Alien Breed Evolution Episode One, the first of three downloadable games based on the classic Amiga shooter Alien Breed, is too old school for its own good. Sure, the graphics have evolved, but the gameplay is frustratingly dated.
Take, for example, the save system. Back in the early Nineties, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and computers required bolts of lightning to get going, punishing save points were de rigueur, making you fear the game over screen like a child fears the dark. In today's socially networked world, however, they're just a pain in the backside. We don't have the time to replay 20 minutes of gameplay. Why should we, when we could be playing Farmville instead?
You can only save when standing next to a save terminal. The problem is, they're depressingly sparse. You often spend tens of minutes following waypoints, activating switches and killing hordes of horrible aliens before you come across one. When you die - and you will die - having to do it all again makes you want to smack yourself in the face with your own controller. This phenomenon is known as "rage quitting".
West Yorkshire developer Team 17 will say the save system is deliberately punishing. "It's an old school shooter, stupid, it's supposed to be like that." Well boo hoo. Times have changed. Modern tastes demand modern design. Just look at Epic's superb Shadow Complex; it's an old school shooter, but it's packed with save points.
To be brutally honest, Alien Breed Evolution's save system isn't its biggest problem. No, it's the repetitive, by the numbers gameplay. The Leopold, the alien-infested space ship you find yourself battling through, isn't working as well as it should be. Scratch that - it's almost completely broken. Doors won't open, the power's down and the lights are out. So, to progress, you need to act like a mechanic and repair. These tasks are occasionally interesting (escort a physician to medical, rescue trapped survivors from poisonous gas within a time limit), but, on the whole, all you have to do is walk up to a computer panel, hold down a button to interact with it, then wait for further instructions. Rinse and repeat.
The combat's enjoyable, but suffers from being repetitive. You move and point and shoot at aliens that look and act too similarly. Only at the bitter end does the game offer up an enemy significantly different than the fodder seen during the previous five hours. Perhaps that's why Alien Breed Evolution is a game best played in digestible chunks, and not in one mammoth session. Each of the five levels is designed to last about an hour, and with good reason, too.
Alien Breed Evolution's failings are a shame, because everything else about it is top notch. The controls, a Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved-inspired twin stick set-up, work well, as does the all new two-player local or online co-operative mode, cleverly designed to feel more like an action-packed gauntlet compared with the tense, solitary single-player experience. Put simply: when Alien Breed Evolution's good, it's bloody great. Team 17 has done a wonderful job of recreating the sense of dread the original is famous for. Quiet periods, during which you're doing little more than walking down dark corridors lit by your torch, are suddenly obliterated by heart-pounding half-minutes of desperation during which waves of aliens head straight for your juicy man flesh. Then it's quiet again, and all you can hear is the computer's sexy female voice pleading for the thousandth time for everyone to get the hell off of the ship.
The feeling that you can't afford even a second to relax is fuelled by an ammo and health pack system designed in the great survival horror tradition. Ammo needs to be managed - the infinite handgun (a video game classic) is good enough for the small, fast moving aliens, but is useless against the bigger ones. The machine gun is great for keeping death at a manageable distance, but doesn't cut it when you're being swarmed at close range; that's your cue to whip out the shotgun for some serious carnage. Later, when your arsenal is expanded by the flamethrower and the powerful "ion spike" - essentially a rail gun - the walls and floors spew out harder to kill aliens. But ammo for these weapons of mass destruction, and health packs, is scarce. Search every room and corpse, and save your serious firepower for when you really need it; Alien Breed's beasties eat handguns for breakfast.
For a downloadable game, Alien Breed Evolution's graphics and sound are great. The Unreal Engine-powered space ship, viewed from a slightly skewed top-down perspective, is superbly lit and impressively detailed. Eye-catching explosions occur with devastating frequency. The flamethrower is as satisfying to use as it is to watch aliens scream as they burn from its fire. Aliens die and collapse in pools of green mush, their corpses coming together to form a floor of disgusting death. Glass can be shattered, red canisters blown up and turrets activated. Transparent floors reveal the inner workings of the ship - Alien Breed Evolution's Dead Space moments. It cannot be denied: Alien Breed Evolution looks as good as the best Xbox LIVE and PSN has to offer.
If you can stomach the save system and accept the repetitiveness, the four to five hours of single-player gameplay, plus the co-op experience and online leaderboards, make the 800 MSP (just under seven quid) price tag an attractive proposition. If, however, Alien Breed Evolution sounds like pulling teeth, you're better off with the side-scrolling Shadow Complex. Fingers crossed Episode Two shakes Alien Breed Evolution up a bit.