I love to play games. And I especially love playing games with my friends. In an industry dominated by games focused on direct competition and confrontation, sometimes it’s just best to sit down with your friends and work together toward a common goal in a cooperative game. Sadly, there is a definite dearth of cooperative games out there. Not only does the game need to, well, exist, but it also has to be good. Alien Swarm is not only a pretty darned good cooperative game, but it is also free to boot.
Alien Swarm is a team-based cooperative action game developed and released by Valve. The game takes place on an abanoned colony, where there are, get this, swarms of aliens infesting the colonists and generally causing a nuisance. The aliens are incredibly fast critters with lots of spines and claws. The player and his or her team is sent in to investigate/cleanse the facility.
Okay, so the plot is stereotypical and weak. For same games it makes a huge difference; for Alien Swarm it matters very little, as the monsters jump out of the shadows at you, you won’t be wondering why they are here… you will only be wondering if you have enough ammunition to finish the mission. Heck, I think that adding too much dialog (that, in all honesty, would most likely be skipped by the vast majority of players) would only detract from the experience. I wouldn’t mind a bit more horror atmosphere in the game world itself though: perhaps some half-scrambled distress messages, screams echoing through the hall, and so forth.
One thing that does add to the atmosphere is the gorgeously creepy lighting. While the graphics overall are good and the art direction decent, the shadows and light send chills down my spine. Every object obstructing light casts a shadow, and the lights are often non-white, making the game feel wonderfully… otherworldly.
The default campaign is divided into seven missions. Before each mission, you choose a character from one of four classes, each with access to their own special weapons and abilities. Next, you choose what two weapons to bring to the table for the upcoming mission. The weapon pool includes shotguns, rifles, a lightning gun, among other weapons of destruction. My personal favorite: the flamethrower, which ignites enemies into beautiful balls of fire. Mmmm. Toasty aliens. While I haven’t played enough to say that the weapons are all balanced, they do complement each other in terms of range, ammunition consumption rate, and damage.
Controlling your character is remarkably simple: you use WASD to control your character’s movement throughout the world and the mouse to aim and fire. Aiming your weapon is as easy as pointing towards an enemy, rather than exactly on your enemy. This makes the game feel a bit odd at first, but I got used to it rather quickly. There are a few other little features that make the game feel more skill-based. For instance, when you are reloading, there is a “sweet spot” that, if you press your reload key again, will allow you to reload in about 1/3 the time. It’s a nice touch.
My brother and I have almost made it through the campaign on Hard difficulty and it has taken about 4-5 hours. A bit short. However, I just downloaded a massive map-pack with another 40 or so levels, so there’s plenty of alien-killing goodness to be had.
The gameplay is spot on, in my opinion. Even the basic drone enemies will kill a player in just a few hits, so it is essential that you cover your teammates and get cover from them in return. The enemies will come from all directions, so it is also a good idea to keep a close eye on your motion sensor. It is easy for a lone warrior to be overwhelmed, so wandering away from the squad is the quickest way to a “Mission Failed” screen and back to the start of the mission. Even on the Hard difficulty, expect a steady stream of enemies and letting up your guard for even a second can mean a quick restart. I do wish there was a bit more differentiation among the classes though, as each class only gets access to a few weapons/items that the others don’t have.
I like the game pretty well. For a free game, I think it is pretty amazing. I would love to see something like this in the zombie-survival genre (no, Left 4 Dead isn’t what I had in mind, though that is also a great cooperative game), with a bit more emphasis on the horror elements and a bit less on the action. I recommend it to anyone who has between 2-3 gamer buddies who want to blow up aliens. It’s hard to go wrong with free and good, and Alien Swarm is both.