Man's fascination with the possibility of a foreign presence within the vast blackness above has permeated far into the various fields of human culture. This penetration into everyday life can be seen no better than reflected in the entertainment industry. Films, books and now, the firmly established young upstart, games have been rife with fleshy mutated appendages and hardened bulletproof carapaces for over a century, making appearances in novels by authors as old and respected as H.G. Wells, writer of the now ubiquitous War Of The Worlds.
In more modern times, games have tightly embraced the notion of something out there and as gaming technology and graphics have advanced, it has become even easier for developers to present an equally believable and fantastical world to gamers far and wide. The latest title to take up arms for the extra-terrestrials is a remake of the Amiga classic, Alien Breed. Wielding the plasma-blaster-rifle-shooter-device is new kid on the XBLA, Alien Breed Evolution.
Admirably, the game throws you straight into the action after only a brief spell of setting the scene in the form of a short story-establishing comic-strip cutscene. From there on in it's all systems go and all guns blazing as the dual-stick shooter plays havoc with your carpal tunnels. The quantity of enemies is unimaginable, reaching numbers that only a few years ago would have been sure to turn a computer's processor into a mouldering pile of dust and tears. There's no crying circuitry to be seen here, with the Unreal 3 Engine joining forces with the Xbox's hardware to make short work of the screen-filling carnage.
Graphically, Alien Breed is very impressive. Smooth and detailed textures explode into life when paired with a vibrant colour set and enough spent ammunition to capsize a spaceship. Whether that physical comparison is theoretically possible is irrelevant, as the game itself hands realism a one-way ticket to the sun faster than you can say IonSpike. The battlefield scarring is a nice touch, with the player doing a bit of a violent Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail of mayhem and gore wherever they roam in the expansive, labyrinthine levels. The endless, goo-strewn corridors, reminiscent of a sexually-frustrated nymphomaniac's handkerchief, allow for adventuring rarely witnessed amongst the contents of the XBLA catalogue. This exploration is invited with the tantalising prospect of health packs and ammo, both of which can become scarce as the game battles on.
In terms of gameplay, the unpredictability and surprise inherent in the spawning of enemies never fails to evince a frantic wheeling of the analogue sticks from the player; even causing a phrenetic spasming of the thumbs when it all gets a bit close to the red, with your eyes never straying too far from the health bar. This induction of panic makes for addictive gameplay and pulse-pounding nerd sweats when the damage is coming thick and fast. At times, however, the aiming can be wildly inaccurate.
With a range of weapons on offer, ammo management becomes important, saving the big guns for the big bads. Pickups are scattered around levels and searching is a must as the objective often requires the possession of a specific key card for progression, a feature which serves up a nostalgia-ridden DOOM feel to the title. Also incorporated are further optional, lootable objects, such as lockers and corpses, which can offer aid in your mission. The interaction with level features is brilliantly fluid and seems very natural, preventing the hunt for items becoming too much of a chore.
Being released episodically, with an expected trio of instalments, each stated to last between 5 and 8 hours, when combined, the trilogy promises to offer up a lengthy helping of eye straining action. The features offered in episode one include a 5 level story and a 3 level Co-op portion. The cooperative experience is infinitely more rewarding than solo thumb-twiddling, with the tension of reliance mounting and the virtual tug-of-war that takes place every time the combatants go in differing directions. Conversely, the game provides a strong sense of camaraderie and responsibility for keeping the other player alive and the sharing of pickups demonstrates the lofty heights of video game diplomacy; getting your partner on your side, making them more likely to valiantly let you take the highly coveted large health pack.
Few games manage to entirely escape the cloying smile-wipers that are glitches, and Alien Breed is no exception. On occasion, the environment can appear to have an unhealthy appetite for a bit of main character. This may sound a little comedic given the hard man who likes to kill aliens context, but when you're getting chewed up by a sneaky, spiky alien after getting stuck on a computer terminal for the third time, things begin to grate. Another issue can be seen in online Co-op when your weaponry ceases to fire, leaving you a bit of a turkey dinner for the ravenous aliens.
In terms of audio, there's no way one could describe Alien Breed as a sonic masterpiece; an orchestra of space. While the effects are passable and reasonably believable, they never allow for total immersion. Guns lack the angry shouts of resonating power and instead sound like a timid child dragging a stick along a railing. Musically, a heavy rumbling bass will accompany you throughout most of the game, and in that sense, the composers seem to have taken a leaf from the book of Peep Show's Super Hans, abiding by the rule, "the longer the note, the more dread".
Throwing these various factors into the mixing bowl and adding a generous dollop of gun-toting, laser-blasting madness, we are left with a mixture that represents the best of what the genre has to offer thrown into the shell of a generic dual-stick shooter. The mechanics are easily learned and the difficulty curve set at a satisfying level. With episode one having a fair bit of gameplay on offer, it's a testament to the effortless playability that I'm left raring for more. Fingers attuned for mayhem, I'm eagerly anticipating a continuation with episode two and if that comes at the same bargain-basement price of 800 MSP, miracles will most definitely be possible.
Sam has been unable to peel his bloodshot eyes and RSI-ridden wrists from the world of gaming since he was first introduced to it, like all good junkies, by his Grandad. From those early days of MegaDrive sweetness, bashing through the throngs of enemies on Shining Force II, his love of all things games has extended upwards and outwards onto a variety of platforms. You can either believe that spiel, or get the real scoop and know that his spaceship actually crashed here some years ago and he is currently incognito as a games writer for Console Monster.