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Spotlight On - Alien Swarm

Released on Steam earlier this week, this squad-based tactical shooter is difficult to find fault with, especially since it's free.

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If you haven't already, you really should check out Alien Swarm. This squad-based tactical shooter from Valve was released on Monday through Steam, and we've had a hard time tearing ourselves away from it ever since. Alien Swarm is more than a little reminiscent of the Alien Breed series (which was recently revived via the disappointing Alien Breed Evolution), but it adds a number of great new features to the formula. Oh, and did we mention that it's free? It is.

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Most of your time in Alien Swarm is spent gunning down extraterrestrials as you move between mission objectives. There's a lot more to Alien Swarm than just running and gunning, though, in part because the game features four distinct player classes that invariably need to work well together in order to progress. For example, you need a tech character to open sealed doors and to complete mission objectives that involve computer terminals and such, but since techs can't attack anything while they're working on those things, you need some firepower (courtesy of an officer and/or a special weapons guy) to keep enemies off his back. Later, when the aliens gain the ability to infest players, having a medic close by to heal them is invaluable. All four of the classes are pretty versatile, but while your abilities are ultimately determined by the equipment you opt to carry rather than by your character choice, it pays to play to their strengths.

You can take any of the eight characters (two for each class, with different attributes) for a test-drive in an offline single-player mode in which you're accompanied by three bots, but Alien Swarm is clearly a game best enjoyed online by a full squad of four players. Having each class represented in your squad isn't mandatory, but there are squad requirements for certain levels that would be impossible to complete without a tech character or at least one player with a flamethrower equipped, for example. Getting into or creating your own online games could hardly be easier, and you can communicate with players in-game either via text chat or by using a number of quick phrases that are mapped to the Z key. Furthermore, your character will automatically let the rest of the squad know when you run out of ammo or are in desperate need of medical attention.

All of the four character classes have a role to play.
All of the four character classes have a role to play.

While playing online, you earn experience points for practically everything you do, even if you end up failing a mission. As you level up, you gain access to additional weapons and other upgrades that, in most cases, represent significant upgrades over the gear that you start with. This isn't a game in which you ever feel useless if your squadmates are all much higher level than you, though, because even if they choose to rush forward, you can pull your weight by covering the rear, by healing them, or by welding doors shut once you pass through them to keep the aliens at bay.

The old adage that the best things in life are free can rarely be applied to video games, but on this occasion it definitely can. Alien Swarm has enough quality and quantity to keep you coming back for weeks, and that's without even taking into account all of the content that's sure to come courtesy of the mod tools that are also being made available free of charge. We can't wait to see what the mod community is going to do with this one.

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