Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Alien Rage (PC, 2013, Poland): Rage On
January 15, 2015, 4:57 am
Filed under: Alien Rage (PC, 2013, Poland)

ar1(NOTE: The following post is inspired by Mark L., faithful crappy blog reader and part-time City Interactive devotee who threatened physical and/or virtual violence if I didn’t add new material to the site. While the tactics are questionable, I must concede one point: It’s been a year since my last post. And that’s just….lame.)

We’re spoiled. And when I say “we,” I mean you and me, game players like us. We’re horrendously spoiled little mutherfrickin’ brats.

“Alien Rage” (2013, Poland) illustrates precisely how goddamned spoiled we are. It’s a crazy fun, fast-paced, difficult-as-hell, old-school-inspired, space-marine shitkicking, first-person, sci-fi journey with big effing explosions, smooth-as-glass gameplay, electric environments and colors, and genuinely humorous banter. (I mean someone carefully penned the dialogue spewed by these otherwise generic jarheads.)

ar2The result? “Alien Rage,” published by CI Games (known in a previous incarnation as City Interactive), was almost universally dismissed by critics when it was released. Currently, it sits on Metacritic with an appalling, headscratching score of 52 for PC (and an even more bewildering 46 for the console version).

ar3My theory? This game tanked because we’re spoiled beyond belief. We’ve got so many great games to choose from (and within those games so many choices to make), that chucking a somewhat flawed, largely (and deliberately) derivative game like this into the trash bin doesn’t require a second thought. If any of us—and I mean any of us—had encountered this intentionally clichéd, “homage” title five or six years ago, we would have been stopped in our tracks…or at least we would have been highly entertained. (Actually, several professional reviewers make this same case, but they use it as a critical argument to prove how dated the game feels.)

ar4I guess I’m really starting to sound like a crotchety old man now. So I best get to the discussion of the game before I actually croak: In the “Alien Rage” universe, when humans joined the deep-space race by the year 2230, we got lucky very quickly and happened upon Deimos 875, a massive, million-year-old asteroid that had been cooking up Promethium, a highly efficient source of lava-like energy. “A cup full could power a city of millions for a month,” says the in-game narrator. So, because we’re humans and have zero self-restraint, we immediately start building a massive mining and refining operation right on the asteroid. Not long after, though, we make first contact with the Vorus, a generally larger-than-us, hoodie-wearing humanoid alien race who shows up in three dozen ships one day. In a short time, and after some language barriers were overcome, we all make nice (without firing a single shot) and agree to share in mining and refining the Promethium—which is also why they’ve come to the asteroid, or so they say. After all, there just seems to be so much of it that there is no reason to be greedy. The end.

ar5Nah, I kid. That alone wouldn’t make a very good game story. So of course after a few months of hunky-dory cohabitation, out of the goddamn blue, the Vorus brandish their laser blasters and monster-sized mechs and point them in our direction. Completely duped into submission, we were unprepared, and they handed our asses to us on an asteroid-shaped platter. Splat. The entire complement of human scientists and soldiers were wiped out. Then the Vorus remained on the asteroid, sealed up the facilities, headed deep inside the rock, and went completely silent.

ar6In retaliation, United Earth (the generic “UE” logo is plastered on every piece of equipment littering the asteroid) decides that if we can’t have the Promethium, then the Vorus (those damned liars) can’t either. Time to wipe them out! Enter the generic space marine squads, sent from Earth to basically slaughter as many Vorus as possible and, more important, crack that damned asteroid in half (in other words, destroy it).  You play as Gears of War second-stringer (I mean, there’s really no other comparison) named Jack. As you delve deeper and deeper into the high-tech manufacturing spaces comprising the interior of this floating space rock (fighting every inch of the way), you eventually find a massive fleet of Vorus battlecruisers. It takes only two seconds to figure out what the Vorus are planning: They’re going to invade Earth! Audio logs collected during the playthrough tell one (presumably dead) female scientist’s story of her time on the asteroid, and she reveals, eventually, why the Vorus turned on us so suddenly. Surprise! Since the narrative is thin at best, I’ll not reveal the clear-as-day plot twist…except to say sometimes all you have to do is look in the mirror to find true evil.

Cliché? Sure. But the coolest thing about this backstory is that the developers tell most of it in one fell cinematic swoop, in super-fast motion, in a very smart, very clever intro cutscene that maybe lasts all of 3 minutes and covers millions of years. As soon as I saw it, understood the context, and was standing in the boots of Gears of War reject Jack ready to go to work, I thought: “Oh, this game knows exactly what it’s up to.” Wam! Bam! Indeed!

