TT Review: Alienation

By Brandon Fusco,
Housemarque is a studio known for its quality catalog of PlayStation games, with hits such as Super Stardust HD, Outland, and RESOGUN. Their latest release, Alienation, is a spiritual successor to their PlayStation 3 game, Dead Nation. Rather than fighting off hordes of the undead using weapons based on classic archetypes found scattered around levels, players will instead fight off hordes of aliens using a variety of weapons and equipment dropped by dead enemies and loot crates during gameplay. Is it time for another Housemarque game to join the "best of" ranks?

Logo

The story of Alienation comes right at the start with a video explaining how the aliens invaded Earth. There's a fair amount of story in the game, with radio chatter in between and during the campaign's 20 levels, though none of it is particularly interesting. For the most part, the story is best forgotten, though the radio chatter is helpful in setting the stage for a couple of swift changes in situation throughout campaign. The commander is bland, the scientist/colonel spends most of his time exclaiming how things are "remarkable!" and the pilot throws out occasionally funny but formulaic one-liners.

The gameplay is a bit more rewarding. Controlling the player character is snappy, enemies are nimble and varied, and combat situations can be interesting. Killing droves of enemies throughout the first campaign playthrough is fun, and the ability to crank up the difficulty to increase the odds of finding better loot creates an appealing system of choice and chance. There are plenty of different enemy attack patterns to learn, and tougher mini-boss creatures bring with them modifiers that can add spice to mastered scenarios. Learning how best to use the Rush ability to get in and out of combat, mixing up abilities, choosing the optimal weapon, and dodging melee and ranged hordes alike is a good time for the duration of the five- to eight-hour campaign.

These bugs drop lava behind them, making maneuverability tough.These bugs drop lava behind them, making maneuverability tough.

Players get to choose from three different classes with different abilities and weapons. At first, it seems like there's a lot going on here, but after a little while, it becomes clear that things are far simpler. For instance, when the abilities tab is first opened up, there are two sets of three core skills. The first set has three active abilities that players can use at the press of a button, such as healing the team or turning invisible, and the second set has three passive abilities. Only the active abilities change from class to class, while the passive abilities are shared across all three classes.

Weapons have a similar caveat. The primary weapon is unique to a given class, so a Bio-Specialist will only ever find a Xeno Rifle primary weapon, locking that character's primary weapon into a very particular range. Other weapon categories fair better, with a mix of different ranges and areas of effect, but weapons within a type are all the same. Every Plasma Shotgun will look and operate the same, with the same kind of spread and range. There is variety in the amount of damage done, the number of rounds in a clip, and so on, but there's nothing that changes the fundamental function of the weapon or alters how a character is played.

This loot has a better base damage than my current weapon, but once I pick it up, it will only compare it to the modified damage of my current weapon, making it look weak.This loot has a better base damage than my current weapon, but once I pick it up, it will only compare it to the modified damage of my current weapon, making it look weak.

Throughout the game, weapons of varying levels and qualities will drop. These weapon levels tend to match the level of the character that finds it, and the quality, from stock to legendary, is dictated randomly. The odds of finding better quality weapons can be influenced by any number of things such as the difficulty level a mission is played at or how checkpoints are approached.

In the end, however, these differences in power don't seem substantial. Damage numbers quickly shoot into the thousands and then tens of thousands, but there's no way to know what any of that means except that larger numbers are better. There's no concept of how much health certain types of enemies have, and so the only measure of how good a particular piece of gear is comes from killing enemies with it. Even then, the toughness of enemies changes for any number of reasons, including the difficulty setting of the mission, how many players are in the squad, and which mission you are on. The end result is that it's hard to have a baseline to know when a weapon is good, so more often than not, it's only when a weapon is underpowered that you notice, usually because it's consistently running out of ammo from dumping clips into enemies.

Pick whichever abilities you like!Pick whichever abilities you like!

