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Alien Breed and Dead Nation Highlight the Pitfalls of Linear Game Design

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Scythe-like appendages burst from a spaceship's floor to reveal a menacing foe in Team 17's Alien Breed games. Poorly lit rooms and nearly constant, screen-shaking explosions keep me on edge as I hobble across the ship Leopold.

Layers of fog, rain, and darkness obstruct your view and keep tensions high in Housemarque's Dead Nation. The game takes camera control out of the player's hands for good reason: The developers have expertly placed innocuous objects throughout the levels to either trick the player into believing a zombie lurks there or to hide the flesh-eating decompositions for a surprise bite. 

At times, playing Alien Breed: Impact (PC and PS3) and Alien Breed 2: Assault (PC and Xbox 360) or Dead Nation (PS3) is an exhilarating experience. Both developers have an eye for suspense and atmosphere. 

But as I exterminated aliens and slaughtered the recently reanimated, a small voice in the back of my mind nagged at the missed opportunity to turn these somewhat good games into great ones.

 

Dead Nation and Alien Breed unfortunately fall into game tropes that only hold them back. Like Dead Space, Alien Breed boils down to a series of fetch quests and monster closets that hold a meandering narrative together and deliver cheap thrills. And while borrowing popular zombie designs from other, genre-defining titles (i.e., Left 4 Dead), Dead Nation's primary glue is an arcade-like scoring mechanism that only the hardest of the hardcore will care about.

The games exacerbate these problems with their decidedly linear natures, which is a byproduct of their adherence to tripe stories to propel the player forward. Unlike Layton's recent defense, this narrative style actually hinders what would otherwise be much better experiences. Alien Breed and Dead Nation are perfectly suited for a more open-ended design with a device that roguelikes use to great effect: randomization.

A number of interesting mechanics that Team 17 unfortunately relegated to fetch-quest status — rebooting computer terminals, repairing broken power generators, and rescuing civilians from toxic air — could have heightened the game's exploration by allowing players to stumble upon these scenarios more organically.

Alien Breed does deserve credit for the inclusion of a Survivor mode in Assault, which is very similar to Aliens vs. Predator's Survival play option. The game tasks the player with holding off an unending advance of alien waves in tightly quarantined spaces. This definitely captures the survivalism that I feel is the core of Alien Breed, but it too closely mimics Gears of War's Horde mode (which focuses on holding a position on a single map for a predetermined number of waves) rather than Rebellion's 2000 PC classic (where the player must survive for as long as possible while exploring a full-sized level).

Dead Nation's setting affords a similar design, too. You run-and-gun through abandoned streets littered with burning cars, various piles of debris, and brain-hungry zombies. Even without the survivalist aspect, I'd be much more interested in the doomsday setting if Dead Nation used randomized content to retain the surprises it hides from players so well.

That's the thing, ultimately. The linear nature of both titles ruins their best features. By masterfully manipulating the player's perspective with dynamic lighting and high-strung atmospheres, Alien Breed and Dead Nation perfectly set up moments of horrific seat jumping.

In a roguelike, for example, players learn to anticipate likely scenarios through death and failure, and future events will always be different due to randomization, which keeps the game fresh. But the scripted nature of Alien Breed and Dead Nation means that players needn't learn anything beyond memorizing level layouts and enemy spawn locations. Once you know where the surprises lie, the game quickly deteriorates into one of attrition rather than suspense.


To get a sense of what I mean, check out the free Valve Source mod Alien Swarm (very similar in concept to Alien Breed), whose Swarm TileGen allows users to create random levels. Furthermore, Swarm keeps encounters surprising for players by utilizing an A.I. Director like that in the Left 4 Dead series. Swarm falls short, though, because you can't start a game and play through randomly generated missions on the fly. You have to set up everything in advance, which isn't an ideal solution.

What is Alien Breed, anyway, but a graphically souped-up Aliens Roguelike? Both draw from the same source material, yet the latter offers a depth of play you won't find in the former. During Dead Nation sessions, my mind kept wandering into memories of Rogue Survivor, a simple game set in a similar zombie apocalypse.

Aliens Roguelike and Rogue Survivor continue to keep me on edge, even though I've put dozens of hours into each. Through randomization, they pull the gameplay mechanics — shooting aliens or surviving a night of the living dead — to the forefront. I think Alien Breed and Dead Nation could learn a thing or two from both.


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