ar7When the Bydgoszcz studio of Polish developer CI Games first announced the game (as Alien Fear) in 2012, cooperative play was going to be incorporated. This, as well as the original title, was scrapped, and it ultimately ended up being a solo affair. While you do play alone, there are the disembodied voices of two other characters providing banter: Ray, another space marine who is your commanding officer, and Iris, the computer that runs your spaceship when you’re not on it. Both Ray and Iris provide you with tips and hints about where to go and what to look for. The voice acting in the game is top-top-notch; these are real actors really hamming it up in the best way possible. Perhaps I was overly impressed with the voice acting here having just spent many hours fiddling around with several third-rate indie Steam titles in early access—all of which had amateurish voicing ostensibly recorded with a low-grade condenser mic from Radio Shack…or whatever. I’ve always said—inexperienced developers might be able to fake environments, animations, maps, and lighting, among other elements. But when it comes to the human element, the human voice, if you’ve got no talent, it shows immediately and glaringly. In this respect, “Alien Rage” feels like a real game made by a real studio. Of course, that’s what it is.

ar8While the narrative may be nothing more than an excuse for the shooting, don’t mistake a skeletal story for bad writing. The lines of dialogue in this game are not only appropriate and full of smart-aleck space marine quips, some of the headset blather is genuinely smile-worthy (and perhaps even chuckle-worthy). Better yet, all of it is smartly self-aware and deliberately cliche. There are so many instances of this sharp-as-tacks dialogue throughout the game that it clearly isn’t a mistake. Someone with a pen in hand knew exactly what he or she was doing. A few highlights come to mind:

ar9At the very beginning of the game while facing the exterior of the sealed-up mining facility and needing an entrance, Jack asks Iris to fly the ship in via autopilot and “make me a hole.” She does so, but in blasting open a door, she causes a lot of damage with debris falling everywhere. “Where’s my opening?” Jack asks.

“Sorry, “ says Iris. “I missed,” as the ship flies out of sight. Jack retorts with something about “a damned computer who misses. Great.” He then has to scale all the destruction to get inside.

Later, Jack hits a dead-end and is faced with a locked door. He asks Iris over the intercom to release the lock.

“But please,” he says in a growling deadpan, “No nerve toxin this time.”

In a huff, Iris replies, “Oh come on, Jack. That was six years ago. And it was an honest mistake.”

A few checkpoints later, Jack mentions the interlocking corridors on the mined asteroid look like a “damned rat maze. I’m not sure where I need to go next. Iris?”

In more of a robotic monotone than usual, Iris replies: “Move ahead six meters and turn left,” obviously being a smartass and mimicking a GPS device. Jack then asks if her programming is being screwed with. She says, “Nope.”

Crossing over a river of flowing Promethium which is glowing neon blue, Jack wonders aloud if it is hazardous to his health. Iris explains that the blue promethium is in its raw state and is toxic but not explosive. On the other hand, once it is refined, the color changes to orange, and in this state it is highly explosive when exposed to great pressure. “Huh. Sounds just like my ex,” says Ray in a deadpan monotone.

ar10OK, so the one-liners are intentionally groan-inducing, but they never overstay their welcome. These characters know they are paper-thin, but dammit they’re really fun paper-thin characters. These are clever caricatures who are enjoyable to hang out with, frankly. I know often my reaction to a game occurs in context—and usually in context of other titles I am concurrently playing. Right now, that “other” game is Bungie’s opus, Destiny—which I’m generally disappointed in and am finding to be kind of sanitized, especially in the voice and dialogue department. It’s a billion-dollar, smooth-as-glass experience…but it’s all just so well-starched, perfectly-combed, carefully poised. While I am in no way comparing the two games whole cloth, Destiny’s sterility stands in stark contrast to the loose, chatty smart-assery of Alien Rage—a brand of restrained smart-assery which does not enter over-the-top-ridiculous territory (in a tiresome fart-joke Borderlands way), but merely approaches that cheeky ceiling and hovers right around…well, perfect. Case in point: During the first boss battle, a big-ass Vorus, three times the size of the regular dudes, is stomping about and yelling something in his native tongue. Jack says aloud, “I wonder what the hell he’s saying?”

“I can translate for you,” says Iris. Then suddenly the garbled alien language is transformed into perfect English, and as clear as day, Jack hears the alien scream: “Say hello to my little friend!” as he rains bullets down on Jack’s head. Dashing quickly away, Jack says something like “I had to ask, didn’t I?” You’d never find anything remotely this designedly silly in Destiny. And sometimes, silly (in the face of grave danger) is pitch-perfect.

