Developer: Black Cat Games
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, Pentium IV 3.0 GHz or better CPU, 1 GB RAM (2 GB for Vista), 128 MB DirectX 9-compatible graphics card with Shader Model 2.0 support (ATI X800, NVidia 6600 or better), 2.5 GB hard-drive space, DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound card
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: Available now
For some reason, when we think of a swarm of something we automatically think it’s coming after us. It’s always, “I was attacked by a swarm of bees” or “My family’s farm was decimated by a swarm of locusts!” Well, in Alien Swarm’s case, this association holds especially true, because before you’re done playing, you’ll say, “My entire squad of marines was attacked, eviscerated and scattered about the corridors like piñata innards by a swarm of aliens!” Or something like that.
It’s bound to happen, too. That is, unless you can fall back on a competent combination of team members. Alien Swarm, much like its Unreal Tournament 2004-mod predecessor, is a squad-based co-op action game, so that means everyone has a job to do, and they’d better do it right, otherwise things will go south pretty quickly. You’ve got officers, tech specialists, heavy-weapons wielders and medics from which to choose, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. After your conscript is chosen, you can customize your loadout with primary and secondary weapons and equipment, more of which can be unlocked via level progression.
And while there’s a limited offline mode to acclimate you to the onslaught of bug-like attackers you’ll be facing, the game proper of Alien Swarm is played online with friends. This is both awesome and a bit of a drag at the same time. It’s awesome because if you’ve got a really good team, you can whittle hours away plowing through level after level, unlocking achievements and better guns. It’s bad, however, if you’re someone like me who keeps getting stuck with teammates who rush into the nearest swath of enemies and proceed to die a horrible, yet alluringly beautiful, slow-motion death. Not that I didn’t find myself in that position a few times myself.
Despite any possible online faux pas, Alien Swarm certainly won’t turn anyone away in the way it’s constructed. The animation is smooth, models are reasonably detailed for the 60-degree top-down perspective you’re given, and the surprisingly good lighting effects perfectly convey the “space colony under attack” vibe. Your audio accompaniment, on the other hand, is nothing spectacular. The hail of gunfire, screeching alien death and an occasional voice here and there are done quite well, but are usually jumbled together in the incoherence of battle. Controlling your chosen marine is done in a sort of “roving turret” fashion, as in Smash TV, and serves you well in taking out attackers that come at you from all sides, but I found myself feeling a bit separated from my character at times.
But fortunately, that’s the extent of my complaints. Alien Swarm might not be a juggernaut in terms of originality, but it’s a damn solid game, and it even comes with its own software development kit, so a slew of mods can’t be far behind. The part that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s perhaps the most important bullet point here, is that Alien Swarm is 100 percent free. That’s right, you could be downloading it right now on Steam. It sounds too good to be true, but although I keep waiting for an ad to pop up or a “buy the full version” button to mysteriously appear after so many plays, they haven’t.
But maybe Alien Swarm gets off easy because it’s free. I mean, how many bad things can you say about something you didn’t have to pay for? If you don’t like it, you can always uninstall it, though I hardly suspect anyone who finds a decent group to play with will be doing that anytime soon.