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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

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