For all the talk about narrative arcs, aesthetic razzle-dazzle and tricks and tropes borrowed from film, games are really about gameplay. And because of that, there’s often nothing as satisfying as a title that simply delivers rock-solid mechanics that let you enjoy fundamental gaming tasks: running, jumping, toggling, searching, exploring, shooting.
It’s an obvious yet often overlooked fact that games are best when they feature a control system that satisfyingly allows you to complete the tasks at hand. From “Pac-Man” to “Super Mario Bros.” to “Halo,” intuitive, straightforward controls can provide as much pleasure as any convoluted RPG story or intricate sports scheme. It’s a truth that’s been particularly beneficial to indie games, whose limited budgets often drive them to mine old-school genres for kicks rather than to reinvent the game mechanics wheel. What’s broken about antiquated games aren’t always their structures but, instead, their graphics and sound. With a little bit of polish and some upgrade tweaks here and there, indie developers can make the old new again.
Which leads us to “Alien Breed Evolution,” the new downloadable title on Xbox Live (and, come next year, the PC and PS3) from Team17 Software, a 20-year-old British indie outfit responsible for the cult hit “Worms.” “Evolution” is an updated version of Team17’s 1990 PC top-down shooter that was primarily notable for its frantic action and resemblance, in both concept and creature design, to “Aliens.”
As with the original game, the premise is meat-and-potatoes: you’re a super space solider on an intergalactic ship that collides with a mysterious vessel, leading to a massive infestation of creepy-crawly E.T.s all determined to eat you. While your ship is wracked with fiery explosions, you navigate corridors, rooms and passageways carrying out a series of sequential tasks that don’t require much complex thinking — push this button, operate that control panel type busywork — while blasting your way through hordes of villains, who erupt from holes in the ground and burst from the walls in large packs. Save for an occasional survival horror-style jolt, these attacks are on the predictable side, though as you get further into the game, the sheer number of enemies turns the proceedings hectic.
That blistering pace is certainly part of “Alien Breed Evolution”‘s charm. Its storyline never generates much actual mystery about the cause of these unholy circumstances. Mostly, Team17’s new title thrives because its gameplay does away with complicated button configurations in favor of a rudimentary control scheme that’s easy to master, expertly responsive and consistently rewarding. You move with your left analog stick and aim with your right analog stick; your right trigger button fires your primary weapon and your left trigger handles your secondary items. That’s about it, save for using your bumper buttons to rotate the camera and your directional pad to cycle through your choices of firearm and health packs/grenades. The learning curve’s about three minutes, which in other cases often foreshadows boredom — since getting the hang of difficult controls is regularly a key to succeeding in, and thus enjoying, contemporary console titles — but which here allows you to take pleasure from the core gameplay of shooting, shooting and more shooting.
If this sounds a little shallow, that’s because it is, in a narrow sense. But games revolve around the act of controlling on-screen avatars. So a game like “Alien Breed Evolution,” which puts a prime emphasis on interactivity, isn’t really insubstantial so much as just rigorously concentrated on one of its core elements. The beautifully refined, stripped-down nature of Team17’s glossy remake provided me with at least as good a time as my attempts to further hone my football skills with “Madden NFL 10,” whose control design has become so unwieldy they could alienate anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with the series for the past five years. From that angle, “Alien Breed Evolution” is a prototypical modern indie, a simple last-gen premise executed flawlessly with next-gen accouterments. And Team17 has gone the extra mile — the game’s use of Epic Games’ famed Unreal 3 engine, the same tech used for AAA titles like “Gears of War 2,” “Bioshock,” and “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” results in graphics that are anything but indie.
At a cost of nearly $2.5 million to make, “Evolution” is one of the most expensive indies to date. Not every small-scale developer can hope to pony up that sort of cash for tech like Unreal 3. But even if a future of indie games created with major-developer tools is somewhat unrealistic, “Evolution” also hints at another avenue for indies to attract mainstream players via its episodic construction.
Team17’s game is the first entry in a trilogy, with each installment containing a prologue and five full levels that last five hours, as well as co-op sequences. In effect, it’s the indie game equivalent of a serialized novel, replete with an ongoing narrative and cliffhanger endings — “Evolution” ends on a tantalizingly inconclusive note — that stokes anticipation for future chapters. By spreading out a full-length, 15-hour title over three separate releases, Team17 not only extends crucial development time for its relatively small 30-person staff, but also turns its latest into something more along the lines of a protracted mini-event rather than just a quickly disposable throwaway. By milking existing gaming architecture for future titles and profits, Team17’s game illustrates how indie companies can prolong their works’ shelf lives. Although in this case, it’s the basic badass action that truly creates a continuing need for “Breed.”