The Alien Breed franchise was a runaway success back in the days of Amiga’s and Atari’s, so of course it was destined to be revived in the age of digital downloads. Following on from the glorious revival of their Worms franchise on Xbox Live Arcade, Team 17 have dug through their archives, pulled out the dusty old folder labelled ‘Dark and Gritty Top-Down Shooters from the Nineties’, grinned a wide grin and declared to themselves: “This shall be awesome… again!“. And so, Alien Breed Evolution was born. Episode One is the first of three episodes in this fancy new reboot of the series. At the moment, Evolution is an XBLA exclusive, but we will be seeing it hit the PlayStation Network and PC in the Age of Tomorrow. Sadly, we won’t be seeing an Amiga release, because the number of floppy disks involved would require an extension to most houses.
The original games were indeed for the Amiga, and the plot for Evolution is of the same depth you could expect from a 16-bit title. Tasting like a Sci-Fi Cliché flavour Pot Noodle, the story sees the spaceship Leopold crashing into a ghost ship, with an alien attack ensuing. You take control of battle-hardened survivor Conrad, who forms an uneasy alliance with the android MIA in order to rescue survivors and get off the ship in one piece. The aliens range in size from tiny little annoying blighters to massive beasts that would send the titular creatures from the Alien movies running into the toilet. It’s a plot that creaks away in the background and pushes you down the gameplay corridor, but whatever, this is an isometric top-down shooter with an emphasis on strategy and exploration, and it’s about blowing stuff up. That’s your story right there.
The levels have been crafted beautifully, showing a massive amount of attention to detail, both in their design and in the overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere of the game. The lighting is dark and oppressive, and the wrecked ship is fraught with disaster at every step – clutter and corpses block your path, systems fail on a regular basis, fireballs will explode unexpectedly mere inches away from your character, and a rogue bullet fired by a panicked trigger finger could spell disaster when it hits a canister of explosives. The whole joyous experience looks and feels so immersive that it is hard to believe that it has its roots in an early Nineties title. However – and this is the charming bit – the old school gameplay is still very much there. The controls are simple and feel natural, and the tasks required of Conrad are very basic. This isn’t a game with plot twists or impressive set pieces, this is about running around, blasting the dark matter out of space filth and buying yourself enough time to unlock a door without getting eaten. What’s cool about Alien Breed Evolution is that it can pull off all that retro stuff and it still feels like Dead Space.
The main campaign is split into five chapters, with each of the two upcoming episodes promising a further five. At the beginning of each chapter, you are presented with a stylish black and white comicbook-style cutscene, explaining what the motivation is for the next level. The first stage is a poor advertisement for what is to come, being heavy on reaching waypoints and unlocking doors without being very generous with the alien attacks. However, this relative peace and quiet doesn’t last long – the second level sends you on the trail of some scientist survivors and it is here when the pace really picks up and the scene is set for the whole game. With aliens bursting out of the floor and walls in all directions, the gameplay can reach Geometry Wars levels of intensity, and it will take a fast finger and a fair bit of strategy to make sure you can survive. When the end of each level approaches, the heat is turned way up and it becomes an insane fight for survival against wave after wave of beasties, while you are put up against timers, exploding bridges, and cripes knows what else. You’ll be desperate for a breather, you’ll run out of ammo and you’ll die a whole load of times, but it’s so much fun!
With dual stick controls – one for movement, one for aim – and an easily navigated inventory, controlling Conrad couldn’t be easier. The camera can be rotated in 45 degree increments, allowing you to see more of the map and make yourself more comfortable controlling the game. For example, if you are running down a long corridor heading east, you can rotate the camera so that it appears that you are heading north, if you feel more proficient at vertically scrolling shooting. The controls will not get in your way and trip you up, and that’s very important when it comes to a game that relies so much on your reaction speed. This is a difficult game, so you’ll need your wits about you. Failing that, you can get a friend on board – Alien Breed Evolution supports local and online multiplayer and of course it’s even more fun with a buddy, and the achievements available set a few decent challenges for multiplayer freaks.
If you have very little patience for old school gameplay styles, then there is nothing that can be said about Alien Breed Evolution that will turn your head. After you’ve been impressed by the look and feel of the game, the true nature of the gameplay will become very obvious to you and, if you are not prepared to spend a lot of time picking up items and unlocking doors, it will be an unengaging experience that really drags its feet. But hopefully, you will find the frantic, strategic gameplay to your liking.
The five levels on offer provide around five or six hours of gameplay, which is ok for an 800 point XBLA title but it feels like there could have been more. Thankfully, Freeplay and Multiplayer modes help extend the longevity a bit, so there really are no major negative points. Alien Breed Evolution is a fantastic addition to any game collection. It is intense and dangerous and volatile and tense, and it will have you squeezing off the edge of your seat. After all, there are worse things in the world than a survival horror sci-fi Smash TV-style shooter, aren’t there?
If Episode Two can offer a few more levels and maybe a bit more variety in its puzzles, we could be looking at one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games out there. Episode One, with its cool charisma and action-packed ferocity, earns a very strong 8 out of 10.
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