Previously on Reviewing Top-Down Shooters

Retro. It’s a word that gets bandied about pretty often when describing video games. A retro feel, the retro aesthetic, retro influences- it can get thrown into any articles for the most tenuous of reasons. Whether it’s referring to an artistic choice in graphics, simplified gameplay that hearkens back to eras long gone, or just a way to squeeze a few extra sentences out of a subject in order to seem more intelligent. The problem is that retro can mean something different to different reviewers. More often than not, it can even mean something different to the same reviewer depending on the game and whether or not they remember their own opinions for more than a few minutes.

Retro’s dual edge comes from the inherent relation between it and the word old. Old is never a good thing, no offense to our large octogenarian readership of course. When somebody calls something old, it very rarely invokes positive feelings- old is only positive when describing antiques and churches, not video games. Unless you are into cougars, than old might have some positive connotations of a different, and slightly creepy, sort.

A game like Team17′s Alien Breed 2: Assault, not to be confused with the well regarded Amiga titles Alien Breed 2 or Alien Breed: Tower Assault by the same company, can easily find itself smack in the middle of the retro identity crisis. It isn’t that all top down shooters are all automatically retro, but not all politicians are ineffective and corrupt either. It just seems that way. Unless they are modern republicans, of course, as they are just pure evil forged from the orc pits of Isengard. Heavy handed political statements aside, in the video game world there are just certain styles that seem to instantly draw comparisons to the classic titles of yore, deserved or not.

Team17′s newest entry in the Alien Breed series, the second episodic follow up to last year’s Alien Breed: Evolution, is a game that actually does deserve it’s retro comparisons. It’s a title that attempts to stay true to the series it is a part of, a series that one should remember has existed since 1991 and hadn’t seen an entry in 13 years before Evolution. For those too young to remember or too lazy to do research, most of the games in the series were very successful and have an enduring fanbase to this day, which assuredly put Team17 into an interesting position when the decision was made to return to the isometric bug shooting realm.

What they seemed to do was modernize the series in aesthetics while leaving the gameplay familiar to fans of the original Amiga titles as well as other classic games in the genre like Ikari no Yousai or Smash TV. Alien Breed 2 utilizes the Unreal engine and looks quite nice while it does, although what it does is essentially the same thing over and over as there is no real variation in the games environments. You find yourself on a derelict ship that has inadvertently (or was it!) captured your own vessel in it’s clutches, so be prepared for an endless amount of corridors and goo coated maintenance rooms. This, coupled with only a handful of different Robert Heinlein inspired enemies for your single Roughneck to swat can give a sort of superficial feeling of repetition.

The reason the repetition is superficial is because, get this, the game is actually fun. An odd thing to predominantly base your enjoyment and recommendation of a title on how much fun one has playing it, but here we are. Sure, the levels are basically the same and send you through a fairly formulaic series of tasks that can be boiled down to ‘advance to a locked door, backtrack to key card, go back to unlock the door, repeat’ but at about four to five hours from beginning to end, it isn’t offensive. There are also some larger set pieces and diversions, such as near constant assaults by large amounts of squishy foes, that punch up the gameplay and keep things from getting monotonous.

The positive side of the retro magnet shows itself often, especially during the frenetic battles that spring up against large amounts of baddies. Alien Breed 2 is at it’s strongest when it’s at it’s simplest. There aren’t a whole lot of chances taken here beyond the basic, and theoretically retro, run-and-gun chaos that fans of the genre enjoy. All you need to enjoy yourself is your limited supply of ammo, and a few growing piles of bug corpses. Just like senior prom! That is if you spent your senior prom playing the original Alien Breed games just like I did. Memories of meaningful interpersonal relationships are overrated when you have an endless supply of gaming to do and only one life time to do it in, after all.

It isn’t all sunshine and lollipops for Alien Breed 2, however. The game does suffer from some problems. Problems that have nothing to do with the perceived retro-ness of the game. There are a handful of strange bugs that can break the game and cause you to have to revert to an earlier save, which is made even more frustrating by the awkwardness of the games save system. Glitches don’t happen often enough to entirely ruin the game, but they still happen more often than is to be expected.

Like the word retro, the difficulty of Alien Breed 2 can be a bit schizophrenic. The lower difficulty settings don’t offer much more than a cursory challenge thanks to money being a bit too plentiful, making it easy to stay stocked up on health kits and ammo. The more extreme difficulty setting is much, much more of a challenge but might put off some gamers who expected a more casual experience from this downloadable game.

Beyond the single-player story, which does its job in motivating you from point A to point B and is mainly told through very stylish comic book cut scenes between levels, Alien Breed 2 also offers some other ways to play. Survival mode offers exactly what you would expect, and since there There is also a co-op mode that takes place outside of the campaign character’s arc, and it is quite puzzling that there is no co-op option for the main storyline itself. Not expanding on the game’s multiplayer offerings might be the only obvious dropped ball on Team17′s part. I don’t personally buy into the current conventional Beltway wisdom that every game needs a robust multiplayer to be good, and I don’t entirely think a game like this would live or die based on it. The only reason I consider this a dropped ball is because of the runaway popularity of a little game by the name of Alien Swarm.

The similarities between Alien Breed 2 and the free to download Steam title Alien Swarm are obvious, and I would even hazard a guess that the Alien Breed series was a heavy influence on it. Neither game sits on its laurels by attempting to fit into any sort of retro stereotype, while still offering streamlined run and gun fun. Most people probably realize that both games set out to do something different despite existing within that same niche. Still, it’s worth mentioning as Alien Swarm’s focus on four player co-op, as well as the price- specifically the lack of one, might cause a lot of people to overlook Alien Breed 2 despite it’s strong single-player story, and entertaining gameplay. With such a low price point though, you can have your alien murdering cake and eat it too.

That will probably take a lot of fondant.

Here’s The Rundown:

+ Low price point and high amount of entertainment make it an easy recommendation.
+ Unreal engine helps modernize the series and the genre.
+ Constant assaults and large set pieces keep things interesting.
+ Avoids heavy reliance on nostalgia while still being recognizable.

- Some odd bugs and glitches.
- Repetitive level design.
- Not many improvements over previous episode.
- Camera angle and controls can work against you.

Alien Breed 2: Assault was developed and published by Team17 for the PC and Xbox Live Arcade. The game was released in the United States for digital download on September 22nd, 2010 with a retail price of $9.99. The copy used for this review was for the PC version, downloaded through Steam, and provided to Ripten by Team17. A XBLA version was also played, and was provided for use by my friend Emery in exchange for a few beers. The single-player campaign was played to completion in roughly 5 hours, while the multiplayer was played for 3+ hours. Specs of the PC used are as follows: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 @ 2.83ghz, Dual Nvidia Geforce 9800 GTX GPU’s, 8GB RAM, and Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit.