Version tested: Xbox 360
Retro revamps can be a harrowing business. For every Pac-Man Championship Edition there's an Alien Syndrome, and a Golden Axe: Beast Rider, and a Final Fight: Streetwise, usually in those distressing proportions.
The problem is down to the approach. Developers often find themselves caught between two stools, on the one hand trying to retain the essence of what made the original so appealing, while also trying to update it to appeal to modern gamers. They routinely end up failing at both.
Team 17's long-overdue Alien Breed reboot initially takes a no-nonsense approach, avoiding the temptation to tinker too much with the old top-down shooter formula. This 'Evolution' lives up to its title, with most of its central gameplay principles retained, and a suitably lavish, atmospheric setting provided for the alien carnage.
As tends to be the case with any Alien-inspired sci-fi romp, you spend the entirety of the adventure aboard a stricken vessel, wandering its darkened corridors by torchlight with only the omnipresent threat of face-huggers and insectoid Maulers bursting forth at any moment for company. Introduced via a series of stylish comic frames, the game reveals that your spacecraft collided with a much larger ghost ship during hyperspace, and now half the structure is either on fire or in bits.
Much like the classic Amiga original (itself heavily inspired by top-down eighties arcade games like Alien Syndrome, Robotron and Smash TV), you spend most of your time fending off a relentless assault of aggressive aliens while also trying to hunt down keycards, and rebooting generators and mainframe terminals.
Team 17 has done a fantastic job of delivering the requisite moody atmosphere, the crumbling remnants of the ship awash with delightful incidental detail like gigantic throbbing generators visible beneath the metal gantries. Built with Unreal Engine 3, excellent lighting and particle effects add conviction to an already highly impressive spectacle, and few will have complaints about the overall artistic direction.
The multidirectional combat system is slick and intuitive from the off, too, easily allowing you to move and fire independently. With basic movement (and flashlight direction) mapped to the left stick and shot direction on the right, you're afforded a satisfying degree of precision - aided in part by the red laser sight that points the way.
Enemies often erupt in waves from all sides, so the ability to whip around instantly and take care of new targets is a life-saver. In this sense, the new two-stick controls are a vast improvement on the original, and ensure that the gunplay remains enjoyable throughout the four-hour, five-chapter single-player campaign.
The campaign has been expanded far beyond the scope of the original Alien Breeds, and you'll soon spot a few modern concessions, such as save stations where you can store your progress, and a noticeably more forgiving difficulty curve which ensures that progressing right through the game shouldn't pose too much of a problem.
That said, the decision to leave saving progress up to the player means that you have to be mindful to take advantage whenever save stations appear - lest you get caught off-guard by a sudden ambush and lose 20 minutes of painstaking progress. It does at least ensure a much-needed degree of tension at all times, but the potential for frustration is obvious.
Rather than go for a direct rehash of the original top-down viewpoint, Alien Breed Evolution also opts for an isometric-style approach, with the useful ability to rotate the viewpoint in eight increments via LB and RB. But despite the game occasionally zooming into the action at predefined sections, you can't fiddle with the perspective yourself.
Presumably a stylistic choice, this means the camera sometimes gets a bit too close for its own good, with enemies liable to launch attacks off-screen. The issue is especially relevant in co-op, where the limited freedom of movement often forces you to stay in very close proximity to avoid getting trapped against scenery while your partner wanders off.
One of the more curious decisions is to separate single-player and from that co-op mode. At first this feels like a great idea, but the single-player game would also have benefitted from an optional co-op partner - even if meant breaking the narrative arc. Breed veterans would probably agree that the game was always best played with a buddy, so to force players into riding solo for the bulk of it runs counter to what many players - myself included - would have preferred.
This perhaps wouldn't have been such an issue were the co-op mode itself not such a throwaway exercise. There's rarely enough loot to go around, as it's shared between you, and the gameplay balance is thrown out of whack the moment you realise that death means respawning a few seconds later complete with the default weapons loadout and ammo. It's often beneficial to die so you can resume better equipped than before. With no real need to tread carefully, co-op play quickly descends into a monotonous trudge.
Unfortunately, some of the same issues apply to the single-player campaign as well, with a singular lack of variety apparent throughout. The game punctuates the combat with a series of fetch quests, and removes the explorational element by getting you to follow waypoints on the mini-map. But as faithful to the originals as this probably sounds (apart from the waypoints), it doesn't scale particularly well over the course or four or five hours.
Played over any kind of extended period, the repetition starts to numb, and minor failures via careless save-game management make you angry. On that basis, Alien Breed Evolution is one of the few Xbox Live Arcade games best savoured one chapter at a time over a week or two, rather than consumed with fervour all at once, and indeed when I started playing it that way I had a lot more fun.
Alien Breed Evolution really could have benefitted from a more progressive design, too. Having nailed the controls and delivered a lavish audio-visual makeover, it then proceeds to give you little more to do than chase waypoints, activate panels and shoot half a dozen types of aliens with the usual array of sci-fi weaponry. Apart from a memorable chase sequence in the early stages, the game waits right until the very end before unleashing another surprise. In between, you're essentially just killing a truckload of aliens and rebooting machines.
Had the game perhaps taken a leaf out of Dead Space's book and made the weapons and upgrades integral to the combat, then the issue of repetition would be less of a problem. As it is, there's no real sense that the gameplay moves on from the basic blasting and keycard-hunting that you see in the first 20 minutes, and that initial relief that Team 17 hasn't meddled with the formula eventually gives way to the realisation that, in 2009, this back-to-basics approach isn't enough to carry you for the length of time it demands.
On the face of it, Alien Breed Evolution offers everything that fans of the 16-bit incarnations could wish for, with strong production values and focused design contributing to a sympathetic update that stays true to the source material. But sadly, a flawed approach to co-op play and an inherent lack of variety ultimately count against it. With two more instalments to come, we can only hope there's time for Team 17 to build on the many positive elements in this first episode.
7 / 10