Alpha Squad [Review]

Long Diep
Guest Writer
 
January 18th, 2011

alpha_squad_demo1

Alpha Squad is a game that harkens back to an era of my childhood where action games reigned supreme.  Titles like Contra, Smash TV, and the like had been games I remember killing time with my childhood friends in front of a TV.  With the new era of games, arcade style shooters have been forgotten.  The golden era of games has long gone since those games were popular and it’s no surprise that indie developers are looking into the past again for inspiration.

The story is pretty simple; a military operation called The Alliance has taken over the lands and your heroes who operate as the Alpha Squad are in their sights for extermination.  Alpha Squad’s objective is to find out who ordered the hit on them and to take them out.  The artwork for the game is rather fantastic albeit a little sexually heavy on the female characters.  They have a team of Gonzalo Ordonez, Pritesh Rane, and “Ektanadu” for a combination of hand drawn, pixel, and background artists respectively.  The game plays pretty simple; as far as controls go you use the left stick to move your character around, the right stick is to shoot, A button to investigate things, B button to use stocked items, and Start to bring up the Pause screen.  The Pause screen allows the player to visit a few options: The Armory, Saving, Sanctuary, Exit Game.  The Armory one is pretty self-explanatory and allows you to get new guns and items with an inventory that periodically changes.  The Sanctuary is an artistic feature that I won’t spoil.  Saving is pretty self-explanatory as well.  Alpha Squad offers a basic story mode as well as an arena mode.  The game also allows you to play with up to 4 total players in one session and can mix both local and online players.

The action is frantic in both the story mode and arena modes.  When you enter a zone, you’re immediately greeted with enemies either rushing or shooting at you in attempt to render you as a dead corpse.  As every action hero doesn’t like to end up dead, you take up your guns and kill them off to ensure you end up alive.  The chaos increases when you throw your friends into the mix.  Throw in the ability to buy new guns and unique power-ups and enemies can be decimated quickly with plenty of blood splatters to litter the ground they walked on.  It becomes almost like a flashback to memories of Smash TV all over again.  The excitement perpetuates when you factor in that some enemies drop cash and cash means more new toys.  The game can be good fun only when you don’t run into the choppy transitions, bad ambushes, or random spawns…  Alpha Squad had a good premise for a game, but the game has some flaws that make for less than tolerable experience and impact the potential of Alpha Squad.

One of the problems that have been noted in Dragon Divide’s support forums is that the multiplayer net code can cause the game to crash to the main menu.  Their solution has been to go into the options and set the multiplayer permissions for games to private.  This neuters the ability to play with online players.  I can say I have encountered this issue and it prevented me from testing the online multiplayer functions.  I will say that I did have a friend to test local multiplayer for this review.

The second issue is the screen transitions and spawning.  With transitions from one zone to the next, sometimes the transition to the next screen can be really choppy and then suddenly throw you into an ambush of enemies.  This ends up being a painful experience and if you’re unlucky, you will end up quickly dead.  The spawning issue is made worse in multiplayer from the matter that if one player enters a building, they may spawn in at the entrance of the building and their companions may be at different places and ambushed by the enemies.  It was a real drag having myself or a friend just being slaughtered from this slight defect.  The spawning and transition issue also makes the arena mode a real drag as well; especially as you are suddenly thrown right into a battle zone.

There are a few things on the minor side that may or may not be a big deal to other players.  The GUI that shows the life for each character is a bit on the large side and transparent, but I feel it could obscure things from the player’s view.  When I was playing Alpha Squad with my friend, just having 2 meters took a good amount of real estate.  I would imagine with 4 total players that could be a good deal of lost from the visual field.  If there was either a way to scale the meters or move them to a different arrangement, it could make the presentation a little more organized.  The other minor thing is that there are non-hostile characters in some zones, and combined with the spawning issue, some players may end up accidentally killing them which could ruin parts of the story being lost in a run.

