Wed Jul 21 00:03:53 EDT 2010

wherein bbot welds that doah

One sentence review: Alien Swarm is L4D, except not as good, but that's okay, because it's free.

What, that isn't enough for you? Fine, have a couple dozen more sentences.

Alien Swarm is Valve's latest game... so to speak. It's actually a Source-engine port of a Unreal Tournament 2004 modification by the same name. The reason Valve is releasing such a thing is because they bought out the creators, Black Cat Games, in 2008. The reason they're releasing it for free is perhaps the more interesting question.

There's not a lot to Alien Swarm. Four classes, a dozen weapons, and exactly one campaign, spanning six maps. I played through the entire thing, on hard, in about two hours. And it wasn't a cakewalk. There were numerous failures, resulting in TPKs. Even played at this excruciating pace, it's still short.

It is a lot like L4D, with a near identical front end, UI, and play style. It's also utterly unlike L4D, in that enemy placement is completely static, exactly the same on every playthrough, which kills replayability. Short and unreplayable is not exactly a killer combination.

The story is also ludicrously cliched. You play a squad of grizzled space marines, assisted by their commanding officer over the radio, fighting a flood of aliens unwittingly let loose by a sinister megacorporation, whose many misdeeds are detailed in PDAs scattered across the place. The Citizen Kane of games it is not.

But it's still a full, commercial game. I never played the original, beyond reading the immensely amusing RPS piece on it by Quinns, but looking at old screenshots, there doesn't seem to be a lot of reuse of 3D content, which makes sense, if the levels were assembled with UT 2004 assets. All this new art costs money, and Valve is not typically in the habit of doing ludicrously unprofitable things just for the hell of it.

But they have done something like this before.

Think back, waaaay back, to 1999 when a little ole game called Team Fortress Classic was released by Valve. It too was a port of a modification for another game, it too had non-trivial original art, (though, this being 1999, games cost a lot less to develop than they do in 2010) and it too was released for absolutely nothing.

And it, too, wasn't a terribly good game.

Don't get me wrong, at the time, TFC's shit was so hot it glowed. I played a lot of TFC back in the day. But most of the maps were based on the fatally flawed CTF gamemode, the classes were about as well balanced as a bowling ball in a washing machine, (hint: there's no reason to play either Pyro or Scout) there was more grenade spam than a fatal accident at an ordinance depot, there was an entire official gamemode nobody played because it sucked so hard, the resupply system was moronic[*], and Detpacks...

The Detpack was a Demoman class feature that could destroy certain types of level geometry, and thus open up new routes, on several maps. (Off the top of my head, crossover2, warpath, and rock2) It was essentially a big bomb with a timed fuse. It wasn't a big feature, but it was somewhat important in a number of maps.

It didn't have a key bound to it. There wasn't even an option to have a key bound to it.

To use it, you had to open the developer's console and type in a command. It is hard to think of a more obscure video game feature that doesn't involve filling out a form in triplicate, or the phase of the moon.

TFC had a lot of rough edges. But it was free, and it was the very best game of its kind, so who cared?

A year later, Valve released Team Fortress 1.5, also for free, which contained all new class models, new maps, and new gamemodes. And most crucially, for a comparison to Alien Swarm, TF1.5 was created to showcase the new modding system for Half-Life, complete with working code examples. And here in 2010, Valve releases a Source engine game for free, again, along with its source code, again.

It is not hard to see where they're going with this.

*: There were ammo backpacks, which resupplied ammo, grenade backpacks, which resupplied grenades, health packs, which healed you, and armor backpacks, which resupplied armor. When you spawned, you had about half your full ammo stock and half armor, so you would have to pick up some backpacks, (Which were finite! A Heavy would have to pick up two armor backpacks, while the Scout would only need one!) as well as a grenade backpack, if you wanted a full compliment of regular and class special grenades. And these were pickups, which had a respawn interval and not an especially short one. It was not at all unusual, on a full 2fort server, to see several people sitting around in the respawn room, waiting for ammo to show up.

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