Housemarque is arguably a household name for the PlayStation faithful. Titles like Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, and Resogun have been platform staples for owners of the PlayStation 3, PS4, and Vita. They are not for their fast, chaotic, twin-stick shooter gameplay and making lots of really cool and really pretty explosions on the screen. That’s why it’s no surprise that there was a buzz of excitement around not one, but two titles hitting PlayStation 4 from Housemarque this year: Alienation and Matterfall, the first of which is now available.
At first glance, Alienation may seem a lot like Dead Nation, replacing the hordes of rotting zombies with technologically advanced aliens, and in that assumption, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, since this is the spiritual successor, after all. The basic gameplay in Alienation will be very familiar to anyone who has played Dead Nation, or any other isometric twin-stick shooter for that matter. Even the basic Xeno (that’s what they call the aliens) type in Alienation is a mutant, which is a glorified alien zombie that will rush and overwhelm through sheer numbers. Where Alienation starts to stand on its own is just beneath the surface; a hidden layer that makes Housemarque’s latest so much more than just another twin-stick shooty fest, although it is definitely that too.
Shoot ‘n’ Loot
Loot grab metagames have become increasingly popular. Diablo, Borderlands, Destiny, The Division, and many more have a strong base of encouraging continued play based on a system of leveling up and obtaining better and better loot while facing ever increasing challenges. Housemarque decided to try their hand at the genre and apply it to a style of game they know best. What we get is a delightful blend of the familiar chaotic shooter and a bit of the deeper strategy held within these loot based games, all polished to a shiny finish.
The great thing about Alienation is that it all feels so familiar, yet is something decidedly different. Like most games that have adopted certain gaming staples — like X being the jump button, or R2 being shoot — Alienation does not seek to change a design that already works. Colors of rarity mirror those found in Destiny and The Division, so if you see an orangish/yellowish item, you’d be best off to pick it up. There are also categories for each, specifically primary, secondary, heavy, and equipment (which is basically your grenade slot). Each weapon has a certain range of re-rollable stats that take materials you get from breaking down other lesser quality weapons, so you can gamble on increasing the damage output of that SMG or having a bigger clip size on your pistol.
Higher rarity loot will also have a series of upgrade nodes that use cores to increase the percentage of your damage, clip size, and other attributes, depending on the core used. This is also where it gets a little bit complex. Matching specific node colors will give increased bonuses, and sometimes gear will come with conditional special ability nodes, like a legendary pistol I had that would pop out a grenade anytime I got damaged. Sometimes I felt that the difficulty increased far beyond my loot gain or leveling abilities though, requiring some grinding of older levels, and leaving me feeling a little disappointed with what I thought was supposed to be premium loot for my current level.
Showin’ Some Class
Three distinct classes await your selection at the outset, and each of the three plays quite differently. Another lesson learned from other similar games is that they allow you to start multiple characters so that you can get a good feel for each one. The tank is a heavier class, good for defending the team, taking damage, and generally being a high damage dealer. The bio-specialist is the healer who also has some fun chemical tricks up their sleeve for attacking the Xenos. Finally, the saboteur is the scout class, using tricks like camouflage and higher damage melee attacks.
To earn the ability to make use of their unique abilities, you will need to level up, another first for Housemarque, though it shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has played video games in the last decade. Where Alienation really starts to shine — as if it isn’t shining enough already — is the blending of these classes and abilities through four player co-op. As much fun as it is to play through single player, getting three friends or random online players to blast a bunch of aliens in a series of effects heavy, explosion filled skirmishes is something to smile about.
Speaking of explosions, it’s something that Housemarque is known for and something they continue to excel at. The particle effects are staggering as pieces of aliens, vehicles, and bits of the level itself are scattered around during each battle. It feels like they are really pushing the PS4 with how much is often happening on the screen without any slowdown. There were only two significant instances where the game suddenly chugged to a crawl and it felt more like a brief moment of loading the game off of the hard drive or contacting the servers rather than due to the effects on the screen, which ran without issue 99% of the time.
The story and set pieces are the only part of Alienation that fail to make any real impact. While they aren’t bad, they fall in the realm of being very basic for the alien genre. Anyone who has seen Falling Skies or played Resistance will know what I am talking about. On that note, aliens do at least feel a little less overdone than zombies, so it was nice to be able to enjoy playing a game that really did feel in some ways like a twin-stick shooter version of Falling Skies or XCOM.
Alienation also falls short on its training of players. The opening training camp is very basic, with little in the way of actually teaching anything beyond vaulting low walls and how to leave an alien bleeding on the ground. While I understand more of the nuances now, it took some time of playing and delving in to figure them out for myself rather than being explained through a more robust opening tutorial about more than just the basic gameplay mechanics. Some people like a game not to hold their hand, but even something that you can opt out of feels a little more complete.
In fact, I learned most of Alienation’s nuances through the tips on the loading screen, such as to remember that the game doesn’t pause — even in single player. Without a transparent menu to see what is going on with your player, the options button seems like it leads to a pause screen, but don’t be fooled. You’ll get your ass handed to you really quickly if you drop your guard. If they could work the loading screen tips into the opening tutorial, I feel that they could hook a lot more players right at the outset through learning about all the cool little subtleties, and that’s not even including the endgame, which I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say that there’s a bit more to Alienation than meets the eye, and the initial 7-10 hours that you will put into completing the main campaign with one character is just the beginning.
Alienation is another extremely polished game from Housemarque that takes well known game mechanics and combines them in unconventional ways for an experience that is not only satisfying to play on the surface, but has a layer of depth that most other twin-stick shooters cannot claim. While it could do with a deeper tutorial to engage players in the beginning and the story isn’t about to win any special awards, it’s a game that I repeatedly find myself coming back to, even if it’s just a mission or two here and there with random players. It’s one of those games that urges you to continue playing beyond the initial offering and it succeeds in giving us yet another genre to loot a bunch of really cool and powerful weapons in.
Alienation review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.