While Alpha Squad has a great premise of a game with some killer artwork and music as well as some snarky jokes about some of the shoddy games in the Xbox Live Indie Games channel…  The execution of the game needs a lot of refinement.  I appreciate Steve Flores of Dragon Divide for the idea of Alpha Squad, but I fear that with the marred execution will shy people away from the game.  I do hope that some of these issues can be addressed because I really do like the style of game Alpha Squad and would love to see a very polished version of the game.  If Alpha Squad can be cleaned up and made perfect, I think I would be a little more comfortable recommending it to many more of my friends instead of just a select few.  Alpha Squad is available now on Xbox Live for 240 Microsoft Points.

Update: A patch has been released for Alpha Squad!

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[Images and trailer are from Dragon Divide’s Alpha Squad Page.]

Alpha Squad
Dragon Divide
Score
3.7\5
Visuals
4.5
The artwork looks fantastic from pixel sprites of the characters to the hand drawn characters and even the backgrounds. I am docking half a point due to my GUI concerns as there have been moments where I feel things were obscured from the interface such as places of characters blending in to where the overlays were.
Sound
3.5
The music from Stemage of Metroid Metal is great and captures the feel of the games Alpha Squad pays tribute to. The rest of the sounds like the guns and enemies were a little on the bland side.
Controls
4.5
The controls are pretty solid, but the game doesn't provide a control map to explain that A is used to investigate non-violent NPC's and places and B is for using items on your inventory. There is a quick tip during the loading screens that mentions this, but I feel it wouldn't hurt to have a control map. I do give Dragon Divide credit for adding in a Southpaw control option for the game for players who a better apt at that configuration.
Game Play
3
Between the issues of the choppy room/screen transitions and the erratic spawning, they soured my expectations of a balanced game. If these can be fixed, it could really revitalize the game.
Fun
3
The broken net code for multiplayer is a real downer in my mind and combined with the game play issues make it alright as far as fun value goes. These are issues that can be fixed and when they are addressed, this could easily change this score.

META

Categories:

Featured | Review | XBLA

Long is an classic game fanatic who has a fond love of arcade games. He is a fan of fighting games and racing simulations and loves playing them with good friends. His true love is with Japanese curtain fire, "bullet hell" shooters. He is a gamer who believes that sometimes the best gaming gear can make the difference between a better experience in a game to increased game play skills. Even though he likes his unique games, he does enjoy FPS games, RPG's, and various other games. Long has a soft spot for indie and niche developers as some of the major games out there have soured his taste-buds.

Specialty: Bullet Hell Shooters
  • DragonDivide

    Hi Long,

    This is a pretty fair assesment. Unfortunately after release a number of issues came up with the online networking that we did not anticipate and as a result, it kind of marred our first week of release and indie sites being the first to review these types of games, caught onto it quickly.

    There is currently a patch in playtesting that not only fixes the online issues (which are the hardest to program and diagnose in large games), but also the player spawns are corrected and normal health packs have greater health increases. Currently we are tracking all suggestions from fans and even have a list of suggestions to be implemented.

    In a couple of days the majority of issues raised here will be null and void and we can get the product to where it should be …one week late unfortunately because of the delay time Microsoft allows updates for Indie Games.

    • Long Diep (ZeroXR)

      Thanks for the comment and I will say that I definitely don't mind doing a follow-up once you get a new patch out for Alpha Squad that hopefully resolves the issues. It's very rare these days to see developers actually take pride in their product in the major label segment of games, so we are always honored to have indie developers respond or follow up when we post our reviews. Do let us know when you have the patch out and we would love to let our readers know that it has been deployed!

      Thanks for stopping by as well!

  • DragonDivide

    I just wanted to announce that the Alpha Squad patch is currently on Xbox Live. We submitted the update as fast as we could on the current deployment system.

    The online bugs were partially due to a defect in the XNA 3.1 network which indie developers use to create games on the Xbox. Since drop-in play features are very rarely used, this issue was rather obscure.

    Since the online framework surrounds the game itself, this issue could occur at any time during the game, which lead to the stability problems. Happily these issues are largely resolved, enjoy!