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Breeding Frenzy

Breeding Frenzy (photo)

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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.

12302009_AlienBreed1.jpgWhich 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.

12302009_AlienBreedEvolution2.jpgIf 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.”

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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