Alien Breed Evolution
Most gamers of a certain age will have memories of Alien Breed. Born back in 1991 on the Amiga the Team 17 developed top down shooter became one of the most beloved games of its time. Even now, the mere mention of its name is enough to invoke a warm nostalgic glow in many a thirty something gamer. So, news that original developers Team 17 were planning on bringing the series back to life on Xbox Live Arcade with Alien Breed Evolution has garnered a fair bit of attention. The question we're keen to answer is, does it do the original justice or instead tarnish its memory.
The first thing to point out is that wisely Team 17 haven't tried to fix that which isn't broken meaning the game retains the top down viewpoint of the original (unlike the later couple of Amiga sequels). As you'd expect the engine itself is fully 3D, for those interested it's the always impressive Unreal 3 engine, however the viewpoint remains fixed above the action, albeit at a more isometric angle than previously. One advantage of the move to a proper 3D engine is that you can now rotate the camera through eight different presets using the LB and RB buttons should you feel the need.
Like the original the central concept remains all out action. You'll be spending most of your time fighting off wave after wave of ferocious aliens while you explore the darkened corridors of your damaged spaceship hunting for key cards to unlock doors, fix generators etc. Sophisticated it certainly isn't, however, fun it most definitely is.
The action itself is controlled by a fairly standard twin stick shooter mechanic which allows you to move and fire in different directions and feels precise and responsive at all times, definitely one hugely welcome improvement from the original's walk and shoot in a single direction control scheme. Aiming is helped by the inclusion of a red laser sight that shows the exact angle of your aim, something that's often very useful in the heat of battle. The fact that you're exploring a damaged ship that's been left largely in the dark means you constantly need to carry a torch, the direction of its beam following the direction you're moving at all times which ensures there's the ever present tension of knowing you're never really able to see all around you at any one time.
Graphically everything looks beautiful, the locations are all suitably atmospheric, full of nice little touches all brought to life with some impressive lighting and particle effects. The audio too adds nicely to the atmosphere with well realised sound design that adds to the tension just as much as the rest of the action itself.
So far so good, and to be honest what happens now depends really on what you're expecting from this new Alien Breed. At its core it's very much the same kind of game as it's parent, an uncomplicated top down corridor shooter with a pretty repetitive fetch quest based structure. This was original enough back in the early 90s to be impressive and ultimately how you respond to that kind of aged design now, almost two decades and a million games later, will decide how much you enjoy this re-imagining.
If, on the one hand you loved the original and just want to play the same kind of game with modern visuals then this is an almost pitch perfect homage to a bygone gaming age. However, if you were hoping to see the Alien Breed template expanded and improved to bring it slap bang into today's gaming landscape then you'll be sadly disappointed. It's true that today the endless corridors and key card hunting can feel repetitive fairly quickly but there's also something almost therapeutic about its lack of complexity that, coupled with the always enjoyable combat, stops me from judging it too harshly.
If we had to nit-pick we'd mention the fact that there's no auto save feature meaning you've got to remember to take advantage of each and every save point you come across to avoid as much needless repetition as possible. There are also times when the camera gets a little too close to the action and you become highly vulnerable to attacks from enemies just off screen, a problem that's exasperated in co-op when you're forced to stay close together to avoid getting left behind.
Interestingly the single player game is an entirely separate entity to the co-op game, a nice idea at first but one that ends up making you wish you could play the single player levels in co-op too. Since the best way to play the original Alien Breed was always with a friend this forced split between the two sides of the game seems a little weird, especially because what's available in co-op isn't actually that impressive. Part of the problem is that a lot of the tension is removed because death means nothing more than an almost instant respawn complete with a full weapon loadout.
As I mentioned earlier, how much you enjoy Alien Breed Evolution will probably come down to what you expect from it. Personally I loved its retro game in modern clothes feel but I can imagine some will find its unashamedly dated design sours their trip down memory lane. As an example of how to bring old games back to life on XBLA this should be held up and admired, as a modern game it perhaps doesn't quite stand up to extended play. However, for anyone with fond memories of the original or a love of classic top down shooters this is well worth the time.