A few weeks ago I finally decided to buy the Alien Breed: Impact double pack for myself and a friend. For those of you who aren’t aware, Alien Breed: Impact is the PC version of Alien Breed: Evolution which in turn is a reboot of a classic franchise by Team17 originating on the Commodore Amiga in 1991. The main reason I purchased Impact was simply because of one thing: Alien Swarm. Actually make that two things: Alien Swarm and a Steam mid-week madness half-price sale. Up until the release of Valve’s new bug hunt I’d not given Alien Breed: Impact a second thought due in no small part to its lukewarm reception on release. Alien Swarm, however, had piqued my interest in Team17’s underdog.
Any PC flavoured Steam user will more than likely be aware of Alien Swarm by now and some of our forum lounge lizards will know that I’ve been playing it on and off since it was released. Alien Swarm started out as a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 and later spawned a sequel developed for the Source engine titled Alien Swarm: Infested. During development Valve hired the team and helped complete the project, releasing it about a month ago for free simply as Alien Swarm. For free, as in: it poses no threat to your finances. Valve also released a software development kit with the game allowing modders to have their way with it right from the get go.
When I read about Alien Swarm I was thrilled, not least because it was a free multiplayer coop shooter, but because it was effectively Hired Guns meets Alien Breed or even The Chaos Engine. The former of which was a mild obsession for me and my brother back in the Amiga days and was probably the closest we would ever come to feeling like Gorman in James Cameron’s Aliens. Speaking of Cameron’s classic, Alien Swarm makes no qualms in lifting as much from it as possible, whether it be the infested colony plot or memorable quips like “anytime, anywhere”. It must be said however, that this isn’t a bad thing because thankfully the production values and implementation do the source material justice, and if anything, Alien Swarm perhaps marks the closest a game has ever come to emulating the action in Aliens.
But whoa there, easy tiger. Alien Swarm looks very similar to Alien Breed: Evolution/Impact, only it doesn’t cost a penny, has four player coop instead of two, is open to modders and is also expected to be steadily expanded and improved upon by Valve directly. How the hell can Team17 compete with that? I’m pretty sure Team17 can’t afford to develop games for free and their comparatively limited resources won’t help matters either. Poor old Team17.
Team17, in much the same way as The Bitmap Brothers, created a legacy on the Amiga and one that many fans remember with a nostalgic tear in their eye. Superfrog, Assassin, Overdrive, ATR: All Terrain Racing, Project X, Apidya, Full Contact, Body Blows I & II, Qwak, the Alien Breed series, and last but by no means least, the original Worms. Contrary to popular belief, the Worms franchise did actually begin somewhere and isn’t some sort of eternal constant. These are the games I remember Team17 for and although I don’t regard any of them particularly highly now, they were a key part of my formative years. To see the company reboot a much revered franchise shortly before the almighty Valve take on a solid mod and level the competition with it, is… I don’t know, a little unfortunate.
After seeing the Alien Breed: Impact half-price sale conveniently enter the fray after Alien Swarm had had a few weeks in the limelight I Googled “Alien Swarm vs Alien Breed: Impact” in the hopes of getting some idea of the differences between the two games. Most of the comparisons of course were on the Steam forums and the consensus was that Alien Swarm was the better game with a handful of people saying that they were sufficiently different not to warrant a comparison. Certain corners were outright condemning Alien Breed for even trying to exist now that Alien Swarm had arrived which I thought was outrageous. Thankfully Team17’s community manager dropped by to issue the following:
Alien Breed Assault is coming and will be another step up from Episode 1. We believe that there still is a market for the style of game we have made and finally Valve told us about Alien Swarm a while ago and actually delayed it’s release a bit, they have been really good to us.
I figured I was going to have to play it and decide for myself so I downloaded the demo and sampled the single player experience which, although riddled with intrusive ‘Purchase the full game!’ pop-ups, was surprisingly enjoyable and oddly addictive. So I thought I’d give Team17 a boost, buy the double pack for a tenner and play it with a friend whilst this alien craze was upon us and so far it’s been a lot of fun, even with Alien Swarm on the burner as well.
I must stress that Alien Breed: Impact isn’t primarily a coop game and has a huge single player campaign as well. More than anything, this article sets out to address the differences between the two games, specifically the coop modes (apparently Team17 intend on expanding upon the cooperative aspect of Alien Breed for future installments – which I suspect is a product of Alien Swarm’s success). I’d like to add that since purchasing the game I’ve only played the coop mode so the single player campaign will remain outside the scope of this article. It’s also worth mentioning that my experience with both Alien Swarm and Alien Breed: Impact has been with friends across microphones, so I haven’t played either of them with strangers and this of course will colour my opinion of both titles.
Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.
Alien Breed: Impact continues much in the same vein as the preceding entries in its series by casting you as Billy McBig Bollocks amidst a generic alien infestation aboard some generic space craft. Your character is viewed from a slightly angled top-down perspective and is controlled using the WSAD keys while the mouse is used to aim and shoot – this control scheme is also used in Alien Swarm. As you navigate your way through the various corridors and rooms towards specific objectives you’ll amass a formidable assortment of upgradeable weaponry to dispatch the hordes of critters attacking you. As mentioned, the game offers a separate cooperative assault mode allowing a second player to take on the role of Captain Beef Muscle, Billy’s best friend.
Alien Breed: Impact and Alien Swarm are very similar in many respects but they do have their differences, some of these I believe are partly down to the idiosyncrasies of the engines powering them. Alien Swarm is muted and the varied environments seem open, natural, and finely detailed as in most Source games. Conversely Impact is more enclosed, vibrant, and ‘chunky’ in much the same way as most Unreal games seem to be.
My machine is getting old now but is, somehow, keeping its shit together. Alien Swarm is the first game in a long time to really grind down my frame rate and I think this is down to the similarly aging Source engine. Alien Breed: Impact, packing the punch of Epic’s Unreal engine, holds up very well on my deteriorating machine and looks noticeably more muscular when the action starts to come thick and fast. At various points Impact was happy to dump a fuck ton of bugs on me and my friend, and surprisingly I noticed no discernible jolt in performance.
Coming back to the environments; save for the odd area in hydroponics and a few sections of the mainframe mission, Alien Breed: Impact lacks the variety that Alien Swarm offers and seems quite content with having you trudge through countless long dimly lit corridors and the same old heavy metal bulkheads. I’m not usually the sort of person to grumble about this but I think it’s worth noting (I was one of the people who appreciated the monotous rail system section in the original Half-Life because it felt like a royal pain in the ass and realistic, as opposed to artificially short and punchy). In Alien Swarm there’s a shopping centre complete with reverberant muzak which vaguely reminded me of the shopping area on System Shock 2’s recreation deck, there’s a desolate snowy outdoor area reminiscent of the opening scenes of Aliens when the marines descend on LV-426, there’s a murky infested sewer system as well as a Dead Space style mining area. It all holds together nicely thanks to the slick presentation and exposition as the missions progress.
As varied as the environments are however, the seven levels featured in Alien Swarm are quite short compared to Impact’s, due in no small part to the limitations of the Source engine but more noticeably the speed at which the characters move. The urgency of the game means that you’ll be moving as quickly as possible when possible and, in much the same way as the Left 4 Dead games, standing around only invites more of the hive. If you know where to go and what to do you can zip through a level in less than five minutes. Impact’s levels are considerably bigger, and thanks to the slower pacing, each of the three coop missions on offer feel more substantial. Also, and because of this, the prospect of having to start again should the two of you perish, makes for a much tenser experience. Regrettably, Impact suffers from having predefined alien encounters and object placement, so unlike Alien Swarm which now makes full use of the AI director, it’s possible with experience to rehearse a level, reducing its freshness with every failed attempt. Having said this, the steady and constant stream of bugs on Alien Swarm doesn’t really allow the atmosphere to creep in like it does on Impact. There were numerous occasions when me and my friend Luke would remark that it was ‘too quiet’ only to be rogered just around the corner.
Perversely, Alien Swarm has log books dotted about the levels, levels which are inconveniently teeming with aliens. Now, after hours of reading tattered diary entries and listening to audio logs haphazardly strewn across various games over the years I just can’t help myself; I have to have a nosey and see what shit’s going down, yo. The only problem is, in Alien Swarm I’ve got friends standing over me and remember, standing around can get you killed. Fortunately I had this dangerous habit beaten out of me with sarcasm: “Oh look here Gregg, War and Peace! Let’s read it!”. You gotta move. So what I want to know is this: do any groups of people actually read these log entries as they play or are they simply resigned to the offline practice mode to be enjoyed in solace?
