Review: Alien Breed: Impact
June 11, 2010, Author: James Sheppard
Alien Breed was first released by Team 17 on the good ol’ Amiga back in 1991, and MS-DOS a couple of years later. For the purposes of this review, I had a quick play on the MS-DOS version and I have to say that considering its age, it still holds it own today to an extent, although some aspects are horribly outdated. The emphasis of the Alien Breed series has always been on a creepy atmosphere, and brainless yet fun alien-slaughtering action.
Recently, Alien Breed: Evolution Episode 1 was released on the Xbox 360 Live Arcade, attempting to remake the original and bring it up to date with modern standards. As you can tell from the ‘Episode 1’ subtitle, they plan to bring this out in a series, and I believe it will be a trilogy if all goes well. Alien Breed: Impact brings the game to the PC platform, and also to PSN (I will be reviewing the former). Impact is similar to the Xbox 360 ‘Evolution’ version yet improves on it, with better graphics, revised aliens, improved co-op play and most importantly, more customisation of weaponry.
A new breed
Firstly, let me begin by saying that if you were interested in Alien Breed: Impact because you wanted to sink your teeth into a good storyline, you will be sorely disappointed. Also, I’ve no idea where you got that impression from. This is strictly an action game, not that this should be taken negatively; not all games need deep, sprawling narratives. You control Conrad, a stereotypically masculine and badass engineer aboard the ship Leopold, which has collided with an Alien mothership and become unfortunately attached to it, leaving you at the mercy of invading hordes of cretinous alien fiends who ask for nothing more than a taste of the tender flesh on your face, and generously provide ample gooey alien juice in return.
I can’t particularly remember much else about the storyline than that, and to be honest that’s probably because there wasn’t really much else to it. What little story there actually is, gets communicated to you through the means of comic-book style cut-scenes between each level, accompanied by hilariously bad voice acting. These get the job done, albeit in a very dull manner. I think back to games like Infamous on the PS3, that made comic-style cut-scenes reasonably enjoyable with a colourful art style that jumped out of you, and have to say that Alien Breed: Impact does a poor job here. But who cares?! All this crap is in the way of me shooting aliens anyway, lemme at ‘em!
Aliens, aliens, and more aliens… oh, and keycards
The action is probably Impact’s biggest selling point, as the combat is nicely refined, and also has a kind learning curve. To start with you’ll battle one or two little critters that you could practically tread on with your foot, but as the game progresses you’ll become bombarded by countless beasts intent on ripping you to shreds. The guns are fun to use although quite generic, with your typical machine gun, shotgun, flamethrower etc. These can all be upgraded with improvements like increased fire rate or damage. This is where some strategy comes in which is a welcome change. Your efforts are encouraged into hunting out every last wad of cash, and conserving as many supplies as you can to minimise expenditure on ammo and health, so that as much of your money as possible can be used to upgrade your weaponry.
Furthermore, you can only use one upgrade at a time, with the choice of upgrading to a cheap improvement soon like increased fire rate that effectively deals more damage but wastes ammo faster, or waiting it out for a more expensive modification that would be more worth it in the end. I found this aspect of the game enjoyable as it required some thought and planning, and not just twitchy reflexes.
One problem for me, however, that spoils the enjoyment of the combat is the controls. Impact uses a similar layout to your typical FPS, with WASD controls and the mouse to aim. This arguably doesn’t work quite so well from a top down perspective, and doesn’t feel as natural. It has its bonuses because your movement and aiming are controlled independently, so you can simultaneously loot a locker and watch your back to avoid turning into breakfast while you do so. It’s all a bit fiddly, though, especially when you’re running. I found it generally much easier to back myself into a corner (something you’d have otherwise thought would be the last thing you’d want to do around these guys) and spray away.
There is another option however, and that is to plug in a gamepad, which I feel are becoming increasingly useful on PC these days with all of the console ports it gets now. I used the Xbox 360 wired controller, and it worked great straight away, automatically configured (you’d have hoped so, considering they’d already worked it out for Evolution) and I found it mostly easier to control, especially for movement. If you do this, the controls feel reminiscent of Geometry Wars, which isn’t a bad thing, and I feel they aid a more run-and-gun approach to the gameplay. The only trade-off is less accuracy as you’d expect, but overall I think it’s a much less awkward method of input. Unfortunately, either control method doesn’t improve the deployment of grenades, which is poorly thought out. Holding the item button down will fill up a meter, determining how far you throw it. It’s all too easy to accidentally tap it though, and detonate a nice frag at your feet, which is about as welcome as your Grandma to your bachelor party. On the flipside, it can also take a split second too long to throw them, which can be a long time in this game, as you’ll probably already have an alien munching on your leg by this point.
There are five levels overall, which doesn’t sound like a lot, and well, it isn’t really. That said, this is episodic content at a lower price than a full game so this is to be expected. Each level will take you about an hour to bulldoze your way through. Well, only it’s not quite that simple. Similarly to the original in days of yore, it’s all about getting access to new rooms through the use of keycards, and now also neutralising the fires or noxious gas that may be inconveniently blocking off a passage from entry. This results in a fair amount of backtracking to go off and hunt for the keycards/control console/power switch/[insert generic level element here] that you need to progress through the game, which does break up the action. These are usually also simple fetch quests; it would have been nice to have some actual puzzles that tested your noodle. Fortunately, you at least have a useful mini-map with waypoints to point you towards the next objective, which would have been very annoying to locate otherwise through all of the samey corridors. You’ll usually meet more aliens jumping out at you again on the second time through a route as well, to keep it more interesting.
