The recent Alien Breed series, Team 17's episodic shooter outing based on the venerable 16-bit era titles, rumbles to a close with Alien Breed 3: Descent, which came out last week. I've been having a play of Descent and also looking back over the Alien Breed's long and patchy history. Here's wot I think...
There is some residual fondness*. Alien Breed was the second game I bought for my Amiga 500. I wanted something I could play with my mate Tim and the 2-player co-op aspect of the game was the only thing - aside from it having guns and monsters in - that my adolescent brain placed any significance in. It was surprisingly atmospheric, with its alien screams and throbbing background ambiance, and Tim sat with me to play through the entire thing in a couple of sittings. More than once. This time around, playing Descent (and the previous modern relaunch game, Assault), I was forced to pressgang the Lady Rossignol into service. She wasn't anything like as impressed with this as Tim had been with the original games. She played through the first few matches, getting frustrated with the controls, before making some excuse about having to go and be alone in a corner of the house somewhere. She was right to be annoyed - the limited co-op options (which do not encompass the full campaign as the original games had done) seem neglected - a weak gesture towards the true nature of the source material. Hitting the single player campaign, I pressed on alone.
Of course Tim had seen through the appeal of the original games, too, in time. Once we'd been presented with something better they were all but redundant. In that younger, more innocent era, we were disposed to play through games again and again, but reliving Alien Breed came to an abrupt end when we discovered The Chaos Engine, a top down shooter than was - as top down shooters from the 16-bit era went - a kind of definitive swan song. In both art and science it made Alien Breed seem primitive, unimaginative, and ultimately fairly awkward. The Alien Breed disc was left to gather dust, and the series was neglected, with only a flicker of interest generated by Alien Breed 2: The Horror Continues. Disappointingly, this sequel turned out to not be all that horrifying, although it was visually more splendid, and it still remained less interesting than alternative 16-bit shooters. It was workmanlike. Functional. Acceptable. Reasonable. And that was never going to be enough. I didn't even bother to pick up the final 2D game, Tower Assault.
Peculiarly, I think this exact fate has been mirrored by the new Alien Breed games, some seventeen years on. They are now third-person shooters (presented at an angle, rather than top-down this time) in full 3D, thanks to the Unreal engine that powers them. You can spin the camera about left and right, to get a better view by degrees, a mechanic that, from the off, feels a little clunky. The environments are suitable murky and threatening, with aliens busting through walls and floors to get to you. I genuinely enjoyed running about, fighting off the baddies, finding the next thing on the list, although it never really felt like a challenge - just follow the waypoint and be quick with that mouse-trigger. The Unreal technology also enables cutscenes, and a host of visual effects to make things seem like a glitch in the wildest dreams of teenage, Amiga-owning Jim Rossignol.
This technology is robust and reliable enough for the game to never feel like it's going to let you down. It's stable, precise, and works just fine with mouse and keyboard. The pace of the main character is slow - although he can sprint - but that only adds to whatever tension the levels are able to create. Your enemies are always faster than you are, and Alien Breed becomes solidly about keeping the monsters from getting to you, and watching both your back, and your feet. The level design also moves between different levels, thanks to the tracking camera that the game is delivered with, which gives some depth to what could have been quite a flat world. It also mixes scripted events with general running about and shooting - everything you'd expect from the modern shooter. In many ways I think that's just what many of us want: a tiny world to explore, things to shoot, weapons to unlock. It's satisfying to do so.
However, despite this solid foundation, the truth is that the game feels very much as if it has been pulled together with only a modicum of ambition. It - of course- sits squarely in that "Aliens, only two degrees different" bracket that has been the default palette for so many sci-fi games in the past couple of decades. You know this. You're probably okay with it. I mean, it's a visual language we've all come to accept, but the over-familiarity can still be a drag. You don't even have to play it to have a handle on the monsters you will face: small skittery things, larger faster things, egg-sacs, and boss monsters that are slow but, by Jove, have a lot of hit points. You know these archetypes as well as, or better than, you know your own family. The weapons that are provided for their destruction sit in similar familiarity, and are entirely dependable. The assault rifle, the shotgun...
In fact these modern Alien Breed games faithfully mimic much of what was to be found in the original games, down to the computer terminals that allowed you to buy stuff, and the selection of weapons that you gradually unlock as you collect cash across the levels. There are new features, of course: can search human corpses for loot, as well as collecting the stuff you find scattered around the level, and there's a lot more interaction with the environment through switches and terminals. But still the basic process is one of heading forward so that you can kill more aliens, open up more level, and ultimately defeat the mastermind engineer enemy who has made your life difficult. I suppose there's far more story in these new games and in Descent that is even set up by a comic sequence to explain previous chapters.
Yet it's also nothing that you'd bother to mention to anyone, for any reason, unless you were born of a subterranean anti-culture: "Hey guys, have you heard what happens in the Alien Breed games? There's this spaceship, right, and these men with guns..." And nor, really, are the puzzles and door-opening quests that Alien Breed lays out in front of you more than is necessary to make the game complete. Some of the firefights you get into are tough, often simply because you are facing enemies coming from multiple directions at once, but the curse of Alien Breed is that it has been done better elsewhere. Although more visually impressive than Shadowgrounds, it's actually far less interesting in terms of level design - a lot of back and forth for this and that. And of course if you are wanting to play a true co-op game then Valve's free Alien Swarm game shines like a laser beacon through the alien biomass.
In some respects it seems petulant to lay out all these criticisms. If you were buying into a budget remake of an old game, you can't really expect aim-for-the-skies design brilliance. You can demand a reasonable well crafted game, and that's what you get here. If I were remaking games in the spirit of the '90s originals then they would have come out like this (although perhaps a little more austere and threatening). Team 17 have clearly kept themselves to a tight schedule and tighter design doc to make sure these games came out regularly enough to be kept in the consumer consciousness. They are neatly stacked within the parameters of what we have come to expect from these kinds of games, and go no further. No layers of RPG cleverness or non-linearity. They're each a few hours long, and priced accordingly. If your gaming chum is either my mate Tim circa 1992, or a more tolerant girlfriend, then they do pass the co-op test with a C+, but nevertheless Could Do Better.
What's frustrating thing is, well, The Chaos Engine. Where is the remake of that? If these solid and unremarkable shooters get a shake in a modern context, then where's the stuff that outshone their source material? Where are the reborn versions of the games with true pace and a mad storyboard? Where's my steampunk Victoriana nightmare revisited? Where, indeed. This has nothing to do with this game, in real terms, and everything to do with my own history and predilections. It's not even anything to do with Team 17's accomplishments or goals and yet... the bigger picture is where the niggles about sinking time into another Alien Breed game come from.
In conclusion? Well, I'm not going to recommend the Alien Breed games, they're just not bold or exciting enough, but I am going to recommend you try them for yourself. Alien Breed 3 has a demo here, and currently boasts 10% of the full game. I know that some of you will find entertainment enough in those alien-lined corridors, even if there's nothing truly remarkable to say about them. I've also discovered a freeware remake (faithful but not precisely the same) of the original Alien Breed games, called Alien Breed Oblieration. Actually not a bad sampler if you want to recall the original flavour, although I think it might need a gamepad.
If Alien Breed 3 represents anything worth talking about, it's the power that single ideas have exerted over video games for decades now: science fiction procedures that are almost second nature: Aliens as shorthand for grit in space. It was once the brooding alternative to shiny space opera, and now that seems redundant, too. Where now for the future of conflict among the stars?
*"Residual fondness" is potentially an excellent euphemism, no?