Pop quiz: is there any passionate gamer out there who hasn’t heard the “they don’t make them like they used to” expression by now? No? What a surprise. Truth is, in any gaming-related discussion, someone will invariably mention at one point some classic title (Deus Ex and Planescape: Torment are fan favorites) to support the notion that “games were much better back then”. And while they are right, up to a point, this is a subject for another time. What’s more important is that both the developers and publishers have started to get the taste of remakes, Nee d for Speed: Hot Pursuit being the most resonant name so far.
The idea in itself is deviously simple: take a game that was highly appreciated x years ago, change the engine, put on a new bodywork, apply a fresh coat of paint, some tweaks here and there and bingo, you’ve got your summer hit. Unfortunately, practice has a bad habit of killing theory and despite its current flaws, the games industry has progressed since the ‘80s and ‘90s and what was all the rage back then isn’t necessarily top notch now. A rule that Team17 (the guys with the worms, as I like to call them) tried to bend a bit too much.
Alien Breed: Impact is the improved version for PC and PlayStation Network of Alien Breed: Evolution; which in turn was the Xbox 360 exclusive remake of the Amiga Alien Breed, released way back in 1991. You’re Theodore Conrad, chief engineer on the starship Leopold, which during a voyage through the depths of space crashes into a much bigger ghost ship, at which point all hell breaks loose. The structural integrity is fragile at best, the crew has been decimated and apparently you’re among the few with enough brain cells to save yourself. Only you’ll soon discover that you’re not the only one meandering about in Leopold’s hallways.
Although the MS-DOS version of Alien Breed was released in 1993, the top-down shooter genre hasn’t died and other titles have stepped in to take its crown, like those in the Shadowgrounds or the Alien Shooter series. And if you’ve played at least one of them, even the demo, you’ll immediately recognize the gameplay style in AB: Impact as well. The movement of the character is controlled with the WASD keys, just like in a regular shooter, while targeting resides with the mouse. The unusual isometric perspective might pose a challenge though until you get used to it.
Once accustomed to how everything works, the rules are simple: you’ve got some pretty large levels, with various terminals here and there where you can save your progress and spend the money you got during your treks, a bunch of main objectives which you’ll receive in order and plenty of hostile aliens. In this regard, Team17 decided not to tamper too much with the established formula, which unfortunately is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, the simplicity and straightforwardness of the game means that basically anyone can play AB: Impact without getting headaches from a crowded interface or SciFi gameplay concepts. On the other hand, this design simplicity tends to get very annoying from a certain point onwards.
True, the linear nature of the levels and the objective marker (which you can turn off) always keeps you focused on the task at hand. There aren’t too many places to meander about (although there are secret areas filled with ammo, weapons and other useful things), but the archaic design is a bit too in your face its own good. Because you’ll quickly realize that a dimly lit room usually means that some bugs will start crawling out of the floors and walls, eager to have you for a main course.
When you’ll see a terminal somewhat off the “main” path you’ll know that at some point you’ll have to get back to activate it. Because right now it’s unusable… well, because. If you see a big button or a computer in the corner of a room, you’ll instinctively prepare for an “arena” type event, with waves of enemies hurling towards you, because that’s exactly what happened with the other 3 buttons or computers you used so far.
You won’t notice all of these right off the bat though, because as far as visuals and audio design is concerned, the new Alien Breed certainly packs a punch. Helped by the “default” look of all Unreal Engine 3 powered games, the Team17 designers have created some very detailed levels, with pipes coming out of the walls due to the explosions, displaced panels from an unsuccessful attempt to restore power, damaged sliding doors that even though are blocking the way, give the feeling that something is beyond them, or the huge turbines that are a wrench away from blowing, right below the underpass you’re currently on. Basically, nothing that will kill your video card in its PCI-E slot, but which still offers that “well-groomed” feeling.
The sound effects also contribute to a pretty good atmosphere, whether it’s explosions, the satisfying “roasted” sound of aliens burnt to a crisp with the flamethrower or the specific roar which lets you know that a horde of oversized bugs are heading straight towards you. I was also pleasantly surprised by the above-average quality of the voice-work in the comic-book style cut scenes between the levels. The help to push the narrative forward and Conrad’s hostile attitude towards his ally is explained in one of the logs you can find during the game. Nothing mind-bending, so don’t go expecting huge twists in the story, but it’s nice to know that there’s actually something to find if you go out and search for iPads with a flashlight in the dark.