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Holding Grudges in Low Gravity
Over a decade ago now, when the Amiga was still going strong as a home computing option, I was thrilled to receive a copy of Alien Breed: Tower Assault. The Alien Breed games were premier titles of the time, on a platform where top down shooting games were at their most popular. Unfortunately this particular version of the game happened to be fatally bugged to the point of no t being playable beyond the first section. At the time, patches weren’t readily available, and there didn’t seem to be any avenue to report this to, so I have simply harboured a grudge for more than 10 years. A grudge that has swelled in my chest waiting to burst forth! Either that or I have a heart condition.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Alien Breed games were typically top down shooting games which borrowed a lot from an esoteric series of films barely anybody has seen called ‘Aliens’ or something like that. They typically involved gunning down aliens and collecting keycards and so on, which is how you could describe Alien Breed: Impact if you happened to love sweeping statements.
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H. R. Giger Counter
While Alien Breed: Impact still sits in the same vague genre as its predecessors, our xenomorphic friend has undergone some evolution: a vast graphical advancement and a greater emphasis on story and atmosphere.
The Giger homage of humanoid aliens has been replaced with a more insect like breed, the game retains much from its past that it transplants into the latest installment. The available arsenal ranges from future assault rifles, shotguns, a satisfyingly implemented flamethrower to .. laser rifles? The switch to out an out sci-fi weaponry is a little jarring, but in game terms they do things fantastical and FUTURISTIC so it works. Slaying space beasts by bouncing space lasers down space corridors is (space) hilarious and the pursuit of space kings.
The purchasable item and upgrade system has also returned, thanks to the sure to be shadowy Intex Corporation. In the grim darkness of the far future, a major source of income is the looting of corpses, so not much different than our society then.
The breed themselves are quite diverse, with their differing behaviours, strategies, and vulnerabilities forcing players to come up with their own tactics when facing a mixed swarm. It’s quite effective, and gives Alien Breed: Impact a touch of complexity amid all the trigger pulling. That developers Team17 did such a good job differentiating the swarm's behaviour is a double edged sword as it begs the question of why there were not more sub-species to mutilate.
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Whereas older incarnations would have dumped players into the action Alien Breed: Impact is more of a slow burn, easing into things with dark, sparsely lit, but heavily cluttered corridors, ambient drones, intricately detailed but now ravaged and corpse strewn areas like the mess hall and a veritable parade of ship mates set upon and dragged off by the elusive creatures before there is time to react.
In fact the game takes pains to establish something of a horror tone, much like another game with a relatively recent series renewal; Doom 3. It is a good long while before the chance to gun anything down arrives.
Rest assured it does come though, first a trickle and then wave after wave. At it’s peak Alien Breed: Impact is frantic and tense; players are quickly conditioned to expect ambush after ambush, and things are at their most tense when the ambushes do not come. That is, other than when being engaged in a desperate fire fight against a never ending tide of the breed.
Despite this tense execution, and the occasional tendency to get the drop on the unwary, it's atmospheric rather than outright scary. Human contact is rare other than watching survivors depart that category; lootable corpses are a regular occurrence,as are the narrative device of logs that the player finds, detailing events, as well as technical data about Breed species and weapons. They serve to flesh out the scenario of Alien Breed: Impact and give a sense of identity to the overall world by introducing minutiae as well as developing a back story for the characters, even if it is rather thinly applied.
Frustratingly what players are tantalised with is quite compelling, but not at all expanded on in Alien Breed: Impact, which is just as well on the one hand since it's the 'introduction' to a series of games, but also seems like a dirty trick if dwelt on. It bodes well for future installments at least.
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Trigger Happy: Controls and Interface
The revival of the franchise has resulted in some changes to the old beast. It is more evolved, and so it should be. Notably, the core mechanism of shooting now has a semblance of thr ee dimensionality; aiming now includes depth and the heights of targets must be taken into account when taking a shot.
In a way, this update is obvious; but it could be surprising if you were expecting shooting to follow the tried and tested formula of it being directly tied to the direction the character is set to face, rather than the ability to independently aim. It works seamlessly, with practice anyway. There might be some confusion about laser sight being the line of fire rather than the crosshair, but weapons behave differently, which is a good thing.
The interface is unintrusively stylised in Impact's monochromatic blue, and comfortably fits the mould of futuristic heads up display.
