Alienation was developed by Housemarque, who are known for their work on Super Stardust, Resogun and Dead Nation, and just like the aforementioned games, this falls into the twin stick shooter-category, their latest release is no exception to that rule. It might sound like something negative to point out when a developer sticks to what's tried and tested, but when it comes to Housemarque it's actually quite the opposite, due to the high level of skill the developers have shown in the past when it comes to working within the genre. With Alienation it is easy to spot the studio's pedigree, not least because many elements from their previous games make an appearance here and there, although in more refined and clever ways.
First of all, the graphics are a good example of this. At first glance it might look like any other game in the genre, such as Helldivers for example, albeit slightly darker and gloomier. But the second the bullets start to fly, and the aliens start getting blown to bits, the TV screen explodes in a beautiful firework-like display of colours and particle effects, and the Resogun-gene really shines through. It's hard not to be completely hypnotised by all the things happening on screen at once, and it's impressive how stable the frame-rate remains throughout. It does get slightly difficult to get one's bearings amidst the chaos at times, but in many ways the chaos is part of the experience, and in the end it's something that you wouldn't want to be without it.
Next up is the gameplay itself, at it's clear from the beginning that the game is made by the people behind Dead Nation. The controls are very similar to the apocalyptic zombie game, where juggling several types of weapons and grenades becomes integral to taking down hordes of the living dead, in order to avoid getting overwhelmed by the masses. Even little elements such as the laser sights and the option to rush/warp/dash to safety, depending on one's choice of class, make a return, which brings back plenty of great memories from the good old PS3 days.
Speaking of classes, this is where Housemarque has really changed up the formula with Alienation. In this game the player has a choice between three type of characters, namely the Saboteur, the Bio-Specialist and the Tank, which can also be described as damage dealer, healer and tank, for those out there who are familiar with classic RPG archetypes. Each class wields their own unique primary weapon and also possess a set of unique skills that allow them to perform their role in the group efficiently. The different skills available are split amongst very simple skill trees, and the player is free to redistribute any points spent in-between missions, in order to complement the rest of the squad, and also to avoid situations where the player gets stuck with a choice that they later regret.
Aside from the class specific skill trees, there are also skill trees shared between the three classes. The abilities in these skill trees are obviously not as interesting as the class specific ones, but they are definitely worth investing in nonetheless, as they can vastly improve a character's survivability and overall defences. Luckily the developers foresaw the possible issue of the shared skill trees being ignored, and have made it so every second skill point earned can only be spent in the shared skill trees. It's a good way of solving the potential issue with misspent points, and it forces the player to think as much about defence as attack.
It's not just the skill trees that sets one's character apart, but also the arsenal. Each of the three character types have a set primary weapon, which can be swapped out with improved versions of the same type. The three weapons are an SMG for the Saboteur, a Xenorifle for the Bio-Specialist, and Energy Guns for the Tank. We were a little surprised to discover that there was only one primary weapon type for each class, as we thought it might get a little boring in the long run, but luckily there is more variation to be found among the secondary options. In this category you'll find things like revolvers and shotguns, and each weapon feels quite unique. There is also a heavy weapons category which comprises things like flamethrowers and miniguns. Finally there's the gear category, where throwables items such as grenades and even boomerangs can be equipped. Once you start getting into the higher levels, it's also possible to upgrade some of the weapons you find with the help of upgrade cores, which improve things like damage output, fire rate, clip size and crit chance, and if you're extra lucky, you might even stumble upon rare weapons that have special bonus abilities, such as electrifying enemies when they attack you, or dropping grenades upon successful melee hits from the player. All of these elements combine into a top notch loot system, where once you get hooked, it's hard to stop.
As fun as treasure hunting can be in the dystopian sci-fi setting of Alienation, the game isn't without its faults. An example of this is the game's story. After having played through the 20 story missions twice, we still don't care in the least about the different characters talking before and during missions, and the plot is so straight forward, that if you've played the outstanding XCOM: Enemy Unknown from 2012, you pretty much get the gist of things. The earth has been invaded by aliens from outer space, and things are looking bleak for humanity right up until the player takes control of an elite soldier, who travels the globe and brings the fight to the aliens. It's not exactly the most riveting story in modern gaming (to say the least), but in many ways it doesn't matter that much, since the gameplay is so excellent.
As mentioned, we've completed the game twice now, which of course means that it isn't particularly long. Luckily there's a very fine New Game Plus system present, which starts the story over upon completion, adds special challenges to the levels, and ups the difficulty on each subsequent play-through. There's also a total of 30 character levels, and after the second play-through we had only hit level 20, so in spite of having the credits roll a couple of times, we're far from done with kicking alien behind. The one thing we do miss from the system though, is the ability to play with others on different play-through levels, as it splits the community quite a bit, and playing with friends can become nigh on impossible, that is unless you constantly play together. A system like we've seen in Diablo III, where player levels get adjusted automatically would be welcome in a future update, but at present it remains a problem.
We've mentioned playing with others throughout this review, and with good reason. At the end of the day Alienation is built as a co-op game, and as such it's a lot more fun to play in groups. This means that playing alone can be slightly tedious, especially because the pace gets lowered significantly, since there isn't a team-mate to revive you if you go down, and the fantastic class dynamics also disappear completely. This makes it even more unfortunate that the developers have omitted adding any form of local co-op, since it means that players who prefer playing offline won't have the same frantic experience as the rest of us. Housemarque have stated that local co-op will be implemented in a future patch, but at present the feature is greatly missed.
We had high expectations for Alienation after trying it prior to release, and we have to say that it has lived up to most of them. It's colourful, fun and frantic, and it's a riot to play with others. There's also some surprising gameplay elements present, such as a difficulty setting where the death of a character is permanent, so the hardcore players out there will be satisfied, and the option to invade other players' games in a classic Dark Souls fashion, as long as the host has ticked the proper box before launching the mission. There are also plenty of leaderboards for the high score enthusiasts to contend with, and it's easy to quickly compare oneself to both friends and the rest of the world. It's a fantastic game that we'd recommend to any twin stick shooter fan out there with a lust for alien blood.