When Valve suddenly and surprisingly announced that it would be launching a four player co-op top down shooter based on an Unreal Tournament mod of the same name, Alien Swarm, for free - most people were pretty excited. A free game is a free game, but the promise of a quality product with full development tools included from a major publisher is almost unheard of. What trickery was Valve trying to pull here? Surely they have other motives?
Regardless of what Valve’s plans are for Alien Swarm, the game is here, and it won’t cost you a penny.
One thing that will surprise most people with Alien Swarm is the tactical and cooperative depth the game requires. This isn’t just a simple top down shooter where every player has a “gun” and you can hold the fire button infinitely. Instead players are required to pick classes of characters before a mission, choose a weapon load out carefully, and communicate with their team to decide just how they are going to survive the upcoming onslaught.
Medics become the glue that holds the squad together, able to dish out health in a glowing area within the levels - in a limited capacity. Technicians are required as well, their skills at hacking panels and downloading mission data become essential to completing missions. The leader class and the heavy gunner are your offensive power. Laying down fire, setting up turrets, providing tactical bonuses to the team all become the momentum of the mission. Along with all of this, players will need to decide if they want to carry extra ammo crates to support their team, a hand welder to seal doors shut from oncoming aliens, and dozens of other tools and weapons that make their mission hopefully go smooth. And by “go smooth” I mean not die in the first 30 seconds.
As you play through the game you’ll earn experience points which scale based on difficulty, they in turn are then used to level up your overall profile. Leveling up unlocks all those items that become so critical to mission load outs.
The missions themselves are all pretty straightforward - get from point A to point B, survive along the way and complete an objective or two - usually involving hacking. It’s not as simple as it sounds though, you’ll be surprised by numerous alien creatures coming out of vents, breaking through windows, climbing up walls, and jumping out of seemingly no where. These aliens vary in size and method of attack - some spit acid, some explode on death, and some just try to overwhelm you. Your best course of action as a team is a slow and steady pace covering all directions possible.
Visually the game is breathtaking. The Source Engine really shines here and the developers really made an excellent use of light and shadows. There’s a great sense of tension as you see giant shadows of these creatures come from around the corner. There’s not a whole lot of diversity in your environments - you’ve got your sewers, space station, outdoor snow and a few others - but all of them are extremely polished and add to the experience.
If there’s a downside to the game it comes in the difficulty - especially when you throw the infestation parasites into the mix. These little guys that you can hardly see manage to cling onto your buddy and suck the life out of you. The only way to “cure” them is to have a medic drop some healing - and it takes a bit too long to solve. The scarcity of ammo also comes into play for the difficulty, combined with the fact if you have any less than four people trying to play you are missing a crucial piece to the play balance puzzle.
Alien Swarm is still a game that’s going to surprise you. Valve could have easily charged $20 for this title and people would have felt they gotten their money’s worth. Yet at the low, low price of free there is simply no reason you shouldn’t head out and download the game immediately. It may be a bit on the short side, but there's plenty of replayability here.
Alien Swarm is a top notch co-op experience the blends together the likes of Left 4 Dead, Smash TV, and a lite RPG. And this is only the beginning, the mod community has just begun to sink their teeth into the game, I have a feeling we’ll be talking about Alien Swarm for quite some time.
The Co-Op Experience: Team up to take on swarms of aliens. Players can customize and upgrade dozens of weapons.
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.