No stranger to the twin-stick shooter genre, Housemarque has released some of the best and slickest games for the genre last generation, along with the more recent PlayStation 4 remastered versions of Super Stardust Ultra and Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition. Their newest PS4 exclusive title, Alienation, evolves the genre further, by introducing action-RPG elements, enjoying loot, and a fleshed out item and ability systems.
With planet Earth overrun by hostile aliens, and the majority of the population either killed or mutated into unthinkable horrors doomed to wander the Earth, the only hope rests in a squad of four elite soldiers. Strangely enough, for a game that is primarily cooperative focused, there are only three playable classes, yet Alienation allows for four-player teams. Each of the classes features more depth and abilities than I expected, but you'll want at least one player playing support/healer (Bio-Specialist), a tank (Tank) providing additional shielding, and a rogue (Saboteur) using an extra melee attack. Tanks feature the thickest armor and can generate shields for the entire squad. His primary attack does not have the extended range as say the Bio-Specialist, but it can quickly punch a hole through hordes of aliens. The Saboteur can cloak, which seems like an odd ability in this style of game, but when used in a cooperative mission, it can turn the tide when a horde of aliens head in your direction.
Regardless of your choice, all three offers a broad range of upgrade options for the three passive and three active abilities. Every ability has a sub-choice that can be swapped on the fly, but I found the action too hectic dig through menus mid-mission. With no actual way to pause the game, I make sure to make any changes before starting a mission. Do I want to increase the healing time of my healing ability or bump up the total heal percentage? Should you have a bigger radius for your melee attack or increase the angle in front of you?
Digging deeper into the action-RPG elements, Alienation is chock full of loot. New weapons and resources can be picked up from defeated enemies or crates scattered around the map. During extraction (the endpoint of missions), each member of your squad will receive a container bursting with multiple items. Loot is character specific, so you do not have to worry about stealing someone else's hard earned items. Characters can have three weapons equipped at any time, one primary, one secondary, and one heavy, plus piece of equipment, such as a mine, remote grenade or boomerang.
Weapons come in typical RPG quality flavors, from Common to Legendary. Along with varying weapon stats, such as damage output, clip size, and critical chance, the higher tier items can be upgraded with power cores, providing bonuses to each weapon stat. Better quality items will have more upgradable slots, and can feature effects, such as knockdown. Match the color of a core type; red is damage and yellow is for clip size for example, to the corresponding slot and you’ll receive an additional bonus. Core resources can be combined, three at a time, to form a higher-level core with Tier 6 being the highest level possible. Taking the customization even further, if you are unhappy with the stats of your weapon, they can be rerolled using resources. It is entirely random so you may end up with a worse stat, but since you collect so many resources just from playing through the game, I’ve always tried to get close to the maximum stat in each category as possible.
Respawn points are setup across the map, allowing your group to respawn closer to the objective instead of from the beginning of a mission if everyone dies. However, destroying these respawn points instead of activating them provides a reward bonus, so once again the risk vs. reward factor plays into how well you think your group will perform.
The campaign begins in Alaska but moves you along to places across the globe, and even onto alien spaceships. There are 20 campaign missions, and depending upon the amount of players in a group and the set difficulty, it can take 15-30 minutes to finish each mission. You should expect missions to be on the long side if you tend to spend addition time exploring for the random events that can occur. Just like in Diablo III, you can come across bosses that are far stronger and tougher than anything else in the game. These bosses have their own unique characteristics, such as freezing any nearby characters. Other challenges require players to defeat waves of enemies in a set amount of time to earn a higher quality crate. Coming across these events are the reason I found myself exploring the map, but things can become too hectic if you are playing solo, especially when you are attempting to defeat a wave of aliens and defend yourself from a horde at the same time.
Completing the 20 campaigns missions is only the beginning of the game, as Alienation opens up considerably after you finish the game at least once. Not only does the random events become more elaborate, but you can partake in special assignments, and use collected keys to access alien UFOs. As of this review, Housemarque has yet to add local multiplayer to the game, although they have acknowledged that it will be coming at some point. Playing on higher difficulties adds to the number of enemies you’ll face, along with increasing their level to be four levels above the host. On the reward side, the percentage of finding legendary items skyrocket, making it well worth your time to play on the hardest difficulty from the start. The drop-in/drop-out multiplayer performs flawlessly, and I’ve only experienced minor lag when joining players in countries half way around the globe.
The chaotic and explosive nature of the action in Alienation is both addicting, and a pure pleasure to watch unfold. The vibrant, colorful, neon palette used for players armor and all of the items pop off the screen, along with the sheer amount of destruction. Cars will explode, trees will fall over, wind gusts blow snow across the barren landscape, and everything in the environment is affected by players weapons. Alienation is best played with others, as you can easily be overwhelmed by the higher difficulties when playing solo. The loot and upgrade mechanics were a pleasant surprise, and the inclusion of unique end-game content will expand the life of this twin-stick shooter for quite some time. I just hope that offline cooperative play arrives sooner rather than later.
Note: The Alienation review is based on a digital PS4 version of the game.