Friday, 16 August 2013
Alien Assault (Video Game Review)
Yesterday saw the return of Space Hulk to the PC market. Having had several incarnations throughout history and multiple editions of the original board game, it's understandably become a fan favourite and is a classic 40K title among PC fans. However, having been gone for so many years there were naturally a few indie clones which rose to take its place. Following similar themes of confined science fiction corridor fights against alien hordes, Alien Assault was the one to most successfully replicate the style of Space Hulk. How does it hold up overall? Let's find out.
The story here is especially superfluous. While missions do have a running story which varies from a multitude of campaigns, they always come down to the same points: Go here, take this, guard this, kill everything which gets in your way. In fairness there is a degree of talent put into the layout of the campaigns, more than you'd expect of such a title but the actual gameplay hinders much of its overall strength. Either making you raise your eyebrow as the training mission has hundreds of recruits butchered over and over again before even seeing a true battlefield, or the endless attempts at the same missions making you forget what came in the mission right before. Usually you'll also be more concerned with trying to remember the mistakes which got you killed the last several times.
Oh yes, this game is hard. You're not going to casually stroll through each level, you're going to be completing them by the skin of your teeth after dozens if not hundreds of attempts. It's like this from the very start of the tutorials, and it only becomes harder as time goes by.
As a turn based strategy, the game features you commanding a small handful of soldiers against a much larger horde. Each soldier can be outfitted with their own equipment with its flaws and benefits ranging from basic assault rifles to melee weapons. This is certainly a cut above the earlier versions of Space Hulk which had comparatively very limited weapon selections and few uses beyond killing genestealers, unlike those here. The hammers for example remove any ranged attacks but give additional bonuses when fighting at close range. Furthermore, they are capable of smashing down otherwise unbreakable barriers and allowing you to outflank enemies in certain areas.
The ability to outflank a foe and placing the right soldier in the right place is crucial to completing each mission. With many levels consisting of tight enclosed corridors ripe for ambushes it's especially important to do this, even without considering the fog of war effect which bars the player from seeing much of the map or the movements of aliens. The few levels which are in the open are even more dangerous, with no limits to which direction an alien might attack your squad from. It makes not only prediction of their angles of attack more difficult but also managing each soldier's action points.
As with Space Hulk, XCOM and more meat grinder squad missions than can be counted, action points are divided up between movement, attacks and other actions but have to be spent carefully. Moving backwards for example costs two points and firing while on overwatch against enemies costs a point per bullet, too many actions spent in the wrong place or not enough on overwatch and you're as good as dead. It's here the most that risk management and strategy needs to be managed the most and will be the make and break point for many players. Especially in terms of its frustration element.
For every perfectly placed coordination and movement you can easily have your legs kicked out from under you but the slip of one button. There's on "undo" option here so if you accidentally end up facing the wrong way by hitting the turn button one time too many, there's no way to switch back without spending more points. Furthermore even when you do, there's always a big chance of having your soldiers' guns repeatedly miss/jam/explode killing your troops, undermining any well laid plans. The second you seem to have an effective rearguard in place, it can crumble through sheer chance. It's a point of frustration which will leave many people flipping tables and will ultimately put off many from playing the game beyond the first few missions. For all XCOM: Enemy Unknown's nonsense during Iron Man mode, by comparison it's a far fairer game with a much higher chance of success. At many times attempting to succeed while playing the game can feel like bashing your head against a brick wall.
Beyond the combat of the missions themselves there's not too much to the game. There's no base building options, resource management of any kind or even choices which might affect certain outcomes of the next missions. While there is a kind of experience system for surviving soldiers in each mission, the attrition rate is so high it really means very little. Furthermore beyond the occasional bangle or visual upgrade, such promotions mean very little and ultimately means nothing. The only choices which feels meaningful in any way is that you can change the colour scheme of your troops from one group to another: The Alien Assault Force or Children of the Sand.
Despite the difficulty of its design and lack of content beyond individual missions, Alien Assault is still worth the time of anyone wanting an alternative to the new Space Hulk game. While it lacks lore, librarians, 3D graphics and Blood Angels, it is far more stable. With far fewer bugs, glitches and no sixth mission which fails you no matter what the player does. Furthermore it has the charm of the original in all its pixilated glory and doesn't cost a penny. While the developer Teardown is open to anyone generous enough to donate money for their titles, Alien Assault and its sequels along with many other games can be downloaded for free here. Take a look if you're interested, just don't expect anything to be easy.