Review | 5/12/2016 at 12:00 PM

Alienation Co-Op Review

We got to take the loot back

Alienation manages to do something few twin-stick shooters achieve these days: defy expectations. Through a combination of well-executed mechanics and a progression system for both the world and player that feeds into that “just one more level” mentality, the game is a time-sink waiting to happen.

The setup to your impending slaughter of an alien species is familiar; aliens invade Earth, a long war ensues, and you’re now fighting to take the planet back. Each of the 20 story missions provide a little more narrative to your rampant murder-fest, but it is largely background noise to the action taking place on screen. Like many twin-stick shooters much of your time in Alienation will be spent moving around a map and killing anything hostile that heads your way. You can engage enemies up close with a melee attack, or shoot them from afar with a variety of weaponry. If you find yourself on the receiving end of enemy fire, you can use a rush move to dodge out of the way and get in a better position to retaliate.

While Alienation succeeds at executing all of these core functions quite well (particularly once the difficulty starts increasing and you find yourself having to dodge away from enemies while simultaneously executing a reload) that’s not what makes the game noteworthy. It rises above similar titles in the shooter genre due to the way in which it handles progression at the character, world, and loot levels.

There are three different character classes from which you can select to end the alien menace: Tank, Saboteur, and Bio-Specialist. Each class has a unique set of skills for their class along with three passive abilities that are common across all of them. These passive abilities can provide you with an instant revive should you die, buff your melee attack, and/or give your rush move a knockdown effect. Experience is earned by killing enemies and from special experience drops you’ll find in crates along the way.

In an interesting twist on shooters, Housemarque has replaced the usual score multiplier with an experience multiplier. This multiplier increases as you kill enemies, which leads to gaining levels faster, and resets when you die. The faster you gain levels, the quicker you’ll earn ability points and be able to use them to upgrade your class abilities. The upgrades themselves are divided up into major and minor upgrades.

For instance, the Saboteur’s cloaking power initially lasts for a few seconds and will be broken once an aggressive action (such as attacking) is taken. After investing one ability point to unlock it (major upgrade), the next point provides you with a choice of either increasing its duration or increasing your movement speed while cloaked (minor upgrade). These minor upgrades are toggles and you’re free to switch between them at any point. That minor upgrade is followed by a major upgrade, which adds a new effect where the Cloak will automatically re-engages after you attack an enemy, and then another minor upgrade, either increased duration or movement speed, and so on. You can spend a total of seven ability points on any one ability to get all of its major and minor upgrades, but you won’t be able to upgrade them all. The level limit is capped at 30 and after that any experience you earn is applied to “Hero Levels,” which increase your health points for every level earned.

While the skill tree isn’t elaborate for each class (just three active skills and the three common passives), you earn just enough ability points to let you build your class to fit a particular playstyle. Perhaps you really focus on upgrading the Cloaking ability for the Saboteur so you can sneak up on a group of foes to rain down retribution upon them with an Artillery Strike and then sneak away. Maybe you decide to only upgrade his Plasma Sword and Strike abilities, and ignore Cloaking altogether. If you don’t like the decisions you’ve made, then don’t worry. You’re free to remove points from any ability and invest them in a different one at any time from the main menu.

As I mentioned before, it’s not just your character that progresses the more you play, but the world itself. The first few missions you tackle will be straightforward “go here, do X” affairs. After you succeed at a few, however, new mini-objectives start popping up. These may entail killing alien commanders (tougher enemies with special abilities like shooting bullets out every time they get hit) or completing special events, like defeating waves of enemies within a certain time limit. If you succeed at these extra activities you’ll be rewarded with some loot so it is worthwhile to seek them out.

Once you complete all 20 story missions the world resets, increases in difficulty, and unlocks new features, like daily missions that reward you with materials and cores, and new activities, like UFO ships that act as treasure rooms. This kind of progression gives the game more depth than one would expect from a twin-stick shooter. There’s even an endless dungeon that nets you bigger rewards the deeper you go.

On the subject of loot, all the spoils you find in Alienation fall into one of two categories: gear and cores. Gear is further subdivided into primary, secondary, and heavy weapons, and equipment, like grenades, mines, and boomerangs. All of these vary in quality ranging from common to legendary. To go even further with all of that, each character class has a set primary weapon, e.g., the Tank always uses an energy gun, while the secondary, heavy, and equipment have greater variety, e.g., the secondary weapon can be a shotgun, a revolver, or a kind of rail gun called “power shot.”

There’s just enough diversity to let players find a combination of gear and abilities to make their character feel like their own. If you find a particular weapon that you like but you’re not thrilled with a particular stat, e.g., its clip size, then you can re-roll its value using materials gained from salvaging unwanted gear. It also shows you the highest and lowest values for a particular stat so you know if it’s even worth it to try and get something better. Out of all the games I’ve played that have featured some mechanic like this, I believe Alienation may have the smartest/best implementation of it.

The other loot you’ll find scattered about are the cores. These come in four different types (red for damage, blue for fire rate, yellow for clip size, and prismatic for critical chance) and can be socketed into your weapons to increase their stats. It’s similar to how gems work in Diablo 3. What’s a little different here is that some guns will have slots of a particular color, e.g., red, that provide an additional bonus if you put the matching core into that slot. The cores themselves vary in strength (from level 1 to level 6), and you can combine three of a lower tier to make one core of the next higher one. While these let you go even further into customizing your gear, they play more of a role in the end-game content as a way to boost your damage output.

Alienation works great as a single-player game, but it is even better when playing with others. More players means a greater representation of the different classes and the unique skills to which they have access, and players can revive one another should they die. Loot is instanced to each player, as well, so you don’t have to worry about someone grabbing everything up.

Any mission that you select from the main menu will show you all of the public games that are currently being run for that mission, what difficulty they’re set to, and how many people are already in that game. Thus you’re free to hop into some stranger’s game to hunt for loot and kick alien butt, or start a game of your own that can be set to public, visible to friends, or invite only. Rather than using voice chat, Alienation relies on set phrases mapped to the d-pad so you can communicate things like “Wait” or “Over here”.

While much of the game is very well done, there are a couple of flaws that stand out to me. The biggest is that there is very little explanation around some of the best features of the game. For example, you’re free to destroy the respawn points that are scattered throughout a mission at any time. If you do, you’ll get a “Reward Hog” bonus that pops up in the bottom right of the screen. It’s never explained what that does or why it’s worth destroying the respawn points. It turns out that if you destroy three respawn points and get that bonus three times, the reward chest at the end of the mission will spawn more loot.

If you die before completing the mission, however, that bonus gets wiped out. So there’s an entire risk/reward mechanic at play that never gets mentioned anywhere in the game and could be easily missed. Tied in with that lack of explanation is the other sticking point. If you want to play with friends, you all have to be at the same “world level.” That means if you beat all 20 missions and your buddy wants some help beating the last two, you can’t go back to assist and he or she can’t jump forward into your world. It’s a “feature” worth knowing about before it happens so you can plan with friends accordingly.

Throughout my time with Alienation, I have been consistently surprised at its depth and how well it executes on ideas/mechanics with which similar titles still struggle. The presence of end-game content in the form of the endless dungeon gives me hope that the developer could release even more for the game down the line. While the depth is great for anyone that wants to engage with it, the game works just as well as a fun arcade twin-stick shooter with some light RPG/loot mechanics. In a genre that feels inundated with slight variations of a few popular titles, Alienation proves that there are still innovative things to be done.