Alien Swarm (PC) review
"Alien Swarm has drawn numerous comparisons to Left 4 Dead, and not without reason. Theyíre both products of Valve, and they both place four players in the situation of having to fend off waves of very ugly (and very mindless) enemies, often to satisfyingly gory results. But whereas L4Dís team dynamics were its selling point, there really isnít much more to Alien Swarm than whatís on the surface, and thatís not a bad thing at all. Sometimes itís fun to just arm yourself with a giant minigun and pretend youíre a marine from Aliens. Sometimes itís fun to go on a simple bug hunt."
Itís unlikely that anyone interested in Alien Swarm will seek validation from a person like me. Itís a cooperative, top-down shooter in which you and three other people fight off waves of aliens that look like the result of the mutalisks from StarCraft and the headcrabs from Half-Life being cross-bred. It was created by members of Valve. Itís free. What else do you want me to tell you? Why arenít you playing this game right now?
In many ways, there isnít much more to say. Alien Swarm has drawn numerous comparisons to Left 4 Dead, and not without reason. Theyíre both products of Valve, and they both place four players in the situation of having to fend off waves of very ugly (and very mindless) enemies, often to satisfyingly gory results. But whereas L4Dís team dynamics were its selling point, there really isnít much more to Alien Swarm than whatís on the surface, and thatís not a bad thing at all. Sometimes itís fun to just arm yourself with a giant minigun and pretend youíre a marine from Aliens. Sometimes itís fun to go on a simple bug hunt.
Itís telling that of the dozens of people Iíve played Alien Swarm with, only two or three of them have ever used a microphone. Itís not that teamwork isnít an integral part of the design Ė it definitely is Ė but the game and its accompanying joys are too inherently simple for excessive communication. Your objective is never in question: Stay together, move through levels quickly and steadily, and shoot anything that doesnít have a face. Of the four classes, only the Tech is absolutely essential to progression. The other three Ė Officer, Medic and Special Weapons Ė each have their own perks and add to a strong team dynamic that, again, is incredibly simple. When someone is hurt, the Medic heals him. When a particularly large enemy approaches, everyone hides behind whoever's carrying the autogun. Everything is presumed, and in an odd way, the cooperative play is strong enough that a large amount of communication between players isnít necessary.
As of now, Alien Swarm only has one campaign, consisting of eight missions. Iím sure thatíll change with time, especially considering that the SDK is available, but youíd be surprised just how much youíll get out of what little is here. Much of it plays out in the manner of your typical alien infestation sightseeing tour, taking you through your standard dank sewers, abandoned office buildings and wintry outdoor locales. Thanks to Valveís typically strong production values, however, the simple firefights and generic environments are elevated to something more. Through the use of cinematic slow motion and an energetic (yet, at the same time, somewhat restrained) score, moments that should feel decidedly ordinary are, well, pretty frigginí awesome instead. Surviving players will breathe a sigh of relief upon clearing any of the gameís climactic sequences, while dead players will feel sorry they couldnít get in on it.
What impresses me most about the campaign, however, is how well itís paced, how Valve consistently bumps up the stakes throughout. The first few levels assault you with just the basic enemy types, and then you're gradually pitted against bigger, more fearsome creatures, such as the arachnid-like aliens with shielded legs, or the wobbly quadrupeds that drop exploding spores when killed. The campaignís second half nails you with a rather brutal difficulty spike as youíre introduced to the parasites, which latch onto your face, drain your health and will kill you almost instantaneously without the assistance of a Medic. I note that while the gameís last couple of levels are easily its most intense, even the common alien types can absolutely rip you to pieces if your team isnít working efficiently. All characters come equipped with a melee attack, but good luck using it effectively on more than one enemy at any given time.
Unlike the zombie hordes in L4D, the waves of critters in Alien Swarm arenít randomly generated, though I only know that from having completed the campaign numerous times and, in many cases, memorized enemy movement patterns. Each level is so thoroughly peppered with crevices and ventilations shafts from which aliens can emerge that itís impossible to feel at ease when playing the game for the first (or second, or third) time. Alien Swarmís top-down perspective even works to the playerís advantage since it limits their vision, and seemingly tired level design tropes, like defending your Tech while heís working a terminal or fighting off swarms of monsters while riding down a very slow-moving elevator, are riveting when the gameís design principles are so unpredictable. Plus, in typical Valve fashion, the sound cues are so excellent that youíll often know which varieties of alien youíre up against before you even see them.
Iím in danger of overhyping Alien Swarm, and I donít want to do that. Itís a simple game of simple pleasures, and most players will reach the level cap (sorry, I forgot to mention that thereís a level-up system) within only a few hours. Itís important to remember, though, that the folks at Valve probably could have slapped a price on this game Ė even a relatively small one Ė and made a steal, and the fact that they didnít is one of the reasons why you need to get on Steam and download Alien Swarm right now if you havenít already. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
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