Every once in a while, an indie game will be released that captures the imaginations of nearly all who play it. It’ll enchant players with a distinct visual style, or an innovative approach to classic gameplay elements, or it’ll win players over with sheer charm. Most importantly, it’ll reaffirm that a high production budget is not what makes a good game. Alien Breed 3: Descent is, unfortunately, not one of these games.
Descent is the third in a trilogy of games resurrecting the 1991 classic Alien Breed, a top-down shooter involving gunning down as many aliens as possible. Alien Breed: Impact and Alien Breed 2: Assault are its precursors, and the storyline picks up where AB2 left off.
The gameplay is simplistic: from an overhead view, the player controls the main character, Theodore J. Conrad, Chief Engineer of the Leopold space vessel, as he navigates his way through the labyrinthine corridors, destroying any aliens he finds. You’ll have access to half a dozen guns, complete with a basic upgrade system, and an assortment of items such as health packs, armor boosters and grenades. The camera can be rotated in small increments for a better view of what’s going on, but because of the cramped nature of such a setting the overhead camera doesn’t seem too intuitive – you’ll find fairly often that you don’t have a great view. It’s not game-breaking by any means, but there are some areas in particular where visibility is too low for comfort. Of course, that could be the point.
When you can see what’s going on, however, the game looks fairly impressive. Rendered using the infamous Unreal Engine 3 (explaining why everything looks a bit like Gears of War), environments in particular are very well rendered. Characters suffer a little bit, especially compared to the quality environments – Conrad looks very “last generation”, in particular. This is made up for by the high standard of special effects, especially for guns like the flamethrower. Despite the power behind the engine, there just isn’t enough innovation in the visual design, which seems like an odd mixture of other franchises.
As the gameplay is very much an old-school approach, it’s no surprise that the most fun elements of the game are the survival mode and multiplayer. Survival is a typical “survive waves of enemies” mode, and is well suited to AB3’s gameplay. Survival can be played either alone or with a friend, increasing the longevity of the fun. There are also three cooperative maps for players to work their way through, making this quite a sizable package.
Disappointingly so, it’s the single-player story mode that turns the game into a letdown. AB3 starts fairly promisingly, with a comic-style recap of everything that’s happened so far. It’s all downhill from there, though, as soon as you see your badly rendered nemesis for the first mission and have to start performing menial tasks to make your way through the ship. “Flick this switch here to open the door over there, in order to flick another switch,” is what it boils down to. For example, there’s a section near the end of the first mission where you must disable the power core. Rather than leaving this to a single switch, Team17 require you to activate three. But here’s the fun part: Not only are you directed right to where you need to be, meaning you use zero brainpower, but you have to take different elevators to each switch, making an almost acceptable process tediously long and completely unimaginative; which is a good word to describe AB3, borrowing very heavily as it does from many other sci-fi action and horror media. Aliens and Dead Space seem to be inspirations, but rather than than just acting as influences, AB3 seems to be completely derivative of better franchises.
The Dead Space similarities extend into a few of the gameplay elements, as well. Along your path you’ll find workstations which you can use to save your progress, buy and sell items and weapons, and also purchase upgrades. The upgrades system adds a little depth to the game, but is largely the same as every weapon upgrade system that has come before it (if not shallower, there’s nothing like Dead Space’s neat powernode system here). It almost seems unfair to keep comparing an indie game like this to a AAA title like Dead Space, but AB3 does invite such comparisons by approaching the genre is such an unoriginal way.
This lack of originality is AB3’s biggest downfall. While the gameplay itself can be fun, as demonstrated in the survivor mode and multiplayer co-op, the single-player story completely lacks any inspiration. Environments and effects look good, but, again, they’re just too generic to make an impression. A few additions to the gameplay to break up the running and gunning, such as vacuum areas with time limits on oxygen, and item upgrades, would be much better if Dead Space hadn’t done it better two years ago.
Ultimately, players turn to indie games for innovation, for something fresh, which Alien Breed 3 doesn’t deliver. The game seems to be suffering an identity crisis, occupying some unknown limbo between indie and AAA, apparently representing the downsides of each.