Grab that gun! Run over there! Quick – get that thing! Take it to there! Argh! So many aliens! They’re mutating! Aaaaand… I’m dead! As a big fan of Super Crate Box, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Super Mutant Alien Assault – the self-described “Citizen Kane of Super Crate Box clones” – was coming to Steam Early Access. With its retro style, dubstep soundtrack, responsive controls, and frenetic action, it showed considerable promise and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Loosely built around the concept of saving humanity, your job is to repel alien invaders from fleets of spaceships, each of which carries a precious cargo of cryostatically preserved humans. This story isn’t actually presented in game and, to be honest, I didn’t even realise there was a story until I read the blurb on the official webpage (link to http://www.mutantalienassault.com/). But that’s perfectly ok. I’m sure arcade classics like Bubble Bobble, Metal Slug, and Castle Crashers had plots too, but who cares? You played them for the fun gameplay and fast action – something Super Mutant Alien Assault has in spades!
You play as one of four security robots, and may tackle the game alone or cooperatively with a friend. Levels are single, non-scrolling screens, each of which represents a spaceship in the fleet. There are only twelve levels in the game; however, each is randomly generated… somewhat. There seems to be a “pool” of level designs and, upon starting a level, the layout, enemies, weapon dispensers, and objectives are randomly slapped together. This sounds messy, but actually works really well. It introduces a random element to the game without the potential frustration of true randomly generated design.
On each level, enemies continually spawn until the level objective is met. Initially easy to defeat, enemies quickly grow in both strength and number. Your little security bot isn’t defenceless however, and is able to wield a variety of perks weaponry. Weapons are dispensed via timed vending machines and have a very limited amount of ammo. Allocation is random, which forces you to constantly adapt your play style to suit your situation – meaning Super Mutant Alien Assault relies more on reactive skill rather than planned strategy. This is incredibly rewarding and means your effectiveness improves as you learn the limitations and benefits of each weapon type. For example, proximity grenades are great for taking out a large number of aliens at once, but don’t distinguish between friend and foe. If you’re in a two-player game, these are often more detrimental than useful.
While you constantly change weapons and explosives, you have a number of upgrades that remain with you for the duration of each run. Upgrades are found in randomly appearing crates and consist of defence moves (dodge/teleport/etc.), Special attacks (bullet time, laser attacks, etc.), and perks like double jump or regenerative ammo. As with the weapons, these can drastically alter the way you play the game, but to be honest I didn’t find myself using them all that much, as they never felt especially beneficial.
The game is exceptionally simple to play, yet expands as you progress, allowing for a changing experience. As you complete levels or find new items, they become unlocked for future runs. This means that tough armoured monster you found on level 11 is now spawning in level 1, however that mini-gun you found on level 10 is now also in the mix for the vending machines! The consistency in strength on the unlocks gives the gameplay a constant feeling of competitive advantage, while at the same time introducing new threats so the core difficulty remains the same. Weapon or skill unlocks don’t often interest me in games; however, in Super Mutant Alien Assault, they all feel so unique, different, and fun that it’s hard to ignore the carrot that is new items!
There are a variety of room types in Super Mutant Alien Assault, each with a different objective. Each room is introduced with a contextual playable tutorial in a similar format to games like Stealth Bastard. This makes them easy to learn without breaking the flow of a game. At the time I wrote this preview, I’d only come across four different types:
Pretty self explanatory. Defeat waves of aliens until you’re the only thing left standing… unless you’re playing co-op, in which case your buddy should, ideally, be standing as well. The last ship in each fleet is a Survive level, complete with a bullet sponge boss whose patterns you must learn and abuse to attain victory.
In the Hyperdrive levels, you must collect fuel canisters and carry them to a receptor at the opposite side of the level. Successfully deliver three canisters and hyperdrive engages, throwing everything into slow motion while stopping new aliens from spawning.
Pressure levels have two release valves positioned at opposite ends of the level. Occasionally, they open and pressure starts to build. Run over and close them before they peak or they explode – damaging everyone on screen. While a good way to clear out enemies you also take a hit, so a better strategy is to “git gud”.
KestralThis mode is very similar to the Hyperdrive level, except you must deliver a kestral ball instead of fuel canisters, and you can’t attack while carrying it. Unlike the fuel canisters, you can throw the kestral ball, which can prove fun as it opens an additional way to “basketball” your way through a level.
Despite their simplicity, all objectives feel fleshed out and balanced. Levels like Hyperdrive may encourage you to be reckless however – with only one life to complete the game, speed is often detrimental. That doesn’t mean you should take your time though. If you leave an enemy alive for too long, they mutate into a stronger variant – ignore them too long and the waves of low level enemies suddenly become a formidable force – stronger, more dangerous, and harder to kill.
Graphically, the game looks and sounds fantastic. Super Mutant Alien Assault effectively combines 16-bit retro styling with special effects to create an experience that is very aesthetically pleasing – without appearing hokey. Monster look great as they explode, corpses remain on screen for a while and everything just looks perfectly designed. My only real gripe is that the colour scheme never changes. It would be nice to have different colours for different rooms, or even different skins for the different fleets – just something to break the visual monotony.
Musically, the gameplay is accompanied by a great dubstep soundtrack and perfect sound effects. Monsters, weapons, and specials all sound exactly as you’d expect, and the dubstep soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the frenetic action on screen. Unless you really, really hate dubstep, it’s hard not to get caught up in it all.
All in all, Super Mutant Alien Assault is an absolute blast to play. The controls are responsive and have clearly been well tested. Weapon and enemy effectiveness is well balanced, and the game rewards those who like to learn and adapt. There are plenty of hidden tricks (like cooking grenades) and the constantly mutating aliens, frenetic action, and awesome soundtrack will be sure to capture the interest of most gamers! It’s hard to explain just how well this is implemented without playing it yourself – so go grab a copy and get aboard the hype train. I can’t wait to see what this game is like once it gets a full release.