It’s got an appropriate name, I’ll give it that. It’s definitely aliens that you’re firing at, so that’s half of the title taken care of, and I certainly felt rage while playing it. As a name, then, Alien Rage is fitting. Alien Smash Your Keyboard Into Tiny Bits Out Of Sheer Synapse-Burning Frustration would be better, but I concede that it’s not as catchy.
Alien Rage is an FPS, and it’s given me a unique opportunity to try a magic trick. Here’s what I want you to do: stare into your monitor. Let your eyes go out of focus, and let your thoughts wander. I’m going to psychically project something into your mind. Keep going. Keep staring. Keep relaxing.
Okay! Now, quickly, come up with an FPS called Alien Rage. Don’t sit there thinking about it – just imagine what it might be like, immediately. Right now. If my magic trick has worked, I have just imprinted the game’s design onto your forebrain.
A colour scheme based almost entirely around grey, blue, and orange? Check. Gruff space marines, presumably uncomfortable with their own sexualities? Check. Terrible one-liners? Check. Audio logs? Check. A perks system that lets you vaguely customise and improve your character as you go on? Check. Regenerating health? Check.
None of which, obviously, is bad. A little tired, sure, but not bad. The bad comes when you factor in the massive amounts of frustration caused by elements of the game design.
As previously mentioned, you are a gruff space marine. You are sent into a mine which is under attack by aliens. You spend most of your time walking through corridors (and shooting at things), occasionally broken up by walking into large rooms (and shooting at things) or sitting on a mounted gun (and shooting at things). Again: all standard.
Now imagine that, instead of power armour, you’re wearing tissue paper. And enemies teleport in. And lots of enemies have cloaking devices. And the enemies that don’t have cloaking devices blend in pretty well with the background due to the colour scheme (which may actually be the first effective use of camouflage in a corridor shooter). And almost every enemy has a grenade launcher that can kill you in one or two hits. Factor in checkpoints that will regularly place you two lengthy door-opening animations back from where you died, and you begin to understand why this game annoyed me as much as it did.
But let’s elaborate a bit more! It’s so annoying that I genuinely had to play most of the game in 20 minute bursts, because that was about all I could take before I started to seriously consider throwing myself through a window (it’s fine, I live in a bungalow). It’s so frustrating that my keyboard has teeth marks on it. It’s so frustrating that I’m still too frustrated to think up any more examples to give you.
There’s a fine line between “difficult” and “frustrating”, and it’s one that’s very hard to get right. It usually comes down to fairness: do you feel like you died because you made a mistake? Then the game is probably fair, and this usually puts it on the right side of frustrating. But if you’re dying regularly due to things that feel out of your control, you want to bite your keyboard until the keys shoot up through your brain and make the pain stop. Difficult-to-spot enemies that literally appear out of nowhere, rapid onset death, and rubbish checkpoints send Alien Rage veering over the “unfair” cliff.
Bizarrely, though, the game has an inverse difficulty curve. Remember the perk system I mentioned before? Well, you start with no perks, and you unlock them by hitting score thresholds as you proceed through the game; they give you, say, boosts to weapon damage, or larger clips, or – crucially – more health. Conversely, while you encounter a few new enemy types as you go on, you spend most of your time fighting the same ones. So if the enemies remain roughly the same, but you get more powerful, then… yeah. Also, you will eventually unlock a perk that turns your dreadful infinite-ammo pistol into the most obscenely powerful weapon in the game, at which point everything except for bosses becomes a complete cakewalk.
The other weird quirk of the perk system is that I’m not sure why some of the perks exist. One, for instance, boosts your damage with projectile weapons. Another boosts your damage with energy weapons, which are the ones employed by the aliens and – as they’re the only ones you can loot off corpses – the ones you’ll usually be using. (Don’t worry; the alien weapons you’ll find most often are functionally pretty much the same as the “human” weapons). You can only have a maximum of three perks equipped at any one time, so ideally you don’t want both of these equipped at once. So which do you choose?
Answer: whichever you like, because you can pause the game and swap perks at any time. If you have to swap from a projectile weapon to an energy weapon, just tap Escape, go into the perks menu, and change over to the energy weapon perk. I mean, you don’t have to, but there is absolutely no reason not to do so, and extra damage makes the game a bit less frustrating. So… why do those two perks exist, other than to create a bit of busywork?
That, really, is a pretty good indication of the problems here. When it’s not being as frustrating as a Rubik’s Cube made of glue it’s not a bad shooter; it’s just one that seems poorly thought-out and is full of weird design decisions. Why are the enemies so hard to spot? Why are they seemingly harder to kill than I am? Why does the difficulty curve go the wrong way? Why am I playing as a protagonist so stupid he actually causes one of the boss fights to happen by making an idiotic decision in a cutscene? Why? Why?
There’s a vague sense throughout that it wants to be Bulletstorm – it’s focused on high scores, and an overexcited announcer doing an impression of Gears of War‘s Marcus Fenix regularly shouts HEADSHOT STREAK and EXPLOSION KILL and so on – but it doesn’t have the crass wit or brutal creativity to pull that off. I’ll grant you that it looks utterly stunning, particularly for a £15 game. I’ll also grant that multiplayer is reasonably entertaining if you can find a populated server. And, again, if you get into the game’s unique little groove there’s the expected amount of fun to be had in popping alien heads with oversized guns.
So no. It’s not bad. It just regularly wanders in that direction, and with so many other shooters out there – much better shooters, many of which came out a long time ago and are now dirt cheap – its budget price of £15 isn’t enough to salvage even a grudging recommendation. If you’ve played everything else to death then hey, there are worse things to spend your money on, but I’m pretty damn sure you can find a better option if you look around.