Alienation: Housemarque Does It Again | A Short Pause Review
First, an admission: I’m a gigantic Housemarque fan. While I don’t have a personal relationship with the developer or harbor any sort of unexplainable bias that would affect my professional opinion of one of their games, there’s no question that I’m an unabashed Housemarque fanatic. They’re a developer I hold in incredibly high regard. Super Stardust HD was one of the first games I truly fell in love with on the PlayStation 3, Dead Nation was an obsession for weeks, and Resogun is still one of the best games on PS4. (Oddly enough, I’ve shamefully never played Housemarque’s only multi-platform effort, Outland. I’ll need to remedy this at some point.) When Alienation was announced, my palms were sweating at the thought of the white-knuckle action that was sure to be a part of the next game from the masters of the twin-stick shooter genre. It goes without saying that I was expecting Alienation to be an outstanding game. Unsurprisingly, Alienation is an outstanding game.
Release Date: April 26th, 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Much in the same way Resogun was the next evolution of the twin-stick space shooter Housemarque forged with Super Stardust HD, Alienation takes the arcade, “boots on the ground” shooter the developer first introduced in Dead Nation and builds on the rock solid foundation they created with that title. Alienation feels like the natural progression of the Dead Nation formula. Seeing how much I loved Dead Nation, this is a good thing. The taut, skill-based shooting the developer has become synonymous with is once again on display in full force here. Controls feel tight and responsive, so everything’s par-for-the-Housemarque-course as far as this is concerned.
What will surprise some, though, are the upgrade and loot systems at the heart of Alienation. While Housemarque implemented a character upgrade mechanic in Dead Nation, their offering here is an entirely different beast. More akin to something you’d find in Destiny or Diablo, the loot system in Alienation aims to keep you playing for the long haul as you try and secure the best gear for your character. Loot chests are supplemented with random drops, and I think Housemarque’s hit the sweet spot here in terms of drop rate. Common and uncommon items drop regularly, rare items are more…er…rare, and legendary items drop scarcely, making each time you obtain one of these hard-to-come-by-offerings a celebratory event. I’m still waiting on that legendary Powershot or Plasma Shotgun to come my way, if anyone’s keeping track (they aren’t).
Speaking of which, rare and legendary weapons introduce upgrade nodes which allow you to improve your wares with resources you find throughout the game world. Damage, clip size, and fire rate are just a few of the stats that can be enhanced through this mechanic. The system, and the way it works, is a bit unclear at first, as the game does a dreadful job of explaining its upgrade mechanics in any type of detail, but once you clear its initial bewildering minutes, its mysteries open up to you and offer a nice bit of strategic depth when improving your weapons. I especially like the added wrinkle your upgradeable resources provide. Also, kudos to Housemarque for remedying one of my biggest issues with the node system: a recent update allows you to remove resources after they’ve been placed into a weapon, a glaring omission that I was shocked was not a part of the original design. Add multiple classes, an abilities skill tree, and the option to reroll weapon stats into the mix, and you’ve got a seriously deep, RPG-style upgrade and character management system to go along with the superb twin-stick shooter gameplay. That said, the one thing I would have liked to have seen implemented here is more variety when it comes to the game’s armory. While there are a few different options in terms of secondary, heavy, and item-based weapons, there is only one primary weapon available to each of the game’s classes. The upgraded stats and node system found in the higher level guns somewhat mitigate the sameness of the weapons available, but even a small increase in variety would have gone a long way towards making the game even deeper.
As with Housemarque’s past titles, don’t expect a BAFTA award-winning narrative in Alienation. Aliens have invaded Earth. It’s your job to kill them. That’s about the gist of it. Static talking heads try to create some semblance of a story throughout the game’s 20 or so levels, but make no mistake: this is a game focused on providing an incredible action-shooter gameplay experience above all else. And that’s one of the great things about playing a Housemarque game. It’s a game in the purest sense of the word, concerned solely with providing players with a set of fun challenges and gameplay mechanics they can master over hours of skill-based combat.
There are a couple of issues I have with the title. One, this game is very difficult to play solo. I understand it’s designed as a cooperative experience — and the drop-in/drop-out online co-op is superbly implemented — but I still would have liked a more manageable single-player campaign when desired. The game can be played solo, sure, but it continues to scale as you grow stronger and stronger, making later levels (especially the final stage) a difficult task for one soldier to tackle alone. The enemies scale with the player character throughout the entirety of the game world, meaning even the foes you come face-to-face with in the game’s first level get stronger as you do. If you get stuck, or feel the need to beef up your character in order to progress, it can be hard to go back to even the early levels of Alienation and find any kind respite from the swarming alien hordes. Second — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this about a game like Dead Nation — but Alienation lacks some of the “charm” of Dead Nation. Just by its nature, Alienation is a more sterile title. Heroes in battle armor and aliens strewn across barren world landscapes naturally lend themselves to a more bland and straightforward environment and experience. Enemy variety in Alienation is fantastic, but I missed the style and panache Dead Nation displayed when introducing its baddies. Boomers, Runners, Cutters and the like made a dramatic appearance the first time they stepped onto the scene, complete with their character name highlighted in bold letters. While neither game sports an award-winning narrative as I mentioned earlier, Dead Nation’s taking-itself-too-seriously cutscenes were preferable to Alienation’s static dialogue boxes. As is usually the case, it’s the little touches that could have made the game world that much more interesting.
Regardless of whatever minor gripes I have with the title, Alienation is a fantastic game. Its deep upgrade system coupled with Housemarque’s always great combat and controls makes for an exceedingly addicting experience. Housemarque has delivered yet another gem to PlayStation fans, meaning the wait for their next title, Matterfall, just got that much longer.
A PlayStation 4 review copy was gratiously provided to us by our friends at Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Ben is a lifelong gamer and a hardcore PlayStation fan. His Nathan Drake underoos remain his prize possession. Follow him on Twitter @piccolo930.
- Superb twin-stick shooter gameplay
- Loot drops
- A robust, RPG-style upgrade system
- Drop-in/Drop-out co-op
- Difficult to play solo
- Weapon variety
- Sterile setting