With a name like Alienation (PlayStation 4), and a release date of 4-26, you might think Housemarque’s new shooter might not be serious. Or that it’s connected to the Alien movies. Turns out that neither are true. Instead, Alienation is a new, and rather interesting arcade shooter that layers the genre’s classic and still viable tenets with some creative mechanics not normally associated with this kind of game.
In Alienation, bug-like invaders from space have overrun the Earth, and it’s up to someone who’s as resilient as they are trigger happy to save the day. Which, for the most part, involves shooting anything that moves. And a couple things that don’t.
Much like their 2010 game Dead Nation, but with the aftermath of alien invasion replacing the zombie apocalypse, Alienation is an arcade-style, top-down, twin stick shooter in the vein of such classics as Robotron: 2084 and such newer installments as Geometry Wars. It’s also, like Dead Nation and not like Robotron: 2084 or Geometry Wars, one of those twin-stick shooters where you don’t have an unlimited amount of ammo, especially when using heavier weapons or grenades.
Not surprisingly, Alienation also has the same great controls of Dead Nation. Moving and shooting is not only fluid, but the sensitivity of both are also spot on; not too tight, not too loose. Which is good, given that there aren’t options to adjust their sensitivity.
But while the core mechanics of Alienation recall Dead Nation, and it’s just as addictive and fun, there are aspects that make it different. For starters, Alienation has larger and more open battlefields, and is thus not nearly as linear, even though you do go from point A to point B to point C as you complete your mission objectives. You still navigate many narrow pathways, but there are often multiple ways to get to your objective, and have to backtrack through areas you’ve already visited.
You also face a wide variety of enemies in Alienation than you did in Dead Nation. Along with grunts that run right at you, there’s also sniper-like aliens, Hulk-like brutes, some that explode when shot, and still others that melt into a lava-like substance when they die. Though while this secretion won’t hurt your adversaries like it does you, they’re not immune to the blast when their friends explode. Or when an old car explodes because you shot it a bunch of times. Or a barrel explodes because you shot it once.
Alienation also separates itself from Dead Nation and other games by having the aliens come at you from all angles. Usually, in these kinds of games, areas that are cleared out stay that way. But in Alienation, when you come across a fresh batch of bad guys, you may also find that you’re also being surrounded by ones coming from areas you just cleared out. Which is yet another way having more open and less linear battlefields makes Alienation rather engaging and challenging.
Similarly, the intelligence of the enemies in Alienation also an interesting wrinkle. While your enemies don’t always notice when you’re nearby — and by “nearby” I mean thirty, forty feet away or more — but as soon as one does, every nearby enemy not only becomes alerted to your presence, but they started heading your way as well.
There are also ways in which Alienation plays as much like a role-playing game as it does an arcade shooter. For starters, you chose from three different character classes, each with their own special attacks and abilities. While the Saboteur is a solid, all-around gunner, there’s also the health-dispensing Bio Specialist for team players, while those who prefer to walk softly and carry a big gun can opt for the Heavy.
All of the characters in Alienation can also be upgraded, as can your weapons. But not the way you upgraded your weapons in Dead Nation. Instead of finding money lying around, you instead pick up upgrade cores, which can be used to upgrade the effectiveness of health orbs, as well as to buy and then improve your special attacks.
That said, Alienation isn’t as loot-driven as such RPGs as Diablo III or even such RPG-infused shooters as The Division. Most of what you pick-up are pick-ups — er, really, pick-me-ups — like heath and ammo, with only the occasional gun or grenade thrown in for good measure. You also don’t have to worry if you’re going to run out of room in your bag of holding for all the useless items you find, since you can just scrap everything instantly, and use the parts to make upgrade orbs.
While all of these elements work well together, resulting in firefights are as frantic as anything you’d find in the better Call Of Duty or Halo games, Alienation isn’t without its problems. The biggest and most irritating of which — largely because it’s the most inexplicable and easily fixed — is that you can’t pause the game, even when playing on your own. And no, hitting the PS button to go to the PlayStation 4’s main menu doesn’t work, either. Which is especially annoying, not just because you’re screwed when you have to answer the phone or the call of nature, but also because you can’t even pause when you go to the upgrade menu. Good thing you can just apply your upgrades between missions.
It’s also somewhat incongruous, aesthetically, that the health power-ups in Alienation are green hearts. And no, the color isn’t the problem, it’s the shape, which makes it a bit too cartoony for this game.
There’s also the rather bouncy grenades, which never land where you throw them. Which is why I always swapped them out for the boomerang. And no, that’s not the code name for some cool futuristic alien weapon, it’s a real boomerang you can throw at people.
Alienation also has an issue so common these days that I often just cut and paste this paragraph from one review to the next: some of the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your television — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading the button prompts and some of the menus.
Even with all of these problems, though, Alienation is an engaging and addictive arcade shooter that adds some interesting and new mechanics. Well, new to this genre, that is. And while the inability to pause the game when needed is really, really frustrating, the rest of the game works so well that you probably won’t want to answer the phone when it rings anyway.