There are certain requirements, across all genres of gaming, that a game needs to fulfill to be considered good. On top of that, there are requirements for the top-down shooter genre. Alien Breed 3: Descent, from development studio Team 17, fulfills very few of these requirements, if any at all.
You play as Conrad, some sort of space marine who boards a ship. But the ship is evil, and being controlled by an insane old British man! This is essentially the entire story. Perhaps something exciting happened in the first two games, but I highly doubt it, because they are summarised in a five minute long comic-book style cutscene in which nothing really happens except for Conrad boarding a ship. I say comic-book style, but your average Archie comic has more action than Descent’s opening cutscene. There’s a huge amount you can do with a sci-fi setting – at the very least, you could copy a book, film or game with a decent idea and tweak the names – and the developers have chosen to utilise none of it. You can make a brilliant game with virtually no story to speak of, but in general, these games don’t shove their non-existent story in your face every twenty minutes.
I suppose Alien Breed 3 should be praised for using original (read: copied from niche sources rather than mainstream series) material. The game’s only enemies are spiders of different sizes. Yes, you read that correctly. Spiders.
There is no variety to speak of in Descent’s gameplay. As you may have seen from the tagline to this review, you walk around some sort of labyrinth, shoot some spiders, run into a locked door, backtrack to find a way to open the door (almost always a computer console), then return to the door and continue. One particularly annoying segment involved going to a computer, only to find out that I needed to reactivate the power to use it, and that I could do this right next to the door. So, in addition to having no decent ideas for Descent’s story, the developers have no ideas for its level design. What a fantastic start.
Descent is, apparently, a twin-stick, run and gun top-down shooter. This perception, however, is quite seriously damaged by the fact that you can’t run and gun at the same time, unless you have three thumbs. You move with the left stick, aim with the right, and hold Square to sprint. When not sprinting, your character apathetically ambles along, and trying to do this backwards while you are surrounded by several dozen spiders is not a fantastic experience. You could attempt to use grenades for crowd control, but somebody had the brilliant idea of giving grenades a three-second countdown timer, which was immediately stopped if you were hit by a spider. The same is true for health kits. On top of this, when you are low on health, you go from ambling to limping, and cannot sprint at all. During the most challenging parts of the game, Team 17 seem to have made the controls even harder to use than usual. This said, however, the controls are considerably superior to certain other parts of the game.
From my understanding of the genre, good weapons are a must for any semi-decent top-down shooter. Fortunately, however, Descent isn’t anywhere near semi-decent, so it is not bound by these regulations. It met my expectations insomuch as it had guns, but even the most powerful of these just felt completely lifeless when used. First is some sort of pistol, which is one of the most hopeless weapons I have ever seen, but which has infinite ammo. Next up is an assault rifle, which is an assault rifle, except that it somehow has 200 bullets in each clip. The shotgun effectively one-hit kills all enemies. Those three are the standard weapons.
On top of that, there is a flamethrower, which is considerably less exciting than it sounds and sprays some sort of dull orange thing that is probably supposed to be fire. The only sound effect for this flamethrower is what sounds like a valve opening, and being unable to hear the flame kills half the fun. The electric gun is interesting at first, but hopeless against swarms of enemies (and you only ever face swarms of enemies). Project X sounds brilliant on paper. It launches a ball of pure energy that kills everything crossing its path and then explodes. However, Descent manages to take even the most exhilarating weapon types and reduce them to boring wrecks with poor visual and sound effects, awful enemy response, and a profound lack of combat variety.
You can buy ammo for your weapons from a vendor, and you’ll probably have to do this, because there’s pretty much no ammunition anywhere else. They can also be somewhat helpful for replenishing medkits. Vendors also sell other things, but I don’t see anyone spending 16 medkits’ worth of credits on a damage upgrade, especially when there are hardly any credits to be found in the game.
The difficulty curve is more like a difficulty roller coaster, but without the adrenaline. Even the massive swarms aren’t difficult if you run away from them, but the boss battles are just ridiculous. I had no difficulty on Veteran (normal) until the first boss, and then had to switch down to Rookie and restart the game because after ten tries I wasn’t even getting close. There was no difference in the standard gameplay between the two difficulties, but the boss was laughably easy on Rookie. You’re probably wondering whether the boss battles interrupt the tried and tested walk-shoot-door-computer formula, and they do. Unfortunately, they’re actually worse. The first boss battle consists of five stages of running around in circles and trying to avoid floating spheres, before trying to shoot some sort of thing in the centre of the room with lightning appearing under your feet.
For lack of a more polite word, Alien Breed 3’s visual design is abysmal. Everything seems to glow bright orange, including the menu screen, so you can never really make anything out. If you’ve ever complained about grey-brown shooters, then believe me, orange-brown is infinitely worse. The character models are dreadful, even though there are only six or so, which are then re-used over and over again. Some attempt is made at nice visual design, including a centrifuge in the first level, but with the awful textures and seemingly complete lack of anti-aliasing, even this looked terrible.
The sound effects all seem to have been extracted from a tortured cat, and the only “music” is a failed attempt at recreating the sounds made by a spaceship. There is no audible dialogue, but if I’m not going insane, Conrad began to speak in Sim language at one point. The evil British man occasionally says something which I’m sure is very witty and intelligent on account of his Britishness, but I couldn’t hear this over the roar of a small kitten which was probably supposed to be the sound of the ship’s engines.
The campaign is something like 3-4 hours long, and if you somehow manage to endure all of that, there is a free play mode so you can experience the agony of each individual level all over again. There is also a Survival mode, and I’m going to describe this by comparison. Imagine the best survival mode you have ever played – Left 4 Dead, perhaps. Now, remove everything that made this enjoyable and replace it with spiders, then place it in Alien Breed 3. If the campaign is bad, Survival is a negative two on a scale of one to ten. It’s all of the ambling of the campaign but without the ability to run away from the awful combat. In theory, it is possible to replay the campaign, but I don’t see anybody, even somebody trapped on a desert island with only Alien Breed 3 and a ball in a cup, wanting to do this. It’s okay, though, because the ball is on a string.
None of Alien Breed 3: Descent’s individual problems are enough to completely ruin the experience of playing it. I’ve played plenty of brilliant games that share a single problem with Descent. The trouble is that the developers did pretty much everything wrong. The story makes no sense and has no decent ideas, the gameplay is just a repetition of the same inane formula ad nauseum, the combat is unexciting, the graphics and sound are terrible, and the whole thing feels like it was designed to be as frustrating as humanly possible. The sum of this game's parts is considerably worse than any of its individual aspects. If previous games in the franchise are like this, which I doubt on account of the series' popularity (which is to say, it has fans), then I suppose I could recommend this to fans of the series. In my opinion, however, just be safe and stay the hell away from Alien Breed 3.