If there’s one thing that is without doubt, it’s that Housemarque know how to make a bloody good looking twin stick shooter. Alienation is an absolutely gorgeous game, from the environments you visit around the world to the huge explosions that can threaten to consume the entire screen. Then there are or the smaller details like tens of thousands of tiny particles and how little alien pods crumble into puddles of magma when shot.
There’s a graphical mastery to all of this, but there’s also a discernible character, I feel. Yes, it’s moulded from the clichés of alien bug design, you can absolutely imagine in your mind what Pripyat or Brazil is going to look like, and you have your fairly standard alien and conventional weaponry to hand, but it feels related to the muted tone of its spiritual predecessor, Dead Nation. Of course, you’re now fighting aliens instead of zombies, and these come as bugs, mutated humans, hulking bipedal beast with huge guns, turrets and plenty more.
The gameplay is built upon those same foundations, with familiar twin stick controls for running and gunning, a powerful melee when enemies get too close and a dash for when you need to try and get out of a sticky situation. There’s also some of the smaller nuances that have carried forward, such as how you move slower when you backpedal and aim behind yourself, and how reloading is done through clicking the right analogue stick.
That point was a new one for me – I played Dead Nation on PS3 with reload on Square, but it shifted to R3 for the PS4 release – and it was one that was poorly explained by the game’s tutorial. The same is true of the game’s Gears of War-like active reloads, where if you time a second click correctly, you’re back to firing your guns in half the time. Even after half a dozen hours, I’d still occasionally fumble my button presses in the heat of the moment and use an ability instead of reloading, and while you’re given the welcome option to rebind all of the buttons to your liking, it’s best to stick with the default set up.
You see, there’s a loose story of humanity’s fight back against the aliens that sees the UNX government provide you with a choice of three advanced combat suits, shuffling you into their corresponding combat roles. The Tank is on the front lines with short ranged weaponry, the Bio-Specialist a middle of the road Assault and healer archetype, and the Saboteur as the stealthier support class. Each has abilities that range from healing nearby teammates and performing a ground pound, to conjuring up nanomachine swarms that seek out enemies or calling in a huge artillery barrage that precisely targets all nearby aliens.
The Tank actually ends up getting the short end of the stick, I feel, with abilities that seem to only come into their own as they get more and more upgraded, and a short range primary weapon that is more likely to get you into trouble than the other classes. By contrast, the others have the more spectacular available to them right from the off, with the Saboteur’s artillery barrage the absolute highlight, and an SMG that’s most interesting primary, with its steadily increasing rate of fire.
With the destruction that you can wreak, it’s actually a little surprising how demure the weapons in the game are. The class you pick when creating a character determines your primary weapon, while there’s a shotgun, revolver and the energy beam of the Powershot for your secondary, or choice of minigun, rocket launcher or flamethrower as your heavy. They can all feel nice and powerful, they just lack a little pizazz unless the game drops a gun for you that has some bullets turn into razor sharp boomerangs upon impact. There’s highlights like this that can put a stupid grin on your face, but they’re quite few and far between, and you miss them once you feel the need to upgrade.
That all hinges upon how lucky you are with the game’s loot system. Yes, much like Destiny and The Division, you’re constantly on the lookout for colourful little objects dropping from enemies and crossing your fingers as you open up crates. At first it feels like an odd fit, but it works surprisingly well, and there’s the same little twist of joy when looking at a new and much more powerful gun that has dropped, when sinking materials into re-rolling a good gun to reach more of its potential, or when literally doubling the DPS by combining and inserting upgrade cores. It’s a much lighter system than in some other games, but it works well because of that.
That means that the focus is still very much on diving into missions and battling through hordes of aliens. In contrast to the purely linear Dead Nation, there are a handful of larger and more open maps that play host to several missions over the course of the campaign. You’ll be revisiting locations, but starting from a different point and with different objectives, as well as a small number of randomised elements. Optional challenges and bosses are there for you to complete along the way, but what stands out is how you can meander and find yourself knee deep in bugs in the opposite direction to the objective marker. That’s especially true when you see the ominous warning of an incoming horde, as the game decides to throw hundreds of mutants at you at the same time.
It’s clear that the game was designed for co-op play because of this. You can do well on your own, but you’re much better off with a second, third or fourth player alongside you to take on the mass of enemies, with the ability to drop in and drop out at will. Personally, two players felt like the best mix – especially if playing alongside someone you know – but there’s the appeal of unmitigated carnage that four can wreak at the same time and the banal amusement of hammering away on the “Nice!” button.
However, while you can have four players online, there’s a bizarre lack of local co-op at launch – Housemarque are working on it, though. There are other stumbles, with the way that some buildings and scenery can obscure too much of the screen, the reliance on shielded and phasing enemies later in the campaign, and the gruellingly final mission that is procedurally generated, lasts 3-4 times longer than any other mission and lacks any form of checkpoints. This is a mission where you have no choice of difficulty level, at the end of a game where even playing on the top difficulty has felt more than manageable, if not easy at points.
These moments detract from the general polish of the game and some of the more fun ideas, because while that final mission feels cheap and unfair when it kicks you back to the menu, having run out of ammo during a boss fight, when you pick Hardcore mode for yourself, it’s genius. For the truly masochistic, you can try and play an entire campaign with a single life.
Alienation is a slick and polished twin stick shooter, filled with huge explosions and seemingly endless enemies to kill, but it’s let down in a lot of little ways. It’s still a great game, but I didn’t fall as madly in love with it as I did with its predecessor.