As mentioned earlier, Alien Breed: Impact is two player coop only, whereas Alien Swarm allows up to four players. The most startling aspect of Alien Breed: Impact when you start playing is that both players are constrained to a single screen. There’s no wandering off on your own, you’re stuck with your friend whether you like it or not. Although this seems like something inherited from a local coop mode where one screen is shared, I was surprised at how well it worked. Granted, it meant that at some points the action was obscured as Luke pulled the screen over his direction, but it forces you to stick together and watch each other’s back. After playing Impact for a few hours it seemed strange on Alien Swarm to see others running off without me as I caught up with my log books . Interestingly, I found the two player limit of Impact’s cooperative assault mode worked in its favour as the experience felt wholly more personal and lonely. Listening to the hum of the ship and the crackle of burnt out control panels as you both inched forward was a nice change of pace after the unrelenting rush of Alien Swarm.
Of the two games, Alien Breed: Impact has some of the most glaring flaws, all of which are non-existent in Alien Swarm. The mouse aiming feels a little heavy and unresponsive at times even with the sensitivity turned right up. The biggest problem that me and Luke found was that players aren’t able to exchange items with each other. Making matters worse, most items are found on corpses and in lockers, and can’t be identified before picking them up. This means that it’s easy to accidentally pick up something your teammate needs, and once it’s picked up it cannot be exchanged. This is painful when one of you desperately needs ammo, medical attention, or even credits and the other has the spare necessities but are unable to hand over. Another jarring element of the game is throwing grenades. Not since GTA IV have I played a game where using a grenade is riskier than simply keeping hold of it. Being the stubborn bastard I am I was determined to use grenades effectively, much to the detriment of mine and Luke’s health. But having to hold down the use button to determine the throwing range and release it in the right direction so as to not deflect the grenade off of a looming alien carapace, proved too unwieldy in the heat of battle.
However, where Alien Breed: Impact falters, it more than makes up for with its weighty and visceral action. Save for the pew-pew laser rifle, the weaponry packs a formidable punch (I’m looking at you o mighty upgraded assault rifle) and when a game focuses primarily on shooting aliens in the face, that’s what matters. I’ll not deny that Impact is repetitive, lacking the variety of Alien Swarm and this partly explains why I’m not that interested in playing the single player campaign, but the coop element really elevates that slippery thing called fun. The moments where the aliens keep coming, their bodies stacking up, the two of you trying to hold your ground, are by far the most memorable moments and really display the game’s strengths.
There was one instance when me and Luke were approaching the end of the mainframe mission, roughly forty-five minutes worth of play. I was low on health and ammo, and he was armed to the teeth with an upgraded assault rifle. We called the lift and began waiting. It was going to take thirty seconds to arrive, thirty seconds that I would undoubtedly not survive. They were coming. Luke opened fire, and I supplemented his assault with a stun grenade and a few shotgun blasts. As the aliens flooded in, the wave inched closer to Luke as he tried to hold them back. Eventually he was overcome and with my meagre ammo and health I was surely next. When a player hits the deck in Impact they are incapacitated for ten seconds after which point they get back up again. If the other player dies as well then it’s game over, man, game over. This ten second window couldn’t have seemed longer. The aliens piled up on me as my shotgun fired it’s last shot, Luke urging me to stay alive. There were too many, we were toast. But then I remembered my ionspike; an unwieldy energy weapon built for crowd control. By this point I couldn’t see Captain Beef Muscle, he was somewhere beneath a writhing pile of sharp appendages. I quickly cycled through my weapons and engaged the ionspike. There was a growing purple glow and a charging up noise beneath all the critter clamour and after a loud splatter crack, there was silence. Luke got to his feet, dispatched a few remaining stragglers and we bolted to the lift. Mission complete.
So where do the two games stand next to each other? Of the two, Alien Swarm is by far the better coop game boasting neat Hired Guns-esque characters to choose from, each with their own quips and specialities. There are many more weapons and a substantial range of items to equip, all of which can be exchanged freely with teammates. The robust post-game stats are good to squabble over, and the game has a realistic and tangible world with a fun, if clichéd, story draped over it. Players also have access to a radial speech menu to alleviate the necessity to use a mic. Being able to hack terminals, weld doors shut, and setup sentries spice up the action no end, and above all, the game is open source and free. One review I read expressed issues with the friendly fire and finite munitions, arguing that it only served to spoil the action, but in my opinion these things only increase the survival aspect of the game and encourage team cooperation, which let’s face it, is what the game’s all about.
Alien Breed: Impact has been well worth the five quid I spent on it, providing a tidy eight hours of fun (and that’s not taking into account the single player campaign), but I can’t help the feeling that Team17 have got their work cut out if they hope to compete directly with Valve’s newly launched (and free) open source coop bug hunt. There’s plenty of mileage in the franchise yet and I’m hoping they can address the current issues with it and expand the series in a sustainable and alternative direction to Alien Swarm - preferably without ditching the aliens. Failing that they can always take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
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