I’m busy reading a milquetoast digital rendition of “Reactor Problems for Dummies,” thinking I really should be letting everyone know I’m out of it, when a sound makes me seize up. It’s faint, no more than an understated bloop, but the implications behind it are terrifying. The 30 seconds I’ve spent hovering over a lost PDA have left quite the gulf between myself and the rest of my team. I’m cut off, low on ammo, and increasingly aware of how vulnerable I really am.
Because something is getting closer.
I decide to take a run since there’s an outside chance that I won’t get chopped to bits. I make it a third of the way before I’m treated to a slow-motion replay of my death, courtesy of a vent-spawned Lovecraftian creation of fangs and claws and jaundiced skin. Since I was the only tech expert in my quad-pod, the team is left bereft of anyone able to manipulate computers and hack gates. This results in an instant fail for the mission, as I’m derided for being the F.N.G. Despite the air of defeat permeating my e-cred, It’s moments like these that make Alien Swarm an absolute joy.
It’s true, the price helps things quite a bit. The last freebie I remember getting from Valve was Lost Coast (a tech-demo that introduced bloom/HDR to the HL2 engine, and served as the dry run for Valve’s audio-commentary mode). Before that it was Ricochet, a hardly-remembered Tron copy that was offered as a reward to those who had purchased Half-Life before the advent of STEAM. Neither was particularly memorable. In an odd way, Lost Coast capped off my five-year odyssey of mods and total conversions. By that time, the scene for Half-Life 2 was showing serious signs of a persistent vegetative state, and I was too preoccupied with the balance of work and school to follow weapon renders on nameless forums.
In an equally odd way, Alien Swarm recaptures the ancient thrill of random Half-Life mods. Part of that is because it’s given me new reason to boot up my STEAM account, but I’m also impressed by the dearth of information I had regarding this. Dropping into a new intellectual property in this way is almost unheard of now. There’s simply too much information available over conventional means to be surprised over releases. Hell, I was stealing cookies from the Valve hospitality table at E3 and I heard nary a word, teaser image or blurb about this game. Being a free release that (for me, at least) appeared out of some nameless primordial aether, I’m reminded of the blank discovery that followed after picking a game out of a list on FilePlanet, firing it up, and just exploring for a good while. That sense of aimless, discombobulated shock kind of adds a layer of appreciation to this experience. Granted, some might feel like Swarm was built on the back of Left 4 Dead (four player party facing off against an unyielding force that intensifies attacks if a group stalls; success predicated on the absolute necessity of team cohesion and cooperation), but there’s a precarious leveling system at play here that works as a wonderful carrot on a stick.
For the moment, unlocking a freeze turret or sniper gun is just enough to keep me going back to the well. While the maps are a bit on the lean side, there’s lots of hope that further campaigns will be introduced via DLC. Ultimately, those bits of extra content will decide if this game sinks or swims, because I doubt many players will stick around long enough to perfect speed runs.
Alien Swarm could have been sold as a $20 game with nary a peep. That it wasn't slapped with a price tag is a much welcomed gift. It’s a complete experience and an ungodly challenge at the higher levels. With hardly any showstoppers to be found, it makes for a good go-to game to have on hand when StarCraft II is kicking your ass.