If there’s one thing that Homo Sapiens are really good at, it’s wiping out other species. When we invented the bow and arrow, we quickly became the apex predator and were then capable of hunting any animal, regardless of how much stronger, faster or tougher than us that animal was. Through our new found hunting prowess and the changes we’ve since made to the environment, humans have sent thousands of other species to the evolutionary scrap heap. So, it makes sense that, were we ever to become interstellar travellers, the indigenous inhabitants of far away planets might not be too impressed with our arrival.
That’s where Attack of the Earthlings comes in. The game places you in the role of Matriarch of the Swarmers, an alien race intent upon repelling the insidious presence of the Galactoil Corporation from their homeworld. They’ll do this in a turn-based, top-down strategy game that wears its X-COM inspirations brazenly upon its razer-sharp claw. You’ll guide the Matriarch through seven levels as she makes her way up through the Galactoil Drill, feasting on human flesh as she goes. The feasting is particularly important as all the chow time will generate biomass, and it is this valuable commodity that the Matriarch uses to spawn her alien hordes.
Unlike X-COM, which casts the player as a disembodied Commander, Attack of the Earthlings hurls you into the action. The Matriarch is your avatar and she’s also the most powerful character in your arsenal, but that comes with a cost: if she dies the mission is over. Fortunately she can spew up a range of violent sidekicks to provide assistance. Bog-standard grunts are the de-facto choice but these can be evolved – through applying additional biomass – into the tank-like Goliath, the long-range attack favouring Disrupter, and the stealthy Stalker.
Each of these species can be further evolved at the end of a level from the points accumulated for achieving objectives. Evolutions take the form of special abilities that offer some great collaborative possibilities. You’ll soon be luring enemies to their doom as they step onto pre-placed traps, before blinding them and then sending in a hidden Stalker to finish them off. In a refreshing change to the norm, you can also freely change purchased abilities in the launch screen, deactivating one ability to provide the points necessary to unlock another. This gives the player the opportunity to experiment with a plethora of different tactics, rather than being tied to an ability that doesn’t suit their favoured approach.
At its very foundation this strategic set-up offers an interesting challenge and a delightful system of risk and reward, you’ll have to balance the need of using your Matriarch in combat, whilst also attempting to ensure her safety. Which is pretty hard to do, as the humans become increasingly adapt at killing aliens. The initial engineers prove nothing more than a tasty snack that’ll make your teeth go red, but light saber wielding space ninjas and chain gun totting mega marines will soon be chasing you down. Despite the offensive potency of your aliens, they are defensively weak, forcing you to perfect evasive tactics and then respond with overbearing numbers and precise teamwork to bring down the tougher foes.
That’s not to say the enemy AI is brilliant, far from it. Humans running and screaming in fear don’t even invoke a glance from a nearby guard, whilst most of your foes will only conduct the briefest of searches if they hear a door unexpectedly opening, but their positioning in the levels is so effectively handled that you’ll feel you’re combating a much more intelligent opponent than you actually are.
It all works wonderfully together and, whilst there are only seven levels, each offers a radically different challenge. One tasks you with tracking down a specific target before unexpectedly switching to an intense siege scenario, while another offers a frenetic race against time, then culminates in a violent smackdown with a particularly nasty foe with a lightning gun. These levels have been carefully designed, rather than simply offering randomised encounters and locations, and are all the better for it, often building to an exciting crescendo or a guffaw inducing gag.
Attack of the Earthlings is genuinely funny, in a very British way. This is Red Dwarf meets Blackadder and whilst not every joke lands, enough of them do to make your time with the game both charming and endearing. The standout moment, a birthday party so violent it makes the Red Wedding look romantic, will be sure to leave a lasting impression! There’s limited voice acting, with most of the characters only needing to hiss and click, but what is there is of a high standard. The radio chatter between the game’s main antagonists were both a high point, as PA Pecker offers scathing sarcasm and a pitch-perfect impression of David Mitchell to boot, whilst RM Dickinham has all the idiotic bravado of Ron Burgandy.
The issues come with a combination of controls and presentation. There’s no ability to freely rotate your view and you’re instead left to clunkily click through four set perspectives. In addition the camera’s view can only be raised a small extent, offering a very limited view of the level. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it does make navigating the environment, locating your objectives and devising a strategy much more of a chore than it ought to be. This is also clearly a game that was meant to be played with a mouse, as clicking through the menu driven controls with a controller feels clunky. Matters are really not helped by red buttons being highlighted by a deeper shade of red – making it jolly difficult to tell what exactly you are telling your character to do.
The partially cel shaded visuals are clean and crisp, but lack character and sufficient animation to bring the world and its inhabitants to life. Robots in particular suffer from being very rough around the edges, though they do make up for that with some hilarious dialogue. The levels, whilst offering brilliant gameplay challenges, are visually indistinct and mostly blend into one – despite the fact that they are meant to represent vastly different levels of the drill.
Perhaps what the game suffers from most is a severe lack of replayability. With only one difficulty setting and its seven levels, I saw little reason to return once I’d made my way through this game in around eight hours. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the limited time I had with Attack of the Earthlings. This is a game that offers tight strategic gameplay, wrapped up in gags aplenty. In many ways, it’s like a human observed from the Matriarch’s perspective: small, tasty and soon forgotten about upon expulsion.