As for the aliens jumping out at you, this is the only way that you find them for the first few levels, when they burrow out of holes as you walk past them. This does at least add to the scare factor, because a top down view would have made it far too predictable otherwise, as you’d have been able to see all of the enemies patiently and politely waiting for you to get there. Pretty much everything in this game in fact is scripted: you’ll know that when you use a console in the level, there’s a good chance some face-huggers will just pop out while you’re in the middle of typing in a code, and that each room is probably going to have some enemies jump out at you at some point as you walk past. This isn’t too bad, although the scripted explosions are irritating as hell. For some reason, parts of the wall will just keep randomly blowing up, from a gas leak or something probably, and you can walk off and walk back to that same spot and it’ll do it again. All of this amounts to the game feeling like a walk through a nursery full of Jack-in-a-boxes.
Aside from the combat however, there is another aspect that Alien Breed: Impact does well, and that’s the atmosphere. It can be genuinely scary sometimes (albeit mildly) and that’s a good achievement for a game not in a close first or third person perspective. The levels are richly detailed, and often quite dark, leaving you to rely on your trusty flashlight, which actually affects some enemies; a nice touch. Additionally the game’s sound (which I will talk about later) helps create the atmosphere. Overall Impact feels very much so like a top-down version of Dead Space; being stranded on a creepy spaceship crawling with aliens coming from the walls, with weapon customisation at computer consoles and a lack of much human company. In fact, sometimes the similarities are uncanny; even the character looks similar to the Dead Space protagonist, sporting green lights on his back, first made fashionable by Sam Fisher of Splinter Cell. Though, Alien Breed got there first in 1991, so nerrr.
After each level you get statistics of how well you did and the Free Play mode will unlock for you to try and beat your score if you so wish. This doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but it may to some. I feel that if it were non-stop shooting action it might be a more exciting option, but all of the backtracking arguably works to the detriment of replayability, because I certainly couldn’t face doing it all again. The game also does not evolve much as it progresses, it just increases in intensity, with little else to offer to the table. There is some creativity (though limited) near the end of the game however, but I don’t want to spoil it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Looks out of this World!
Nah sorry, that’s total hyperbole. But Alien Breed is certainly no ugly mongrel. Comparing it to the Amiga original is hilarious, and makes you want to celebrate technical advancements over the past couple of decades. It uses the Unreal3 Engine, and in fact almost looks a tad like a top-down version of both Unreal Tournament 3 and Gears of War, sporting a similarly chunky-armoured hero fighting off aliens in detailed futuristic settings, with nice glossy lighting effects blinding your eyes from all over the place. I feel that the bird’s eye view does however, detract a little from the visuals, as there are details in the animation such as the aliens opening their huge mouth and roaring at you, and it would have been nice to actually stare down their throat and watch your face get covered in spittle.
Alas, the game is not there to serve the sole purpose of looking pretty; a first-person view would not have been staying true to its roots. At least the perspective it has does allows you take in a wide array of the effects and detailed environments on offer, although perhaps the latter can get too samey sometimes, with corridor after corridor to look at and try to get excited over. The character models can also get a bit repetitive, with the first level for example offering just:
- Small Creepy Face-Sucky Thing, and
- Big Creepy Face-Sucky Thing,
to unload your weapons into.
I do think the game could perhaps be optimised slightly better, as even on my reasonably powerful gaming computer that far exceeds the recommended specifications, it has frequent drops in frame-rate at explosions for example. It’s also disappointing there isn’t a wider range of graphical settings to alter, so more rubbish hardware could be supported, as it is the type of game that would be good for a quick blast on a laptop when out and about.
Does the sound make much of an ‘Impact’?
There is a lack of music in this game, except for on occasions. There are two ways of looking at this: firstly the developers were too lazy/under-funded to put much music in, or secondly, the lack of background music purposely stops anything detracting from the fact that you’re practically all alone in a ship full of vicious creatures, with little more to listen to than your own heartbeat and the crumbling of the walls as they break through and jump out at you screeching in rage… Well, whichever option is the truth here, I have to say that the latter definitely applies. The lack of music actually adds to the atmosphere in Alien Breed: Impact, which is a rare occurrence. As for the sound effects, they’re hardly going to blow your mind but they manage to match the on-screen action reasonably well, with typical gun shots (although some can be a bit weedy), explosions and screaming aliens. As I said before though, it’s probably the silences that are the most haunting and effective.
Alien vs. Partner
The game boasts a two player co-operative mode, just like the Amiga original (online this time of course), trying to add some more replayability. Your chances of finding a stranger to play online with however, are slim, and this is just a few days after release. So, ideally this function should be used for playing with friends in mind. Unfortunately, maybe I’m just a loner but I don’t know any friends who have the game, therefore my experience of this component is lacking. Reports of the gameplay online however are not promising, suggesting frequent disconnects and other issues, so this is something that Team 17 probably need to work on, for the few people that actually use it.
What Alien Breed: Impact sets out to do, it mostly does well. The gunplay is good fun, the atmosphere is excellently realised, and the new weapon upgrade system is addictive and well-implemented, adding a vital layer of tactics to the game. For a smaller budget game, it also boasts impressive graphics. There are numerous issues though, such as the repetitive, scripted nature of the game, dull keycard hunting, fiddly controls and stunted replayability (except for those dedicated few). Impact feels a bit old-fashioned at times, but I can see the dilemma that Team 17 must have faced to create a new, modern game yet keep it true to the 1991 original, and with this considered they didn’t do a bad job. It creates a reasonable base to build on for the next two episodes of Alien Breed to be released and also, I just hope that next time they sort out some of the niggles and improve the replay value. Overall Alien Breed: Impact is a fairly enjoyable arcade-esque romp that is probably a bit niche and may not appeal to everyone.