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In Space, Only Grizzled Engineers Can Hear Your Demonic Roar - Sounds
The music of Alien Breed is dramatic and tense and so sets the mood perfectly, even though there could have been more music; that there isn't more music is a little bit of a letdown, considering how apt what there is, is. The voice acting is quite good also though some of the writing is a bit questionable in places. The biggest complaint that comes to mind is that character interactions aren't voiced during gameplay and simply take the form of text. It would have been more immersive to have characters actually speaking to each other in-game. That they don't gives the story less presence and objectives less interconnectivity with the story sections.
The environment itself is quite aurally immersive however, between the various mechanical thrums, whirring servos and clankin g debris quite a complete picture is built up. Though some of the ambient sounds can be a little repetitive. The weapons all sound as you would expect them to, distinct and different to each other. Special mentions must go to the assault rifle, which sounds particularly good and the laser rifle, for being the comic relief gun and actually making pew pew noises.
Lastly, the breed themselves sound both recognisably alien yet encouragingly tactile, with their inhuman shrieks and distinctive skittering; if you're expecting the scanner noise from Aliens though, you can forget it, the game would be nothing but beeping.
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Planetoids for All - Graphics
Alien Breed looks fantastic. The Unreal engine is used to great effect with its generous use of dynamic lighting, particle effects, and ever more intricate architecture. The graphics take a big leap from days of 16bit yore (the 1990s). Upon playing it for the first time, it was quite a pleasant surprise just how good it looks. There is a lot of contrast between the numerous dark and dilapidated corridors only lit by a flashlight, and the number of elaborate set pieces involved in restoring ship systems, including a computer mainframe that could almost be right out of Tron.
Visible effort went into making the environments detailed enough to be convincing in the context of a crew having lived and worked within them, and although a uniformity of setting starts to creep in after some time, more often then not this is soon diffused with a new area or unique scene. I can not recall a game of this admittedly slim genre that looks better than Alien Breed: Impact.
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The Gauntlet - Gameplay
At its best, Alien Breed is a nerve jangling, reflex punishing, gun festival. It doesn’t always reach these heights, but when it does it’s a frantic [all of] them or you battle to the death that encourages tactical thinking, as well as being fast on the trigger. Grenades for example, have set up times; they can be launched while moving and firing, but they will not be thrown unless uninterrupted, which is an interesting spin on what would typically be an instant use item that promotes both forward planning and tension.
While there are hints of survival horror genre blending, that is more about setting than actual content, even though there may be times when ammo is sparse or you find yourself dreading going into the next room because it is so obviously going to be a trap. Kind of like… yep, Doom again, the game really does play like Doom would if it were top down and a little brighter.
Oddly, the multiplayer co-op brings out the best in Alien Breed, as players are cast as ancillary characters, attempting to find the story mode protagonist. It’s a nice touch that an alternate game mode plays off another angle of the story. However, it is a much less forgiving game in multiplayer, without previously found equipment or upgrades, more numerous enemies and an onus on both teamwork and the survival horror aspect that this Alien Breed: Impact review is so eager to point out. There is relatively little ammunition and items to be shared between players and no way to interact with said items i.e. using a medkit on a team mate or handing off ammo.
There are also hints of a mild RPG element, with the upgrade system. Only one upgrade can be present at a time, and are each quite expensive, forcing players to choose upgrades carefully or suffer. The damage upgrades visibly alter weapons, which is a welcome detail. While a good idea, the upgrade system would have been better served with some expansion and more variety. Each weapon has the same set of upgrades, and though they interact slightly differently with each weapon, it seems like something of a missed opportunity.
Gameplay boils down to shooting things and trying to fix mechanical systems. Sometimes, it gets repetitive. The constant errands can be annoying, but the scenes that follow them which often involves enacting repairs whilst holding off the breed is rewarding and a good example of what makes the game a good one.
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Ripley's Believe It Or Not - Conclusion
There is a lot to like about Alien Breed: Impact; it has a wealth of ideas, but unfortunately a great deal of these ideas are never realised to their conclusions (which is probably why this Alien Breed: Impact review is both gushing and bitter). What it does do however, is blend fast paced action, with a keen sense of atmosphere and put a new spin on a very old formula. In some ways it's like a person out of time, stepping into the modern age from the past, bringing its own ways, yet adapting to modern technology and methods.
Alien Breed: Impact is a solid shooter with both style and substance, though that substance happens to be splattered alien guts. For enthusiasts of xenocide, there are few finer choices.
Digital distribution has resurrected Alien Breed and it is hungry for your sweat beads and worn down mouse buttons, in a way only top down shooting games can be.