Alpha Squad Needs Beta Testers

Review of Alpha Squad on XBLIG: Pass
An interesting twist on the twin stick shooter, Alpha Squad’s fun is lost in a sea of bugs.

From the start of Alpha Squad it’s clear the game has grand intentions.  The game takes the basic twin stick shooter and expands it to an open world adventure with a heavy multiplayer focus.  There is no single player, even in story mode Xbox Live players can join and leave a game in progress.  There is an arena mode for those that want play in a more competitive setting.  However grand the intentions, the game is not quite finished.  It is currently crippled by bugs and filled with rough edges.

The first major bug breaks network play completely.  Connections to games are hard to establish, and once established are harder to maintain.  There is no offline mode, and when a network connection is broken both the client and the host are kicked out of the game to the main menu, loosing all progress.  The only way to avoid this is to change the game settings to “Private” each and every the game is loaded as this preference isn’t saved (another bug).  Even when set to private, I would still get the occasional network error booting me from the game.  An third mode, “Invite Only”, is available, but I was unable to start a game under this setting due to a bug in the game launch screen.

There are gameplay bugs as well.  Many doors do not work and I experienced points where reading dialog would cause a “Code 4” error.  Code 4 errors are “unhandled exceptions” in a game, which is a nice way of saying the game crashed due to a bug.  I experienced my first Code 3 error, which is a low level error in XNA that there isn’t a friendly Code 4 error for.  Code 3 sometimes has to deal with loading graphics into memory, and I did experience a few Xbox freezes while playing Alpha Squad.  The screen freezes I’m not going to blame on Alpha Squad as Microsoft has a poor history with Xbox heat management.  That said, I am playing on a 7 month old redesigned “S” Xbox 360 and haven’t had problems with other games.

The deeper I played into the story of Alpha Squad, the more issues I discovered.  One on level I could not reach the exit zone because the map blocked access (had to exit the game and restart the level to go forward, avoiding that particular screen).  In the desert levels enemies would move off screen and stand.  All enemies must be killed before the exits activate so I had to spend a few minutes blindly shooting off screen until I was lucky enough to hit the hidden enemy.  The game has a setting to control the size of the screen so it can be adjusted to match your television (aka Title Safe), but this does not stop the enemies from going off screen.

The game HUD is overlaid on top of the play area, and set translucent to see through the UI.  This keeps a large play area, but the HUD is very large and obscures items and action.  Each player has their own HUD, and with four players over 50% of the screen is cloaked by UI.  The game lets the first player select a character, (and only the first player – bug?) and while there are no differences between characters the choice of character controls the quadrant the HUD appears.  This at least offers the player the ability to move the HUD to any corner of the screen.  Another key preference that need to be changed before playing is the exit color, which defaults to white and cannot be seen on snow levels (go with green or red).

If the UI was redesigned and the bugs fixed, there would still be an unfinished game remaining.  The enemy AI is non-existent; I found that by standing still and not shooting the high level enemies would ignore me and stand in place.  I could then pick them off with easy.  A solider will do nothing while watching his buddy’s brains splatter across pavement.  Charging enemies can easily get stuck behind terrain.  The final (possibly final, more on that in a moment) boss was easily defeated with a “don’t move” tactic. 

The upgraded weapons in game are worse than the basic gun being harder to aim and very limited in ammo.  A few will have special uses, such as the singularity cannon or the nuclear “easy button” bomb to skip a fight.  Weapons are purchased from the armory, but the available weapons for sale are determined randomly when you enter a level.  The standard health pack is useless compared to the slightly more expensive survival pack, so I found myself reloading a level if I didn’t have a survival pack in the armory.  There are no lives in Alpha Squad, a level must be completed in one run and it’s far to frustrating to die at the end of a level because of a poor armory.  There is a revival pack, and you might think, as I did, this pricy pack is better than the survival pack, but it only works on another player who has died.  I used up several revival packs before learning this. The game has no information on what items and weapons do and only by visiting the website did I learn I was wasting cash and time.

The character dialog is as voluminous as it is mind numbing.  The plot is wafer thin, so much of the text is references to out of game movies, internet memes, and inside jokes.  It would make a drinking game: see a cliché?  Drink!  There are no dialog options but there are a few points where there is a red door to exit.  The red doors end the game, so it is good to save before trying one out (incidentally the save system has it’s own issues with dialog boxes reading “Save Successful! Cancel or OK?” and not stating what the game progress is for a particular save slot).  After playing 10+ hours and completing all levels, I encountered a final boss.  The ending though isn’t clear if it is the real ending.  If this was the final ending, then prepare to be let down.

I think it’s clear I rate this game a Pass.  The developer is making efforts to promise future patches will address the bugs and network issues, but I can only review what is released.  After a few patches Alpha Squad may be worth a try, but the dialog, weapon balancing, and weak AI need to be addressed before I would recommend this game to anyone.  I only hope that naming Alpha Squad “Game of the week” in our weekly new release round up we haven’s started a trend of bad calls!

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