Back in 1991 Team 17 put out an Amiga game called Alien Breed; a top-down shooter that tapped so hard into the atmosphere of the “Alien” series that it had nerds screaming “They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!” and aping John Hurt’s death scene at least once every level. 18 years after it burst into the world, the developers who would go on to be known as “You know, those Worms guys!” have revived the Alien Breed franchise for a three part episodic series on the Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and Playstation Network.
Let me start by saying that Alien Breed Evolution is the dual stick shooter that made me realise I like dual stick shooters. Typically if I’m asked to do any sort of shooting on a console I’ll tell you where you can shove your thumb sticks and make do with the PC port instead. ABE drew me in so completely that I completely forgot about my seething rage for analogue controls and by the time I realised I wasn’t holding a mouse they’d already suckered me in with their extremely entertaining gameplay, the swines!
After a striking comic book style introduction, ABE deposits you on a ship that’s trying desperately hard to fall to pieces. Metallic creaks cut through the soundtrack, the screen shakes, and everything, everything explodes. The game really is superb at convincing you that the floor could disappear from beneath you at any moment. No time to worry about structural integrity though, there are aliens coming outta the goddamn walls!
Combat controls on the Xbox 360 version that I reviewed were excellent, and they have to be because you’re really up against it! The right stick controls the direction you face, B gives the nearest alien a quick slap around the chops, the right trigger turns things into bloody messes from a greater distance, and the left stick is for running away when things get grim. True to the original the camera remains top-down and pretty close in on Conrad, your character. More often than not the first warning of an attack will come as a blip on your radar from somewhere just outside of the viewable area, and therein lies one of ABE’s major dilemmas; do you fire blindly in the direction of the unseen monster or take a chance and let it come closer to find out if it’s weak enough to dispatch with your melee attack and save precious ammo? Make the wrong choice and the beastie may well take a chunk out of your health bar.
In his briefing the gent from Team 17 asked us to make sure that we took a look at the game’s “Elite” difficulty setting, and I’m very glad he did. In most games I tend to go for the “normal” option on the assumption that it’s what the game is designed for and the modes at either end of the spectrum just modify damage totals and the like. Interestingly that doesn’t appear to be the case in ABE. I’ve had a go at all three difficulty settings and the impression that I got is that rather than the settings being code for how hard you want your game to be, they refer to how casual you want it to be. Rookie mode will quite happily let you run around the corridors of the ship without a care, cackling madly as you unload clip after plentiful clip into the darkness. Elite, the highest setting, will present you with a game that will require a bit of thought. The smallest creatures will still die to one melee hit and the bigger ones will still tend to submit to a shotgun blast to the face but they’ll come in greater numbers and from more directions at once. You'll have to use a lot more health kits but you absolutely will learn how to conserve supplies.
I’ve mentioned the shotgun but I really must expand on that because a shoot-‘em-up is only as good as its boomstick. Elite mode in particular really served as a showcase for the great glass cannon of gaming. With a shotgun in your hands at lower difficulties you’re the most invincible badass in the universe but on elite the frequent reloads can put you in real trouble. This is especially noticeable in the occasional countdown sequences where, after tinkering with the ship’s gadgetry, you’re given the task of surviving a constant onslaught until the on-screen timer ticks down to zero. The game’s excellent but sparingly used music bursts out of nowhere to really heighten the tension in these sequences and at times I just wanted to back into a corner, shut my eyes, and squeeze the trigger until the screeching stopped.
I fear I may be putting myself at risk of some ridicule here but I actually found Alien Breed Evolution to be very creepy! It’s a great game to play with the lights off and the curtains drawn and a set of surround sound headphones. On more than one occasion I got so spooked that I fired off a shot at my own deployable sentry turrets as they twitched back and forth to look for targets. I don’t care whose side you’re on, don’t make any sudden moves!
One way to lessen the suspense is to enlist a friend to watch your six in local or online co-op. I know Felix, the Game Debate gaffer, has fond memories of sharing an Amiga screen with a pal; none of that split screen nonsense though. ABE still uses the full screen to show both players and manages to keep the tight, claustrophobic camera by preventing the players from moving too far away from each other. That’s the plus side but I wasn’t fond of the way the screen flashed when it was only my partner taking damage. Yes, I suppose it’s a useful reminder that my buddy is in a tight spot and needs assistance but frankly if he can’t handle himself I don’t know why I’m agreeing to split the ammo 50:50.
Episode one of three will set you back 800 Microsoft Points (around £6.80) and I’m sure it’ll be successful there on the 360 and on the PSN when it’s released later this year but I reckon ABE’s real home will be on Steam. As we’ve been discussing on the new Game Debate forums, a Steam user cannot resist a bargain. This is doubly true if the bargain game gets him nostalgic about his misspent youth. I’ve certainly enjoyed the first instalment on the 360 but even so I think it’ll be the PC where I follow the rest of the series later in 2010.