aliens, and then either die, or complete the level. But it's worth noting that many of the levels are open ended. It's not always a linear path, and you can often choose to tackle different objectives, and take different routes.
Jim:: As we did on the Mall level, quite a bit.
John:: Heh. Yes. One moment that stands out was Phill's desperate run to reach the end of a level, the rest of us dead, waiting for the elevator to arrive. All of us screaming support from our corpses. As the waves of enemies became utterly ludicrous, and he ran out of ammo. It's that L4D vibe, of seeing the ending, but not quite being able to reach it.
Jim:: Yeah, absolutely. It's those moments that make these kinds of games sing.

Jim:: So it's worth pointing out that this is free, but it's also a single campaign. Hopefully the community with seize on it and make lots more campaigns, now that the tools are available.
John:: About two hours to get through it?
Jim:: Yeah, I reckon.
John:: That sounds short, but there's lots of reasons to play it again. And you can see why they've released the level building kit at the same time. I reckon in a week there will be a list of recommended campaigns.
Jim:: Yeah, and I hope those guys find ways to create interesting, open-ended levels, too. There's so much scope.
John:: It's remarkably polished. But we did encounter one incident of characters getting stuck in a wall.
Jim:: Yes. However, in conclusion, we can only take this game as evidence of showing off.
John:: Absolutely.
Jim:: Valve are no longer a game development company, but a showing off company.
John:: "We thought we'd make the best example of this genre in our spare time." It's utterly beautiful too. The water effects, the displacement of the laser beams in the water, the lighting, and especially the shadows. The way aliens can leap from the foreground, almost blocking your view as they descend into the level.
Jim:: Yes, it's got depth, and DEPTH. Both kinds. And that has to be a recommendation from us.
John:: It's free Jim! Free!
Jim:: Hooray!


John:: Okay, I have one issue with it.
Jim:: Yeah?
John:: A few levels did rather rely on knowing what was going to happen. And while that makes for awesome opportunities to work on tactics, it does also mean there's that thing where someone who's done it before has to talk everyone else through it. "Okay guys, watch out, they spring from behind that door." I'd REALLY like to see the Director get involved in this game. Mix it up, move the eggs, change the flow of swarms.
Jim:: Yeah, it's true it can fall back on psychic pre-knowledge
John:: But that's my only complaint.
John:: How many high-fives out of a chest-bump do you give it?
Jim:: Seventy-eighty-nine!


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