(Reviewed on iPad)
Diamond in the Rough
Alien Creeps is a fast-paced, action-packed tower defence game from developer Outplay Entertainment, which puts you in charge of defending your base from a cute but deadly invading alien race. The gameplay is frenetic, tense and highly enjoyable; however, it’s seriously hampered by its pay-to-win microtransaction system, which will unfortunately leave all but those with the greatest patience and the deepest pockets from playing on.
Let’s start with what the game gets right – which is an awful lot. From the opening colourful and bright cartoony art style of the title screen, it’s hard not to be taken in by the charm and playfulness that Outplay have imbued their game with. You’re first guided through a well-designed tutorial section, which quickly brings new players up to speed nicely with the tower defence genre and its gameplay mechanics if they’re unfamiliar, whilst not outstaying its welcome for tower defence pros.
The gameplay then, of course, is classic tower defence; your goal is to stop the advancing alien armies from getting into your base, by placing machine gun nests, troop barracks, laser turrets and rocket launchers in their way. Let too many aliens through, and in the words of one Private William Hudson, it’s “Game over man!”
The action is fast, tactical and highly enjoyable. You have a starting period on each level to set up some rudimentary defences, and prepare for the aliens to come pouring in in their droves. Killing aliens gives you power, which you use to build more towers and improve your existing ones to make them deadlier – which is absolutely essential, as each wave brings tougher combinations of enemies flooding into the map.
Speaking of the little critters, the enemy alien designs are bright and colourful, and they each have their own dastardly charm. You’ll gradually get familiar with the correct tactics for dealing with each threat, and break out in a nervous sweat when some new hulking monstrosity starts tottering it’s ungainly way to your base.
You get power bonuses for calling in the next wave earlier, which leads to some good balancing of risk and reward tactics – is it best to finish off the current wave’s stragglers and get some brief breathing room before the next onslaught, or call the next wave in early and get a power boost, at the risk of being overwhelmed before you’re ready? As the base commander, you’ll have to see what methods work best for you.
The inclusion of StarCraft-style hero units alongside the general towers and outposts is a well-considered touch that really helps the flow of gameplay. The free hero on offer, Flak, is a classic grizzled Rambo-esque character complete with a shotgun, grenade launcher, and, of course, plenty of gruff attitude. Two other heroes are available for purchase, each with their own perks and abilities, and more are set to be released in the future.
Unlike the other tower-based marine units, you can freely order your hero around the entire map, which is absolutely essential to success. You’ll often find that you’ll need to keep your hero dashing from point to point, helping to shore up the more threadbare patches in your defence; sometimes rushing out to the frontlines to stem the tides of alien invaders head on, or at others, skulking around the base entrance to stop any plucky alien trespassers making it through. Your hero will gradually level up through extended play, slowly but surely becoming that tiny bit more badass each time.
Alien Creeps‘ touchscreen controls are very responsive and fluid. Moving your hero around is very simple and intuitive; you just tap the character and point them into position. Dragging and releasing the target cursors for the troop airdrops, carpet bombing strikes and the tesla tower is also a real delight; everything is fast and responsive, you never feel like you’re having to fight with the game for control. Controlling the action with your fingers rather than a keyboard and mouse lends the game a further level of immersion; you feel like a General moving pieces and models round a detailed warzone diorama. Just resist the urge to bark out orders at the top of your lungs whilst playing though – trust me, it’s not a good move.
You gemmy dodger!
On the topic of calling in airdrops and carpet bombs, it’s time to look at the microtransaction side of things. On the surface, Alien Creeps seems to handle its free-to-play scheme pretty well. The game has two types of in-game currency – coins and gems. Coins are earned by completing and winning missions, and for getting kills with your hero unit; these can be then spent on further upgrades for your troops, hero and towers.
Gems, on the other hand, cost real world money to buy; they are dropped very occasionally by enemies, but the drop rate is almost negligible. Gems are used to buy care packages, such as helicoptered-in troop reinforcements and carpet bombing runs, to refuel the tesla tower, and to buy more health or continues once the extra-terrestrials have their grubby mitts, tentacles, suckers and other extra-terrestrial whatnot on your base.
Like many free-to-play games, these upgrades you buy with the coins have countdown timers that have to run down before you can get to use them, or alternatively, you can spend gems to get them immediately. To be fair, Alien Creeps‘ timers are pretty reasonable as far as free-to-play games go – the longest it seems that you’ll have to wait for an upgrade is about 15 minutes, although there are some exceptions.
For example, the game does grant you occasional care package rewards which give you a few extra resources, but nothing that would significantly help turn the tide of a difficult battle for long. You get five helicopter troop drops and five carpet bombing runs in these rewards, but you have to wait a lengthy 6 hours to collect your supplies.
