If you owned an Amiga in the early 90s, chances are you played Alien Breed. The top down two-player co-op shooter from West Yorkshire developer Team17 won critical acclaim for its sci-fi horror atmosphere. It won a bunch of awards, high review scores and a place in hardcore gamers’ hearts forever. Then, a few years later, Team17 made Worms, and, well, Alien Breed kind of fell off the radar.
Now, a whopping 18 years after the original release, Alien Breed is back. It’s called Alien Breed Evolution, it’s a downloadable XBLA, PSN and PC game, it’s a trilogy, it’s a top down two-player co-op shooter, and it looks bloody brilliant.
At the Develop conference in Brighton last week, Team17 studio director Martyn Brown invited us into a darkened room in a hotel off the beaten path to take the lid off the game. First, the premise: Alien Breed Evolution begins with an almighty crash. Via black and white comic strip sequences, we see gruff engineer Conrad, aka you, discussing the near destruction of the space ship he’s on with the sexy Lieutenant Mia. You’ve collided with a massive unidentified ship in the middle of space. Things are broken, Lights are flashing, Gravitational anomalies are detected, and horrible, terrifying Starship Trooper-esque aliens (yes, we know the original Alien Breed came out before the film) are hell bent on showing you your own entrails. There are envoys on board, on some important mission. They’re probably all dead. The upper decks have been torn to pieces. Maybe we can help? Negative. Head to the main reactor and shut it down, we’re told, before it overloads. If it does, everyone on the ship is dead. Stay in radio contact. Be careful. Keep us alive.
Comic strip cutscenes like this one will play out between each of the five levels the first Alien Breed Evolution episode offers. Storytelling is important, Martyn says, despite this being a self-published, download-only game. Still, it’s an arcade shooter at heart, and some won’t give an alien’s arse about the plot or the narrative. They’re just in it for the shooting and the killing and the general removal of life from dirty rotten aliens. “We've spent a ridiculous amount of time drawing all of this stuff,” counters Martyn. Maybe you should watch them then.
So, onto said pursuit. The first thing that’s immediately obvious is how similar in atmosphere Evolution is compared with the original. The game is, like its predecessor, viewed from a slightly off-kilter top down perspective, showing the action as if the roof of every room you enter on the giant hulking space ship has been ripped off by some planet-sized gaming god. The controls are simple, reminiscent of Bizarre’s superb Geometry Wars. The left thumb stick moves your assault rifle-clad engineer about and the right thumb stick aims the weapon, a laser sight helping you see where your death-bringer’s pointed. All you need then is the right trigger (fire), and the left trigger (use item). That, in one wonderfully written paragraph, is Alien Breed Evolution’s controls.
The Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics are surprisingly well detailed. We say surprising only because this is a downloadable game, not because of the development team behind it. Glass floors, reflecting what’s above them, reveal the innards of the ship. Reactors spin and pulse with almost Dead Space quality. CCTV cameras track the player, moving left and right as if stalking you. Monitors built into the environment display the action as you see it. “What we tried to do when we started off is raise the bar on digital in terms of quality,” Martyn says. Quite.
Here, in the game’s opening mission, there isn’t much challenge. It’s designed to ease you into the game’s mechanics. There is an imposing sense of dread. Nothing much is happening – exploration at this point is the main concern. It’s dark and it’s quiet, the ship creaking like a ghostly rocking chair. Alarms sound in the background. A vacant female voice repeats: “Attention, all crew. Please evacuate this area immediately.” “Systems malfunction”. It’s very Aliens, very Event Horizon, very Dead Space, very Alien Breed.