Alien Swarm is Free, Fun, and Full of Potential

Every once in a while a video game company does something worth telling the world about. Released yesterday, Valve’s new game Alien Swarm is one of those such things–and it wouldn’t have been possible without Steam and its large audience of varied gamers to distribute to.

I remember back when the name Steam wasn’t unanimous with quality and innovation. There was a time where it was disliked immensely. When it was first announced, a lot of the Counter-Strike and Half-Life community–including my whole CS clan, myself as well–were against Steam. Initially, in protest, a lot of us avoided installing Steam and refused to use it during our scrimmages. We went rogue for the first time, angered by the direction Valve was taking our favorite games in. We especially hated Steam because its introduction coincided with Counter-Strike 1.6’s launch. It was probably meant to granddaddy Steam into the gaming world, but the move mostly generated vitriol from then hardcore Counter-Strike fans.

CS 1.6 had a lot of problems compared to 1.5. From the view of a group of competitive players, its changes irrevocably damaged the game. They altered recoils rendering guns like the MP5 useless and changed the netcode which in turn compromised the feeling of the game. It also muted, to some degree, its overall difficulty level. To add insult to injury, they introduced the new weapon called the Tactical Shield, an item so deplorably designed that it wasn’t even allowed in competitive play because it was imbalanced.

At the time, we didn’t want to play the newer version of Counter-Strike. Moreover, we didn’t want to play it on Steam. And so we did neither.

All good things must come to an end, however. Valve eventually caught on to the community’s resistance and they laid down the law. At the end of July 2004, they pulled the plug rather derisively on the World Opponent Network–the backbone for Valve’s online play for their titles–and silenced Counter-Strike 1.5 for good unless players wanted to play on unofficial servers frequented by aimbots and hackers. We were forced to embrace Steam to continue being able to set up the bomb with our teammates, but that didn’t necessarily mean we liked it.

In fact, we hated it for some time. Worse, we resented it for what it had done to Counter-Strike.

I continued to hate Steam for several years. It was an annoying application at first, unpolished and rough; it was known for eating up memory and made my computer choke with every application it loaded. Furthermore, the age of digital distribution was still a few years off and there were a lot of reservations about purchasing games online. A lot of us were concerned about owning non-physical copies of games–even for the Orange Box, I bought a store copy, although it was the last time I ever went to a brick and mortar store for a PC game.

But eventually we got used to it. Over the years, Steam proved itself as well, primarily in the way it handled Team Fortress 2. Left 4 Dead further helped seal the deal. Both were solid titles, much like CS was for its time, and they integrated into Steam seamlessly. Newer versions of the platform also improved the player’s experience vastly. Computers grew in capabilities and got powerful at the same time–it started to became common to have several gigs of ram, compared to the old 256mb and 512mb standard of the year Steam was first introduced, which helped alleviate the stress it originally put on computers. Gone were the frequent crashes and, as online distribution services began to become commonplace, gone were a lot of people’s reservations.

My current reality of Steam is quite a juxtaposition to the years past. It’s one where I preorder games and use the client daily for a myriad of reasons. I farm achievements, I anticipate new releases through Steam’s store, and I even work for a company that recently got our indie title onto Steam. I love Valve and I love Steam despite my initial hatred of the platform. They keep changing the direction the platform is going in as well. Over a year ago, they unveiled Steamworks and won acclaim from the modding community by embracing them like no other developer had embraced them before. They helped take Source mods to the next level with streamlined installation and added achievements as well provided exposure on a wide level. It was a large step for the mod community.

And then there is Alien Swarm–the distribution and production of which highlights Steam’s latest direction.

Valve’s newest addition to its library, Alien Swarm is a remake of an old Unreal Tournament 2k4 total conversion mod by the same name. It is its own standalone game, complete with its own SDK, and it was made by the original team at Black Cat Games who made the first mod–Valve hired them some time ago and this is the result.

Alien Swarm is unapologetic, quick, and brutal. It doesn’t hold hands nor waste time with a realistic plot. A group of four IAF marines are thrown into a frozen off-world colony where they are forced to eradicate an alien infestation. The infestation spans a series of levels with different challenges, scenery, and enemies to kill. The difficulty gradually ramps up and there is no tutorial, but it doesn’t need one; it’s straightforward and borrows from concepts seen in Killing Floor (the ability to weld doors shut), Team Fortress 2 (medics are essential), and an entire genre familiar to anyone with a console from the 1990’s (its top down third person shoot-’em-up presentation). It helps too that it revolves around co-op gameplay which has become increasingly popular over the past few years since the introduction of Left 4 Dead. On the whole, it does not fail the genre, either. Alien Swarm is an absolute blast to play with three other people and, while it’s a new game, it is built on many old features that mix together to produce a feeling of familiarity and novelty. It is the perfect combination of new and old, rife with déjà vu throughout.

The first level of Alien Swarm is brief. It introduces the game while still providing a challenge and then later levels pick up the action by introducing new enemies that are more dangerous than before. Among these enemies is the smallest but perhaps the most fearsome alien as it is the only one that can instantly kill someone: the parasitic alien larvae. Although only present towards the end of the game, the parasite is vicious in its relentless search for a host. Many of my games were restarted due to an early death at the hands of these mobs–although one was restarted by an exploding door which fell down and killed a teammate of mine. It was pretty awesome. AS also features experience points and players can level up with every area completed. Levels are used as a vehicle to introduce new weapons and armors to players which enhance gameplay. Level eight, for example, provides the marines with much needed freezing grenades that make the later parts of the game easier if thrown at the right moment.

But as fun as the game is, the impressive thing about Alien Swam is the direction Valve is bringing Steam in with this release. Free games are generally unheard of, and AS could have easily been priced for ten or even twenty dollars. We probably would have paid it. While the next logical step would be to release paid content later on, even if that happens it doesn’t change the fact that this game and this experience is entirely free. Valve chose to make it free and that makes it a bold marketing move. Incredible still, it is a truly rewarding one for the consumer; it is a polished and strong game. Additionally, the open access SDK and mission presentation make it possible that Alien Swarm will have droves of user generated content. Furthermore, due to its straightforward SDK and map making process, it also makes creating content for AS easier than most games. Valve has essentially handed thousands of people a sandbox along with a shovel and pail then told them to go wild.

I, for one, can’t wait until I see what they’ve built.

Alien Swarm is one big step in making indie gaming and the mod community even more mainstream and accessible. As a game built by mod makers based on older mod, its origins are strong and meaningful. And beyond that, it’s a free and fun experience for any gamer who tries it–regardless of their interest in mods or not. It’s one worth telling the world about and those moments are worth cherishing in video games. This week Valve has done something good for gaming and the industry. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

You can download Alien Swarm free on Steam today by clicking here.

Edit at 7/21/2010, 11:00AM PST:
Apparently they are already generating content! I don’t usually update articles, but I would like to point out that there’s a port of a Left 4 Dead 2 map a person was making of Pallet Town from Pokémon. It’s pretty cool and a good example of what kind of content we can expect to be churned out, especially with how easy to use the SDK has proven to be so far. Thanks for the reader Sarah sending this in as a link and keep up the good stuff, ZidanePyro.