Aside from Duke Nukem Forever, there can't be a lot games that have endured as many false starts as Alien Breed Evolution. Initially envisaged as a PC RPG in the late nineties, the game crashed and burned after 18 months in development when publisher Microprose was swallowed up by the acquisitive Hasbro Interactive. Undeterred, Team17 then re-envisioned the game as a Snowblind engine-powered title on PS2, but met with frustrating indifference as a slew of publishers passed on backing it. Fortunately, times have changed. Boosted by the success of Worms on Xbox Live Arcade, the Wakefield-based studio has decided to self-publish Alien Breed Evolution, presumably waving two fingers in the direction of all the publishers who shot it down the first time around.
"It's a complete no-brainer," admits Team17's studio director Martyn Brown. "Even selling it at a much lower price, we're making twice as much money than if we put it out as a boxed product and charged three times as much. There's no stupidly expensive marketing campaign to pay for, no distribution fees, no retail margin, no pre-owned resale losses, and no publisher slice. We've cut them all out entirely." With the success of numerous Worms ports swelling the coffers, it's a risk the veteran company can afford to take.
Despite the brand lying dormant since the release of Alien Breed 3D on the Amiga back in 1996, Brown observes that a lot of people still have very fond memories of the series, and so they should. During its heyday between 1991 and 94, the Amiga classic scooped numerous awards, and was considered one of the best co-op shooters of the decade, rich with the kind of atmospheric tension that later became characteristic of the survival horror genre.
This particular remake is taking shape via an interesting route, in three separate downloadable episodes, each with five chapters. The plan is to offer around five hours' worth of single-player content in each, with a separate campaign of online/local co-op fun offering another few hours on top. Although leading on Xbox 360 for an unspecified period of exclusivity with each instalment, PC and PS3 versions will also be released. Brown wouldn't be drawn on price, but my guess would be somewhere around the GBP 10 mark per episode. If it turns out to be as good as early impressions suggest, it promises to be good value.
Stylishly side-stepping the need for disk space-hogging cut-scenes, the game's narrative is relayed via a black and white comic strip and the usual gravel-voiced delivery that we all love and mock frequently. After a spaceship becomes crippled by a mysterious collision with an unknown entity, the game tasks you with exploring the stricken craft and unravelling the mysteries of the crash. Viewed from a semi-overhead perspective, you control the ship's engineer, Conrad.
Watching Brown play the opening portion of the game, the first thing that strikes you is how lavish it looks. This is no quick-and-dirty retro revamp that will only be of interest to a veteran hardcore audience. Developed by a 30-strong team over the past year, Evolution benefits from strong production values and an artistic flair that manages to bring the look and feel of the series up to date without straying too far from the source material. In no way do the gloomy screenshots released to date do the game justice; in motion, the dark, forbidding interior of the environments is the perfect modern interpretation of the original vision.
Aided by Team17's experience of the Unreal 3 Engine, the attention to detail is impressive. Wandering the darkened corridors of the damaged spaceship is an eerie experience, your torch beam penetrating the gloom in the expectation of the next alien onslaught. Smoke, fire and steam billows out of ruptured pipes, and gigantic technology spins, throwing shapes as you patter over gantries in the relentless search for keycards and extra ammo.
The sparse and menacing audio was always a key facet of Alien Breed's appeal, even back in 1991, and Team17 has been careful to apply the same detail in this department as well. Alistair Brimble's original score has been brought up to date by the man himself, and a full soundtrack accompanies proceedings as you explore. Sadly, the iconic sound effects have been completely changed - understandably perhaps, but I couldn't help feel a pang of regret that the death sound of aliens is no longer akin to a terrified elephant.
Once I wreste the game from Brown, it controls as intuitively as it looked. Whereas before you basically fired in the direction you were moving (bless the one-button joysticks of yore), the new two-stick system allows for independent moving and aiming. Once you adapt, it affords a much greater degree of flexibility and precision in firefights, as you strafe and dodge with one stick and tweak the aiming with the other. Within a matter of seconds you feel fully in control, without the need for a nannying tutorial having to point every single detail out. Good start.
Equally helpful is the laser targeting system, allowing you to see exactly where your shots are heading, and especially useful when you're retreating and down to your last few clips. On the odd occasion that you want to spin the camera around to get a better angle on the proceedings, you can tap the right bumper to rotate the viewpoint in 90-degree increments. There's no option to zoom in or out or change the tilt of the camera, but it's not something you feel you need either.
Another useful addition is the mini-map in the top-right corner of the screen. Rather than leaving you to painstakingly explore every portion of the ship in the hope of reuniting a specific door with a specific key, waypoints appear to tell you where to head next. Admittedly, it does feel as though the game is holding your hand a touch, but it is designed to remove frustration and keep you in the game. Enemies will not respawn endlessly, either, in case you were wondering.
According to Brown, the higher the skill level, the more accurate you'll have to be with your shots, and the more damage you'll take if you get hit. Ammo won't be as easy to come by, and you'll find yourself doing a great deal more ransacking than usual. If you want to simply blast away and not worry about ammo too much, then that's catered for too on the lower end of the three difficulty settings. Various save-points are scattered around each level, too, although it's up to you to use them - the game won't checkpoint for you. Another element that is very much up to the player is whether they immerse themselves in the storyline. With audio logs littering the decks, you can find out a little more about the back-story in a manner reminiscent of Doom 3 and BioShock, but if you prefer to focus on the action, the game won't punish you for it.
As with all XBLA titles, a free trial version of the game will be available. The interesting thing is that this trial operates as an eight-minute snapshot of the game in full flight, as opposed to merely serving up part of the first level or so. This may be a wise decision, as the first chapter takes a few minutes to warm up, the game offering you a chance to get comfortable with the controls before throwing too many enemies at you.
Speaking of enemies, the first few chunks of the game offer a glimpse of some fairly standard foes, such as little scurrying face-hugger types, and larger stag-beetle-esque Chargers. By chapter two, groups of Chargers work as a pack, where a healer operates at the back reviving any of its fallen comrades almost as soon as you've killed them. Getting rid of these packs involves wading in and taking out the healers first so they can't dispense any of their pesky magic. Even by this stage, the general level of sophistication looks promising for the rest. You can expect 12 different enemy types in total (each with variations within their own class), and "eight to 10" weapons, including all the usual sci-fi shooter favourites like shotgun, pistol, assault rifle, flamethrower, rocket launcher and grenades.
One nagging doubt is just how the gameplay can scale to extended play over three episodes - especially when you consider that it was possible to complete the whole of the original in around 40 minutes. But Brown insists the environments and gameplay will evolve significantly as the story progresses. We're duty-bound not to reveal any spoilers, but it sounds as though Team17 has some promising ideas. Also interesting to note is how the game's co-op campaign storyline is different to the solo one. Missions will be designed around the nature of co-op play, and leaderboards will feature as well, with time and efficiency-based rankings offering that all-important replay value.
In what is shaping up to be an excellent year for downloadable titles, Alien Breed Evolution could well end up near the top of my wish-list. Whether you're desperate for the game to be brought up to date or just fancy the idea of a sci-fi Diablo, it's looking a bit special. It may have taken an inordinate amount of time to arrive, but it looks like Team 17 has done the series justice.
Alien Breed Evolution is due for release on Xbox Live Arcade later this year. PC and PS3 versions will follow.