Whoever would’ve thought that an alien invasion of Earth would be so nice? The place is a wreck – the streets empty but for things upturned, broken and abandoned, the pavements strewn with the proximity-sensing eggs of the invaders – but the marauding quartet of super-soldiers that constitute humankind’s last hope see nothing but niceness at every turn.
You have access to three emotes in Alienation, each mapped to a D-pad direction (the fourth expands the minimap to overlay the entire screen). ‘Wait’ serves a singular, functional purpose; likewise ‘Over here’. The third, ‘Nice’, is left for everything else. Buddy just revived you? Nice. You dodged in and out of a screen full of fire, putting the boss down by yourself while your comrades lay prone on the floor? Nice. Blew your team up with an accidentally exploding car? Nice. The four of you just climbed into the evac helicopter with a mission’s worth of XP and new loot? Nice, nice, nice, nice, nice until the mission-complete screen loads in.
There are times when you yearn for a ‘sorry’ or a ‘thanks’, to request healing, or suggest a certain tactic. Your time in Alienation will be spent with silent comrades from all over the world, thanks to the drop-in, drop-out co-op matchmaking that’s available on the mission-select screen. With hardly anyone using voice chat, those emotes are all you have. This is a highly social game, but one that makes it hard to actually be social; playing co-operatively doesn’t mean the same thing as actually co-operating.
Still, company quickly proves essential. Taking on the enemy hordes by yourself is an attritional, not especially satisfying task, even early on, when your weedy weapons are barely a match for rank-and-file opponents. Missions see you criss-cross large city maps, with death dumping you back to the most recent respawn point you activated, the streets repopulated with enemies each time you fall. A co-op partner or three means downed allies can be revived on the spot, the toughest encounters can be overcome relatively easily, and your group can patrol the entire map, securing loot from dark corners and side-missions, in roughly the same time it’d take the solo player to die and respawn their way along the critical path.
Co-op also gives the three character classes an opportunity to shine; as ever, they’re as much about how they work with each other as how they function in isolation. The Bio-specialist can heal the entire group, providing they’re in range; the Tank can block incoming damage or dole it out with a shockwave ground-pound. The Saboteur, meanwhile, can make itself invisible for a while and rain airstrikes down for a burst of AOE damage around each party member. Such skills are governed by cooldowns, which are reduced by picking up orbs dropped by fallen enemies and, together with a set of passive buffs (boosting the effect of health pickups, for instance), can be upgraded as you level up.
Improvements are marginal, however, and virtually invisible – percentage increases of a skill’s duration or effect. The real measure of your growing power is your gear, the efficacy of each weapon and gadget measured in the tens at the outset and the hundreds of thousands by the endgame. While the sci-fi set dressing naturally evokes memories of Destiny, the more appropriate comparison for the loot system is Diablo III; legendaries can drop right from the off and can be found in any roadside loot crate or on the corpse of a random mob.
It means the thirst for loot kicks in early on and that a weapon you find in the opening hours can carry you through a lot more of the game than its level suggests. Rare and legendary kit can be upgraded through a slot system that lets you improve their stats, a system that kept our level-seven cluster grenade in our pocket until we were in the mid-teens. As you level up, the numbers get higher and the slot allocation grows. By game’s end, if the RNG gods smile upon you, you’ll be boasting a 12-slot shotgun with a DPS rating of a million.
But once you get there, there’s not a tremendous amount to do. Complete the 20-odd story missions and you’ll unlock an assault on the alien mothership, which offers a tremendous leap in difficulty at the same time as removing all respawn points. Even a foursome will struggle – we were eventually carried through it by a kindly level-27 player (the cap is at 30) with a backpack full of legendaries. The smart thing to do is to replay earlier missions on higher difficulties, which is never the most enticing of prospects but something you’ll be forced to do eventually. Conquer the mothership and you’re dropped into ‘world level two’, Alienation’s NG+ equivalent, which, yes, involves replaying the same set of missions at higher difficulty. Daily challenges – kill a certain number of a specific monster on a given planet using a certain type of weapon – provide little incentive to push on; at level 30 a new mission, set on a UFO, becomes available, but it will take a true loot compulsive to get there, never mind to get through it.
A loot game is ultimately only as good as its endgame, since the endless pursuit of more powerful gear loses its meaning unless you have the right content in which to use it. The result is that Alienation sort of stops when it should really be getting going, routes closing off as they should be opening up. It looks delightful, especially with the destructive power of four players raining down in a screen-filling mess of sparks, lasers and flames, and as a co-operative, twin-stick shooter it’s thoroughly enjoyable. But Alienation’s RPG elements and loot obsession suggest a game that simply isn’t there. As its emote system proves, sometimes just being nice isn’t quite enough.
Alienation sort of stops when it should really be getting going, routes closing off as they should be opening up