The cost of the upgrades, sadly, is definitely slanted towards the pay-to-win side of things. Upgrades for the care packages – i.e. the resources which cost real world moolah – cost a fraction of the amount of coins you would need to upgrade the core tower and troop upgrades. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem on its own, however, the game is exceptionally difficult and unforgiving without these extra gem-fuelled boosts constantly at hand.
Initially, I put my struggles with Alien Creeps down to my unfamiliarity with the tower defence genre as a whole (I prefer to do battle with invading alien hordes in the turn-based XCOM style myself). But after several days of playing and grinding away, I’ve not been able to progress naturally beyond the first five levels. What started out as a gentle learning curve quickly rocketed to a steep climb in difficulty, and I’m now left at a punishing impasse.
This impasse is the most frustrating thing about the game; Alien Creeps locks off access to the later levels by means of the in-game ranking system. In order to move to the next area on the map, you have to acquire the requisite number of stars to unlock it. Stars are awarded for completing levels, and are based on your performance; a perfect run on campaign mode will net you three stars, and completing the Veteran and Spec Ops modes for each level will get you another two.
Fair enough I hear you say, but I only managed to make it as far as the end of the first jungle area before not being able to naturally progress any further – like I say, that’s only a paltry five levels in before you’re forced to backtrack and replay the same levels over and over again, or cough up some cash to advance. You’re required to get 20 out of the jungle’s total 25 stars in order to progress to get to the next desert area – a whopping 80% of the stars is required, which just feels like too high a barrier of entry for the average player.
I struggled to get just a measly 17 stars in total, and that was from days and days of playing, collecting coins and free 6-hour supplies whilst desperately cashing in my dwindling gem supply on extra care packages and tesla tower zaps. Without the starting number of gems and the occasional free supplies that the game granted me, I doubt I would have been even able to make it to 17! The difficulty is just incredibly punishing if you aren’t forking out money for upgrades on a regular basis.
When a game forces you to get a highscore or perfect run in order to progress, I personally find it counter-intuitive – especially when such content roadblocks are put up at such an early point in the game, they don’t exactly encourage you to keep playing. I can understand how you might want to hold back later sections of the game behind a certain highscore pre-requisite, to enhance the endgame for the player and provide an incentive for them to keep playing. But to prevent all but perfect players (probably forking out for plenty of care packages no doubt) from progressing beyond the first handful of levels just feels really silly. If I really enjoy the gameplay, then I will naturally want to go back and replay sections and improve my highscores etc. without having to be barred access to the rest of the game’s content as an incentive.
There is a challenge mode, where you can face off against randomised and increasingly more difficult waves of aliens to win more coins, gems and care packages through gameplay and not spending. You essentially gamble your current winnings against the next round in the hope of getting more; lose however, and you lose everything and have to start over. You can get a few supplies this way, but these challenges are just as hard as the normal missions, so this mode quickly loses its appeal as a natural alternative to spending money.
I don’t like to bemoan games that aren’t afraid to ratchet up the difficulty to make things more challenging, but in this case I simply can’t see how the average mobile gamer could complete enough levels flawlessly without spending money on care packages out of sheer necessity to progress. It’s a real shame, as the game is incredibly fun to play; if the free-to-play model had been implemented in a way that supplemented the great gameplay, rather than to needlessly put barriers in the way of the player’s progression and enjoyment, it would have been that much more rewarding and enjoyable to play.
Unfortunately, when you do have gems burning a hole in your virtual pocket, they can also cheapen the good gameplay in other ways. When you’ve let one too many aliens slip through into your base, you can use your gems to buy more life, like an old arcade continue screen. However, doing this actually wipes out all the current enemies onscreen – this massively undermines the tactical gameplay and tension on offer here. After being overwhelmed by alien hordes storming into my base, I cashed in a handful of gems to get a bit more health back to get through the round, only to see the game remove all existing enemies currently onscreen, including an intimidating Reinforcer cyborg tank I was dreading having to deal with. While I was absolutely thrilled I didn’t have to fight this cybernetic monstrosity anymore, it removed any challenge for me as a player. This leaves you with two choices – do you want the game to be a gruelling slog without spending money, or flash the cash and be left with less incentive to keep playing?
However, despite my grumbles about the pay-to-win mechanisms, Alien Creeps is still very enjoyable to play; just be prepared to grind away and replay the earlier levels an awful lot in order to progress naturally. Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to collect my daily supplies after another 6-hour wait, and have yet another crack at level 5. (Pumps shotgun) Come on you alien freaks! I’ll take you all on! Now where did I put those gems…
|+ Fast paced tower defence gameplay.||– Punishingly difficult without paying for gems.|
|+ Vibrant and charming art syle.||– New areas are locked off behind highscore barriers too early on.|
|+ Responsive and smooth controls.||– Pay to win mechanics cheapen the good gameplay.|