There is a level of customization to the character loadouts and weapons. Throughout play, as a character levels up, points are awarded which can be spent on abilities. At any time, players can take these points back and reassign them in whatever fashion they like. Unneeded equipment can be broken down for parts that can be used to reroll the stats of better equipment. Upgrade cores will be dropped from defeated enemies and chests that can be slotted into high quality gear to boost their power. These cores can be combined in groups of three to form higher level cores that are more effective.

Most of this works well, but the upgrade cores are an odd case. The entire system is designed to be flexible, but the upgrade cores feel a little sloppy. Once they've been slotted, the only way to get the core back out is to replace it with a different core, to reroll the core slots using materials, which could make the slot configuration worse, or to destroy the weapon. If a character's abilities can be completely redistributed and a weapon's stats can be rerolled individually at will (provided you have the proper parts), then why is it so hard to take a core out, combine it with others, and re-slot the stronger core? This is doubly confounding, because these cores augment the stats without leaving the base stats visible, meaning it becomes impossible to compare an upgraded weapon's base stats with those of a new weapon.

There's still plenty of room to the north that needs exploring.There's still plenty of room to the north that needs exploring.

There are four major areas in the game to battle across, each of which is home to several missions. At first blush, this might seem kind of limiting, but these zones are large with varying layouts to facilitate different combat experiences. The locales are stunningly beautiful, with lush jungles, frigid tundra, and broken suburban neighborhoods. Sometimes looks can get in the way of the action, as certain ledges are obscured for no apparent reason, or taller structures block part of the aiming laser. This can also be frustrating when dense fog sweeps past, making for a beautiful, hard to discern mess of combat. Despite their size, after playing through an area several times, large swathes of these areas start to blend together, leaving a feeling that you've walked past that bush or car dozens of times.

Things can get a little overwhelming at times.Things can get a little overwhelming at times.

Alienation has a total of 33 trophies, but it's going to take a while and a fair amount of skill to get them all. About a third of them will likely be unlocked on a single campaign. With a little effort, several more can be unlocked with ease, such as completing a level without firing a weapon, or collecting all three variants of the Xenoflowers and have all of their bonuses active at the same time. Other trophies will get downright grueling. Reaching level 30 for each class will potentially require as much as thirty hours of play and about six trips through the campaign. One trophy involves reaching level 30 with a character in Hardcore mode, in which characters are deleted upon death, meaning 10 hours of diligent effort could be thrown away because of a stumble at the finish line. Most of these trophies won't be too much trouble, but there are couple time consuming trophies and one torturous trophy that could make this platinum impossible for some.

Summary

Alienation has a solid twin-stick shooter foundation with interesting enemies and responsive controls. Where it stumbles is when it tries to build on that. Having a story to tie everything together is great in theory, but the bland banter becomes rote and even a little grating. The levels are large enough to fit several missions in them comfortably, but their size and the amount of time spent running around similar looking environments causes them to grow stale. Chasing loot is a strong allure, and a great idea for improving the longevity of such a game, but the lack of "cool gear" and any effective point of reference for what gear ratings mean sap that chase of any sense of concrete reward. The fun core gameplay is entertaining enough through the initial five- to eight-hour campaign playthrough, but once you've learned how defeat the different types of enemies, many of the mechanics designed to keep you hooked fall flat.
3 / 5
Alienation
Positives
  • Fun and snappy shooting
  • Interesting level design
  • Variety of enemies
Negatives
  • Uninteresting loot system
  • Character loadout only partially flexible
  • Poor story elements
Ethics
The reviewer used a personal copy on the PlayStation 4 for the purposes of this review. He played a little over 11 hours, which was enough to play through the campaign, test hardcore mode, and other character classes while unlocking 16 of 33 trophies.
Brandon Fusco
Written by Brandon Fusco
Brandon is an Editor and TGN's Host with the Most. The most what? The most opinions, the most understanding wife, and the most *funny cat videos. Previously Host of the Trophy Talk Podcast. (*Not Verified)