Our computer-game and firearms consultant Jeremy Levett pits his wits against the gribblies in
Alien Swarm (2010) The Bee says, "Take off and nuke the whole site from orbit: it's the only way to be sure."
Valve Software are known for three things: making near-perfect games, finding and hiring the best independent talent, and taking forever and a day to release anything. Alien Swarm, released for free on the 19th of July without warning or fanfare,* breaks with their tradition in two ways. Here’s a hint: it’s not the independent talent thing.
The story of Alien Swarm is very similar to that of Left 4 Dead. Both were being created independently, as mods, before Valve employed their developers to make full games. Both are four-player cooperative games in which you and three friends take on hordes of computer-controlled gribblies. Both are fairly bare-bones, story-wise, playing through campaigns shooting things with a minimum of background or narrative. But where L4D was a first-person shooter, Alien Swarm is top-down third-person; where L4D joyfully embraced every zombie cliché in the book, Alien Swarm is every Aliens cliché; and where L4D was superb in every way, Alien Swarm isn’t.
The game is free to play, and has minimal content: a single campaign and a decent set of weapons, characters and achievements. The SDK** was released at the same time as the game. The message is clear: make your own campaigns. Valve are known for encouraging community-made content, and here it seems they’ll be relying on it completely to flesh out this skeleton of a game.
The single official campaign, “Jacob’s Rest,” is excellent. You fight through the set of Aliens in a storm of familiar tropes: advancing through a creepily abandoned station, covering one of your number while he welds a door shut to delay alien monsters, using sentry guns to hold off hordes of critters while your tech hacks frantically at a computer, riding a cargo lift that descends ever so slowly while aliens leap down from the walls and ceiling, and one hugely satisfying mission in which you’re given a flamethrower, sent to a large nest of alien eggs/parasites/biomass, and told to cleanse and purge. The graphics are gorgeous, and the gameplay is fairly polished throughout, aside from a few issues like the truly aggravating
facehuggers parasites, who kill you unless your team medic uses a lot of healing supplies very quickly (and sometimes, regardless of even that) and the seriously overpowered enemy-freezing, near-infinite-ammo Tesla gun.
As in L4D, you and your fellow marines communicate via voice chat, typing or a rather good set of pre-programmed lines. There are four classes, distinct though not nearly as different or specialised as in Team Fortress 2; each is a space marine with a rifle, plus some extra stuff. A basic XP and levelling system, with the bulk of the XP awarded for completing missions rather than killing things, allows access to more and more weapons. I can’t see why anyone would want to play as anything but the Special Weapons trooper, but they each have plenty going for them: Special Weapons, who is tough and gets by far the best basic weapon (a powerful auto-aiming machine gun taken directly from Aliens’ smartgun); the Medic, who wears a natty white spacesuit and is the only one who can drop healing beacons (and, later, use a healing gun on teammates); the Officer, who provides boosts to his teammates and gets a special shotgun, and the Technical, who gets a special rifle, bonuses for using welders and sentry guns, and is required to hack doors, fiddle with computers and progress through the game. Unlike L4D, there are no respawn points, so if you or one of your teammates dies they’re out for the rest of the chapter. If the tech marine dies, you usually have to restart, as you can’t finish the puzzles without him. Although in single player mode the other three marines are controlled by the computer, in cooperative mode there are (again unlike L4D) no bots – you need four people, and it’s considerably harder to drop in and out of a game.
The biggest problem with Alien Swarm is that it’s so generic. It takes the time-honoured clichés of space marines and alien bio-horrors we know so well from Cameron’s Aliens, Verhoeven’s version of Starship Troopers and the million “space marine fights aliens” computer games that have aped them, and... replicates them exactly without doing anything new or creative. There is no real story or characterisation, nor are there any gameplay elements we haven’t seen before a thousand times. Valve, renowned for excellent character design, writing and voice acting, have here created an utterly forgettable set of faceless space marines with one-word names, who spout hackneyed, staticky “badass” lines at scripted moments and are distinguishable only by the colour of their armoured spacesuits. Each character is just a set of bonuses, a portrait and a short, poorly written bio, scattered alternately with pulp-SF tropes and painfully silly lines like “the soul of a medic.” Even worse are the weapon descriptions, which take the bog standard guns (assault rifle, dual pistols, shotgun, machine gun, flamethrower, sniper rifle, sci-fi thing that vomits lightning everywhere) with bog standard generic sorta-futuristic designs and bog standard stupid, meaningless descriptions clearly written by someone who just didn’t care.*** Everything is riddled with mistakes and generally amateurish writing.
But you get what you pay for, and this is free.
Taken as a game, Alien Swarm isn’t all that great; it has reasonable gameplay, but lacks both polish and substance. Taken as what it’s meant to be – a cheap’n’cheerful way to get lots of people using Steam and playing with their friends – it’s very clever, and bound to be successful. In a couple of months, when community developers have put together some good new campaigns, and Valve have addressed some of the gameplay problems, it’ll be a perfectly competent space-marines-shoot-aliens co-op.
But it could have been so much more.
Alien Swarm’s technical details, and the game itself, can be found here on Steam
* The game was announced a couple of days before launch. The release was, of course, delayed several hours, and resulted in the Steam download servers completely keeling over. I don’t understand why they even bothered to announce a release time.
** Software Development Kit, basically the tools used to make the original game. Very useful for modders and third party content makers.
***Knowing the first thing about firearms terminology (a personal hobby-horse) has never been a strong point of the gaming industry, but “semi-automatic bolt-action” is going a bit too far. Though it conjures an amusing mental image of a gun extending a small robotic arm to work its own bolt.