ar11Of course, it helps immensely that this is, plainly put, a beautiful looking game. One of the constant refrains peppering the critical reviews of this title (again, a 52 Metacritic score? What the fuck is up with that? Oh, we are all so fucking spoiled) is that the environments are cut-and-paste, alien-looking industrial interiors, over and over. On the surface, this is true—the game, almost entirely, occurs inside a mined-out asteroid that has been fitted with crisscrossing metal catwalks, massive machinery, space labs, yadda, yadda, yadda. Nothing new there, true. But it’s all so absolutely gorgeous with high-resolution textures and lots of lazery electric blue and orange lighting. And within the context of all the spaces occurring within a single asteroid, there is actually incredible variety in the size and scope of spaces (from cramped corridors to caverns holding fleets of spaceships that are larger than the eye can focus on), and also a great variety of atmospheres within those spaces too. There are rooms filled with gigantic gears that you must walk across, with a crevice yawning far below; there are tight fighting spaces crammed with computer consoles and tubes and other inexplicable sci-fi trappings (lots of these); there are narrow walkways that dart hither and thither with orange and blue Promethium flowing below; there are glass elevators that shoot seemingly miles into the asteroid; there is an on-rails conveyor-belt ride through some of the still natural, less exploited areas of the flying rock; there is a massive cyclotron (or whatever) with spaceship sized machine parts dangerously rotating at top speeds. You get the picture. So, if you pay close attention to the game, there is actually a great deal of variety within the context of this one asteroid—I was constantly looking forward to what was beyond the next area; I guess most commercial reviewers would say I am easily pleased. Whatever. I say they’re spoiled.

ar12If you allow me a tired cliché, the action really is fast and furious. Because every single goddamn game these days has to have some kind of “angle” or else it will never sell enough copies, the marketing rant for “Alien Rage” paints it as an homage to old-school, uncompromisingly difficult first-person shooters of the past. To be honest, that’s what it is. The difficulty levels begin with “Challenging” (yes, this would be the “Easy” setting on any other game) and increase to insanity from there. Lots of Vorus baddies are ever-present, they move very quickly, take cover briskly, and bum-rush without warning. I found myself running backwards and shooting a whole helluva lot in this game. Ammo is in pretty good supply, and health regenerates (so I guess it’s not all that old school after all, really). Oh, but there are points (yes, straight-up points earned for kills), which puts us back into old school territory—points can be used to unlock some small advantages to Jack (shielding, ammo capacity, etc., nothing to write home about). Also somewhat old school, there are a variety of combos that grant extra points (each one oddly announced aloud by some steroidal voiceover guy borrowed from some damn fighting game–“Headshot Streak!” “Double Barrels!”—which totally destroys any sense of immersion in the universe, but I guess it’s harmless). The guns (of both the traditional and alien variety) are loud and beefy and flashy and rapid…and they all work like a charm.

ar13Scanning the Steam user reviews, you do see one repeating negative refrain: Some of it is poorly optimized, almost making some of the very large spaces in the game unplayable due to serious frame drops; in some instances, proper aiming in a timely way becomes nearly impossible. In other words, there are complaints of game-breaking stuttering going on here and there. The developers have released several patches over the year and half or so since the game’s release to fix this. I think these issues have been somewhat mediated, but if you don’t have a beefy machine, there are parts of the game which may still give you fits. Buyer beware. However, while I experienced some minor stuttering, the game overall ran quite well on my current rig (AMD FX 8350 processor overclocked to about 4.3GHz and 2x GTX 970s in SLI).

ar14And to finish up this overly long post, how about a naive tip from yours truly, someone who claims to be nothing more than a so-so gamer: I’ve played dozens and dozens of shooters. But Alien Rage is the second advertised “retro-tough-as-nails” FPS I’ve hesitantly attempted to play. The first was “Hard Reset” (Poland, 2011) which I’ve also written about here on the crappy blog (and adored). Why hesitant? While I’m a dogged, dedicated player, and I’ll gladly die and respawn dozens of times to get through a tough spot without rage quitting (too often), I’m really not what you’d call a twitch gamer. I love shooters, I love tension, I love a challenge. But I’m not a particularly dexterous player, honestly. For God’s sake, I play my PC games with a damned gamepad (I know, I know, the horror—but let’s just say that my abominable, arthritic lower back doesn’t allow me to hunch over a keyboard and mouse anymore like an 18 year old—kicking WAY back in front of the big, big screen is the only way for me…oh, and by the by, “Alien Rage” natively supports controllers and has a decent button layout for those who care).

ar15Given these somewhat self-imposed limitations, I fear that attempting to play these “intentionally old-school, deliberately difficult” titles like “Alien Rage” and “Hard Reset” is just opening myself to unending waves of frustration. In fact, before starting games like these, I sometimes think to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll just skip it instead.’ If this also describes you, here’s the advice part: I’ve found that if these games (at least the two I’ve mentioned here) are played carefully and methodically and patiently, they can be terrifically fun. I actually don’t think this is how the developers of these games intend them to be played (if their actual intentions can be known). Of course, the big draw to these titles is the explosive, in-yer-face, million-miles-an-hour action. But I’ve found that if you actually approach the games cautiously, an inch at a time, entering new areas slowly, double-backing for ammo and walking backwards (a lot) during ambush sequences to create space in which to engage in combat in a less hectic, more tactical way, these games still hold the tension and fun, and you are able to succeed even though twitch gaming is not your strong suit. Yeah, dying a lot will still happen, and there are sections of the game that will attempt to strip you of your cautious approach—but this is all part of the fun of playing a purposefully “difficult” game and being able to survive it even though you don’t consider yourself a true space marine.