Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Alien Arena

Alien Arena could proudly do battle with retail software on an even footing. It's really pretty, and it also feels really polished. This totally blew me away - I was expecting something vaguely like Unreal Tournament only crappier. Let's face it, nine times out of ten, the free open source option is usually substandard as far as graphics go, and often as far as features go, in comparison to its retail equivalent.

Not so, this time around. Alien Arena is fast-paced and frantic, with four-star look and feel (alliteration!). It's great. Primarily for multi-player, it features a number of varied game-types with the option to have AI bots playing in the multi-player maps. I didn't actually play with anyone else(*), but I played against bots on a server-game I hosted, and it worked fine. The basics like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are all available, and it also had a couple of game-types that sounded bizarre (but may be mainstays in the genre; I played UT and UT2004 a handful of times, years ago, so I'm not an expert).

From looking at the website, there seems to be an active community. There are rankings, clans, tournaments, and all the meta-type stuff that makes for a more immersive multi-player experience. For an entry price-point of zero dollars, this is an awful lot of bang for your buck.

The single-player experience is not as fully fleshed-out, but it almost seems unfair to dock it points (imaginary points, since I'm not actually scoring anything) for that. My biggest complaint is that there doesn't seem to be any way to save your progress, so you always start at the same level, and have to work your way through the maps from the beginning each time. Outside of that, the biggest thing it was missing was versatility as far as game type goes. As far as I could tell, the only thing available to single-player was Deathmatch.

Graphically, it's very nice-looking, although a bit stereotypical as far as dark steel corridors n' neon lights go. The website likes to talk about its retro sci-fi art-direction, but honestly, the only thing that's retro sci-fi about it are the character models. There are vehicles, though I didn't mess around with that much.

The weapon models are all quite nice, and the weapons themselves are unique, with visually impressive attacks. I found most of them to be a bit annoying, as most of them have long delays for powering up before discharging their ammo (exceptions being the chaingun, and a few of the beam weapons), but they were quite powerful to make up for that, and also just a lot of fun to look at. Every weapon has an alt-fire, which is always nice.

I think the designers struck a good balance between power and speed that allows for a lot of variability in the play experience and allows players to have favorites. The choice of weapon really matters a lot; in days of yore when I was playing FPS games multi-player at LAN parties, too often it seemed like there was the rocket launcher, and then there was everything else. Weapon-balance has come a long way since then, and it shows in this game.

The level-design didn't strike me as particularly creative, but it was also never particularly lackluster. The levels are varied, though they tend to feel like retreads of levels I've played before in other games, visually. They're certainly good enough to impress me with the game overall, graphically and fun-wise.

The soundtrack is nice, and the sound-effects are good as well. It's typical battle-techno type stuff, but it's well done, and sets the mood quite nicely. (If you do a manual install, run the file 'crx.sdl', and not 'crx', to start the game; 'crx' messes the sound all up, or at least it did on my system)

One minor note: the version that Ubuntu installs is 6.05 - the most recent version is 6.10, which came out in October of last year. Presumably Ubuntu's packages will catch up with the next major release? I'm not sure how that works. I tried both (You have to manually download 6.10 from the website) and the only thing I noticed that was really different, outside of an additional weapon, was that I didn't like the font the pop-up messages use in 6.10. They were larger and easier to read, so it's probably just a question of form vs. function. There are some minor changes to the rules (items spawn quicker, etc.) in an attempt to alter the flow of the game, and apparently a great improvement as far as the network code goes, making lag less problematic.

If you're looking for a UT-style multiplayer FPS, you really ought to give this one a look-see. It costs you nothing, it runs flawlessly on my slightly outdated Athlon XP system, and it's damn good. It's probably not as pretty as the latest iterations in the QW or UT franchises, but you wouldn't kick her out of bed. Trust me.

*See the inaugural post on this blog. I'm not interested in playing multiplayer games.

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