This will be a short one, because I don’t have the patience for it at the moment, but I still want to encourage you to check this little gem out.
Alien Swarm is a top-down 3D shooter released by Valve on Steam for the PC. It’s completely free, and downloading the game also gets you access to the SDK and content that was used to construct the game. Before we discuss that though we should probably go through the game. The storyline is fairly simple; you play as one member of a 4 man team investigating a colony or something when aliens attack. You want to escape. The end. Really there’s no need for an additional story because the entire game is about killing things and working as a team. Think of Left4Dead, except with aliens, top down view, and completely free. Each person can choose a class – Officer, Special Ops, Medic, and Tech. Each class has a few special abilities and unique weapons, and for some parts of the game you will absolutely need a Medic or a Tech to progress. There’s a decent number of weapons and toys for you to play with, from an assortment of machine guns and Alien-inspired weapons, to flamethrowers, sentry guns, welding torches, a medigun, and jump boots. As you complete missions you gain experience, not unlike the Battlefield games, allowing you to unlock additional content. Unlike the Battlefield games, the progression curve isn’t massive because the game in its current state only boasts one campaign. You can start the game with any number of players (or practice offline) but only games with 2 players in them will earn you achievements or experience.
Being a top-down shooter, the game is pretty easy to control and I had no trouble adapting to it. The top-down mode is pretty advantageous actually because it’s easy to see where your teammates are and friendly fire incidents are far fewer than in L4D or similar where you have a limited FOV and someone can easily stray into your line of fire without realising it. The map also has a neat feature allowing you to draw all over it, scribbling routes (or perhaps a detailed drawing of a penis, as no doubt will occur) or markings for your team. There’s also a simple emote system, plus your regular voice and text chat. There’s only one campaign included with the game made up of several missions, but based on a menu option for addons it’s a fair bet that people will at least be able to make custom maps. Basically, the game is a lot of fun, and you should give it a go because it’s free and you’ve got nothing to lose.
The Source engine has received an update with this game – the lighting and shadows system has been upgraded and shadows look pretty damn good, if a little patchy. The map editor for the game is through Hammer, so community content will hopefully surface soon. The question on everyone’s lips is “Why free?” I suspect Valve’s answer would be “Why not?” and everyone would laugh briefly before asking “No, really, why free?” The answer is two fold. Firstly, Valve’s business model is radically different to the onslaught of DLC hitting cynical PC gamers and eager console players, and we’re accustomed to getting additional content from them for free. Valve likely understand that extending the game’s lifespan ultimately keeps it selling past its use-by date (aided by strategic price reductions and free weekends) and thus they keep making money from the game well after it has paid for itself. Look at TF2; TF2 was released back in late 2007, and it’s still insanely popular with new content. How many other multiplayer games have such a huge player base nearly 3 years on?
I think however that the real reason is in the 2nd part of the answer – modding. The release of the SDK (including the map editor and codebase) is probably something akin to releasing tools like Visual Studio C# or whatever for free. It’s designed to encourage people to create their own content and share it with the community. Mod popularity has dropped right off in recent years despite it once being insanely popular. The number of finished mods has rapidly declined, even for engines like Source which are fairly easy to modify. The biggest problem? The community. Back in the days of Half Life or Doom, players tolerated blurry textures, low-poly models or blocky maps partly because new content is new content, but also because the game being modded typically didn’t have insanely high poly counts or texture detail so who cared? But with the rise of games like Crysis or the deep facial animation of the Half Life 2 series, the modding community is demanded by the player base to take content to at least the same level as the original game, and frequently beyond. This means larger teams, more time spent creating content, and much longer development times. Because people do this for fun, not profit, there simply isn’t enough time to bother with it. And why create a single player experience when you could put less time into a multiplayer mod that nobody plays?
I think Valve’s intention here is to get people into making simple games with less art involved. I mean Alien Swarm looks awesome, don’t get me wrong there, but the level of detail on individual objects isn’t as good as, say, Half Life 2 or something. That’s partially because of the top-down view, but I suspect it’s also due to clever use of shaders to disguise it, and to make the levels look less generic. With the full codebase I suspect they’re trying to push people into making Alien Swarm “the people’s game” where we make most of the content ourselves. It works for TF2 after all, but people mostly focus on making small items for TF2 (like a new weapon), with the most ambitious projects being new maps, but even then those reuse a lot of the existing content. Still, with a reduction in content visual quality demand, hopefully this might rekindle a bit of the enthusiasm people like me have lost. I used to be a mapper but there’s no point any more, people expect entirely new gameplay experiences, or orange maps. God damn orange maps.
Anyway, enough of my ranting. Go play! And if you’re so inclined, check out the tools.