Reviews: Alien Swarm

Exciting, Atmospheric, and Totally Free!

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A band of four heroes has to fight off a horde of mostly unexplained monsters, backed up by Elite Mooks. Their goal is generally just to fight their way to some goal, but it has numerous places where they must Hold The Line before they can progress... Yeah, it's Left 4 Dead with aliens instead of zombies and Space Marines instead of Action Survivors. Which is not surprising given that it was made by the same team at Valve that worked on Left 4 Dead. Alien Swarm existed before Valve hired the team as a mod for UT 2004, and in their "spare time" they remade it for the Source engine. It has a solid Survival Horror atmosphere and fast-paced action from a top-down perspective. The game mechanics are good but occasionally flawed, but for a free game, this is phenomenal.

Atmospherically, the game makes excellent use of lighting for both gameplay and decorative purposes. Light sources are aimed sideways to cast long shadows, special aliens have sickly green decorations to distinguish them, and the marines are Color Coded For Your Convenience. Of particular note is the Tech marine, who wears bright yellow. Unfortunately, the HDR lighting is rather twitchy and sometimes brightens dark areas too much. For example, in a sequence where your Drop Ship's floodlights are supposed to contrast against a pitch-dark bridge, the entire bridge occasionally gets covered in bloom. Also, there are plenty of ApocalypticLogs to flesh out the backstory, but you're always too busy not getting eaten to read them.

Gameplay-wise, Alien Swarm works well. The 4 available classes allow for some variety and let you pick a playstyle that fits you, without being so varied you can't learn to play a new class in a few sessions. The unlockable weapons add variety without having any obvious GameBreakers, and level advancement is quick enough to give you a new toy every time you've mastered a new unlock. However, there's not much that encourages players to stick together besides getting killed after they don't (which isn't the greatest learning tool), so you'll always get a couple games where your party gets split up and devoured. But with good teamwork, the game is exciting, atmospheric, and completely free!