It's been almost two decades since Team17's acclaimed sci-fi horror Alien Breed blasted its way onto the Commodore Amiga. Gamers thought they'd seen the last of those bug-like extraterrestrials, but after a perpetual struggle to find a suitable publisher, the Yorkshire-based developer has unleashed another wave.
We've endured a lengthy wait since the game was first announced, but DS finally got to lock and load with Alien Breed Evolution at the Eurogamer Expo. A great deal has changed within the industry since the original achieved classic status, but with retro-themed games experiencing a boom right now there is certainly a market for this one... and based on early impressions, it's sure to please the diehards.
The game opens with a stylish black and white comic sequence, which introduces the main characters and sets the scene. It's nicely rendered but few fans are likely to purchase this one for its storyline... so, on with the carnage.
Like its forefather, the action is viewed from a top-down perspective and gameplay is devilishly simple. The left analogue stick moves your character, while the right is used for aiming weapons. Firearms are activated using the right shoulder button and items with the left. Beyond this, there's very little in the way of a learning curve. It's this level of minimalistic fun that makes the game every inch an Alien Breed title. Evolution even captures the atmosphere of the original, with a sense of creeping sci-fi horror following you throughout.
While it appears to be little more than a graphically-enhanced version of its predecessor, Team17's design manager John Dennis has moved to assure fans that there will be plenty of surprises in store. "It's faithful to the feel of the original, but we've done a few things differently," he told DS.
"In the levels in the original Alien Breed, you'd have limited keys and you'd have to shoot doors; sometimes you'd find yourself in a position where you couldn't complete the level anymore. There's none of that in Alien Breed Evolution. Our levels have all had a lot of time lavished on them, a lot of design, and there's a lot of exciting things happening… asteroids crashing through the ship's hull, reactors overheating, fire and explosions. It's a pretty stressful environment."
The studio exec also pointed out that the computer AI has been given quite the IQ boost. This was apparent from as early as the opening missions, with different varieties of alien hitting you via unique attack patterns. For instance, some of the creatures charge at you while others hold back and blast you from a distance. This requires you to take your finger of the trigger for a moment and formulate a strategy, lending the game a degree of even pacing.
Survival horror aspects have also been incorporated. When your health bar is almost depleted, your character picks up a limp and becomes easy prey. Power-ups also appear to be something of a rarity, so being economical with resources is essential to your survival. "Health is always in really short supply, as is ammo, so you've got to be sure to use the weaker weapons on the weaker aliens rather than using your really powerful ones, otherwise you'll really struggle later on," Dennis added.
Co-operative multiplayer looks extremely promising, and perhaps the only way to experience the game to its full potential. It can be played locally with a friend or online across a network, which is sure to help it garner a cult following.
Evolution is to be issued as a trilogy, with each chapter consisting of five hour-long levels. Expected to cost somewhere in the region of 1200 MS Points on Xbox Live or £9.99 on PSN, it's sure to create a stir in the digital market place. "Each episode is a standalone game that can be downloaded and played separately," Dennis explained.
"There's a narrative arc that links the three episodes together, each episode ending on a cliff-hanger that's resolved at the start of the next episode. So if people download the first episode, we hope they'll want to find out how the story carries on in later episodes, but if people want to join the series late, that's okay, too... there's a 'previously on Alien Breed' sequence at the start of episodes two and three that recaps what's happened so far."
Alien Breed Evolution is unlikely to redefine the top-down shooter, but there are few games of its kind currently available via online storefronts. Furthermore, it does the original justice while offering something broad enough to appeal to the wider audience. "We hope it will stand up on its own merits. It looks great, it sounds great, it's a great deal of fun to play and scary in about equal measure, and has the episodic thing which is pretty ground-breaking on console. I hope people will enjoy it for what it is as we've put a lot of love into the game," Dennis added.
An official release date for Alien Breed Evolution is yet to be announced.
> Read our full interview with John Dennis here