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.
Waypoints direct you to your objective. You scan search the environment - essential when played on the higher difficulty levels and provisions are scarce. Ammo, health, back story logs, if you want them. Key cards for locked doors. At this stage small tasks are easily completed - shut the reactor down. Put out the fire. Go in here. "Systems offline". "Door online." Pick up the torch (a godsend on later, pitch black levels). Use it to open an optical lock. Use it to see through glass. "There's a spurious amount of detail we've put in the bloody game."
Then the aliens come, slowly but ominously, screeching as you fill them with assault rifle fire. The dynamic soundtrack ramps up. A stray crew member is devoured by an alien that leaps out of a wall behind him like a demented mole. Bigger and meaner aliens are slowly added into the mix. Martyn has at this point a shotgun. "I won't use it till the big ones start coming. It's a waste otherwise." Soon enough, he fires it - as with all video game shotguns the spread is devastating up close. Then comes the flamethrower. We burn the bastards - they shriek, almost mercifully, as they roast. It's a useful weapon, but has limited range and ammo is hard to come by. And, in two-player co-op, it can do as much damage to your mate as the enemy.
I look down at my notes and notice something I think is worth typing: Dead Space Lite? Upon reflection, Alien Breed Evolution is more action packed, but the ambience is certainly reminiscent of Visceral's superb sci-fi horror. If you're having a hard time picturing what that might mean, have a gander at the screenshots. They're over there on the left of the screen. But don't make your mind up until you've watched the video. Martyn admits screenshots don't do it justice: "It's quite hard to do screenshots. I really was shitting it - it looks so much better moving. You don't really get any of the benefit of the lighting, with the shading and fire."
It's clear that Team17's desperately trying to keep the mood and feel of the original, but obviously do it in a modern way. It looks like a blast, and should go down like ice cream with Alien Breed fanatics. But let's not forget that most won't have played the original. Should Halo, Gears and Killzone fans be interested? Absolutely, Martyn insists. In fact that's the very demographic the game's aiming its laser sight at.
Now, specifics. Each level takes an hour to run through - they're huge levels. With five coming in the first episode, that's about five hours worth of campaign for your cash. Martyn promises that each level is very different in terms of style, but the moody atmosphere is a constant. Lifts collapse, there's a spot of space walking, turrets to place, and stalking end of level bosses to confront. Eventually you make your way onto the alien ship you've crashed into. In the next part of the trilogy, the ship starts falling out of orbit and crash lands onto a planet - the sea, actually. "You end up neck high in water."
As far as cost goes, Martyn isn't allowed to say, but we reckon it's a dead cert for 1200 MS Points on XBLA and £9.99 on PSN. Some might baulk, but really you're going to get a lot for your money. Once you've worked through the game's story there's a competitive endgame for enthusiasts, fuelled by online leaderboards. The XBLA version's demo, a ten minute, self-contained story-less arcade romp through the ship, will be included in the final game as an additional challenge with its own Achievement and Trophy, too. Then there are the difficulty levels to contend with. And online/offline co-op, which is again different to the single-player, taking part in another area of the ship, but crosses over at points.
So there you have it. Alien Breed Evolution isn't genre redefining, but it looks like being a hell of a lot of fun, and from a graphical standpoint it's up there with the best downloadable games ever. In fact, we can't think of anything quite like it on either XBLA or PSN. PS3 owners are right to be miffed that the game's a timed 360 exclusive, but it should be worth the wait. As Martyn turns off the 360 in his darkened hotel room, he leaves us with this: "I think it's fair to say we've put a bit of effort into that." We agree.
The first game in the Alien Breed Evolution trilogy is due out for XBLA this September or October. PSN and PC versions will follow.