Review – Alien Swarm: Two can play that game!

With the free release of Valve’s Alien Swarm over a week ago, and after many hours spent playing online, BcR bring you a joint discussion about our time with the game and a review of just what makes this game so great.  Apart from the fact that it’s free, of course!

Matt:
So, Alien Swarm. It showed up rather suddenly, didn’t it?

Paul:
Yeah.  In all honesty I’d never even heard of the original Unreal Tournament mod, so it wasn’t really any exciting news to me.

Matt:
Until you learned Valve were behind it, right? The original UT2004 mod was excellent, and it’s good to know that modders out there do get noticed by bigger companies – Valve bought these guys out 2 years ago and have had them secretly working on this remake ever since. Then they go and release it for free…

Paul:
It was certainly a surprise to see a company like Valve – who haven’t made a single disappointing game to date – release something almost as impressive as Left 4 Dead completely for free.  It kind of makes you wonder why they even paid the original Alien Swarm modders to join them if they weren’t even going to make any obvious profit out of it…  Perhaps we’re going to see some purchasable DLC.

Matt:
It’d be cheeky (and risky, considering the fickle nature of Valve’s fans – bloody L4D2 boycott craziness) if they tried charging for DLC content to a free game, but it’s possible. At the very least we’ll see some new campaigns made by other modders. I hope so anyway, the game comes with one very polished campaign, but its short – if we were better, we’d have beaten it within 2 or 3 hours, but we struggled with just the 2 of us didn’t we? It was definitely made to be played with 4 players, and its superb when you do.

Brother's in arms...

Paul:
I completely agree with you about the 4 player coop.  Just like L4D, the game is meant to be enjoyed with other human beings, rather than useless AI teammates.  However, despite facing extreme odds while playing it with only the two of us, I still found it really fun, and not to mention scarier than usual.  Playing with a team of 4 really squeezes the most out of the game’s potential, especially when you have all four soldier classes in the mix – but something about playing with a team of 2 made those desperate moments of survival feel so much more heroic.  Fighting back to back against hordes of giant bugs and coming out of it only just barely alive felt awesome, even though it left us at a supreme loss when I accidentally threw my only weapon over the side of the cargo lift during the lift-descent scene.

Matt:
Yeah you screwed that up big time. But you’re right, it makes for more panic-stricken desperation when things go wrong, and when theres only 2 of you, the tension is even higher. We had a pretty good medic/tech combo going – I can’t think of another game that lets you be a medic armed with a flamethrower, hehe.

Paul: We definitely hit the weapon combination nail on the head about halfway through the campaign; my character wielding the prototype assault rifle, automated sentry gun, and door welder, and yours with a flamethrower/healing gun combo.  Your’s was particularly handy considering you had a tendency to spin in circles while spraying streams of fire, setting fire to anything and everything around you.  The winning combination did have to change eventually though when it became abundantly clear we were burning through far too much ammo far too quickly.  It was a shame to say goodbye to that extremely useful sentry gun, but boxes of spare ammo worked out for us a whole lot better in the end.

With only 2 people, a medic is essential.

Matt:
I do love how much stuff there is to unlock, and in typical Valve fashion, it all feels very balanced. You unlock more weapons the more you play, and each one requires a slightly different tactic to utilise. This means the game gets more varied the more you play, but never easier (aside from the fact you start to learn the enemy’s attack patterns and spawn locations). Gotta mention the graphics, it’s easy to forget this is the Source engine, and it’s never looked better.

Paul:
The graphics and lighting effects in this game are certainly beautiful in certain places, and I did have to stop a number of times just to admire some of the gorgeous visuals dotted around the maps. But I haven’t played too many games that I felt have the same fantastic unique look and feel to them as Half-Life 2, and to be honest I don’t think Alien Swarm is nearly quite as impressive a game – which is explainable by the lack of an immersive storyline or any real character interaction – but you can definitely see the best elements of the Source engine at work here.  I do kind of perceive it as L4D masquerading as a top-down arcade shooter though, but I can’t deny that it’s a game full to the brim with its own charm and exciting moments, and considering it’s free, I have no real complaints at all.

Matt:
Yeah you wouldn’t play Alien Swarm for the fairly rudimentary story – you play it because its another brilliant example of how 4-player co-op can make a good game great, and because its bloody free. Best free game ever? Who cares, really, but there’s no excuse not to try it. It’s the perfect game to re-enact the infamous standoff scene in Aliens, too.

Paul:
That’s probably the most enjoyable part of the game for me.  Aliens is the bestest, most favouritest film I’ve ever seen, and Alien Swarm dispenses homage after homage throughout the whole thing, which to me is like the best thing ever, after cake.  From the movement-tracking autocannons (reminiscent of the Colonial Marine’s Smart Rifles) and the automatic sentry guns defending the corridors from a brutal onslaught of bloodthirsty creatures, to the giant slimy eggs that release Facehugger Esc creatures to infect and devour your brain, there is nothing about the content of this game that doesn’t make me think of Ripley, Hicks and the rest of the gang, toasting Xenomorphs at every angle whilst fearful for their lives.  All we need now is for somebody to take it one step further and actually create a campaign exactly like the movie.

Matt:
That would be pretty awesome. And damn those fecking parasites – the bane of my medic-life. If a teammate gets infested, you can wave goodbye to any spare medical supplies you might have been saving up for the big boss fight. They’re the single most scary enemy in the game, and can wipe out your entire team in a matter of seconds.  And the noise they make, cripes – the sound design throughout is really brutal, but in particular when you get infested, or if a teammate shoots you, you can really feel every painful bite or bullet from the sound effects.  You shoot me a lot.

Paul:
It’s rather difficult to keep the gunfire away from your team mates when you’re surrounded by aliens and the only way to break free is to either use your superiour kung-fu moves or spray your weapon in every direction until the last bastard alien explodes into a green mist.  Casualties will ensue, but it’s better than total death.  You can talk, by the way, considering you – on at least one occasion – attempted to ‘heal’ me with your flamethrower.  And no, forgetting which weapon you have equipped is not an acceptable excuse for a friendly blast of liquid fire to the face, and would likely be frowned upon in a real-life combat situation…

Matt:
You were in the way. It’s a testament to how well thought-out this game is anyway, when you can set your friends on fire, but have a handy fire extinguisher at your fingertips as the secondary fire mode. Alien Swarm is a very polished game, and one that, with a few more campaigns at least, would easily be worth paying full price for. I have a heap of games I paid good money for, but they’ve been overshadowed by this awesome little surprise that came out of nowhere to take over the majority of my weekend. Valve know how to spoil us.

Paul:
It’s most definitely a hats off to Valve for this one.  What other company would ever release a brand-new game of this calibre for the cost of nothing?  I’m sure there are some out there I haven’t heard of, maybe, but for a company like Valve who could have easily sold this game for even a few pounds per head and made a million out of it alone, it really speaks volumes just how much they appreciate their fans, and the lengths they are willing to go to just to keep us happy.  Valve, all my loyalties are belong to you!

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