Every once in a while a video game company does something worth telling the world about. Released yesterday, Valve’s new game Alien Swarm is one of those such things–and it wouldn’t have been possible without Steam and its large audience of varied gamers to distribute to.

I remember back when the name Steam wasn’t unanimous with quality and innovation. There was a time where it was disliked immensely. When it was first announced, a lot of the Counter-Strike and Half-Life community–including my whole CS clan, myself as well–were against Steam. Initially, in protest, a lot of us avoided installing Steam and refused to use it during our scrimmages. We went rogue for the first time, angered by the direction Valve was taking our favorite games in. We especially hated Steam because its introduction coincided with Counter-Strike 1.6′s launch. It was probably meant to granddaddy Steam into the gaming world, but the move mostly generated vitriol from then hardcore Counter-Strike fans.

CS 1.6 had a lot of problems compared to 1.5. From the view of a group of competitive players, its changes irrevocably damaged the game. They altered recoils rendering guns like the MP5 useless and changed the netcode which in turn compromised the feeling of the game. It also muted, to some degree, its overall difficulty level. To add insult to injury, they introduced the new weapon called the Tactical Shield, an item so deplorably designed that it wasn’t even allowed in competitive play because it was imbalanced.

At the time, we didn’t want to play the newer version of Counter-Strike. Moreover, we didn’t want to play it on Steam. And so we did neither.

All good things must come to an end, however. Valve eventually caught on to the community’s resistance and they laid down the law. At the end of July 2004, they pulled the plug rather derisively on the World Opponent Network–the backbone for Valve’s online play for their titles–and silenced Counter-Strike 1.5 for good unless players wanted to play on unofficial servers frequented by aimbots and hackers. We were forced to embrace Steam to continue being able to set up the bomb with our teammates, but that didn’t necessarily mean we liked it.

In fact, we hated it for some time. Worse, we resented it for what it had done to Counter-Strike.

I continued to hate Steam for several years. It was an annoying application at first, unpolished and rough; it was known for eating up memory and made my computer choke with every application it loaded. Furthermore, the age of digital distribution was still a few years off and there were a lot of reservations about purchasing games online. A lot of us were concerned about owning non-physical copies of games–even for the Orange Box, I bought a store copy, although it was the last time I ever went to a brick and mortar store for a PC game.

But eventually we got used to it. Over the years, Steam proved itself as well, primarily in the way it handled Team Fortress 2. Left 4 Dead further helped seal the deal. Both were solid titles, much like CS was for its time, and they integrated into Steam seamlessly. Newer versions of the platform also improved the player’s experience vastly. Computers grew in capabilities and got powerful at the same time–it started to became common to have several gigs of ram, compared to the old 256mb and 512mb standard of the year Steam was first introduced, which helped alleviate the stress it originally put on computers. Gone were the frequent crashes and, as online distribution services began to become commonplace, gone were a lot of people’s reservations.

My current reality of Steam is quite a juxtaposition to the years past. It’s one where I preorder games and use the client daily for a myriad of reasons. I farm achievements, I anticipate new releases through Steam’s store, and I even work for a company that recently got our indie title onto Steam. I love Valve and I love Steam despite my initial hatred of the platform. They keep changing the direction the platform is going in as well. Over a year ago, they unveiled Steamworks and won acclaim from the modding community by embracing them like no other developer had embraced them before. They helped take Source mods to the next level with streamlined installation and added achievements as well provided exposure on a wide level. It was a large step for the mod community.

And then there is Alien Swarm–the distribution and production of which highlights Steam’s latest direction.

Valve’s newest addition to its library, Alien Swarm is a remake of an old Unreal Tournament 2k4 total conversion mod by the same name. It is its own standalone game, complete with its own SDK, and it was made by the original team at Black Cat Games who made the first mod–Valve hired them some time ago and this is the result.

Alien Swarm is unapologetic, quick, and brutal. It doesn’t hold hands nor waste time with a realistic plot. A group of four IAF marines are thrown into a frozen off-world colony where they are forced to eradicate an alien infestation. The infestation spans a series of levels with different challenges, scenery, and enemies to kill. The difficulty gradually ramps up and there is no tutorial, but it doesn’t need one; it’s straightforward and borrows from concepts seen in Killing Floor (the ability to weld doors shut), Team Fortress 2 (medics are essential), and an entire genre familiar to anyone with a console from the 1990′s (its top down third person shoot-’em-up presentation). It helps too that it revolves around co-op gameplay which has become increasingly popular over the past few years since the introduction of Left 4 Dead. On the whole, it does not fail the genre, either. Alien Swarm is an absolute blast to play with three other people and, while it’s a new game, it is built on many old features that mix together to produce a feeling of familiarity and novelty. It is the perfect combination of new and old, rife with déjà vu throughout.

The first level of Alien Swarm is brief. It introduces the game while still providing a challenge and then later levels pick up the action by introducing new enemies that are more dangerous than before. Among these enemies is the smallest but perhaps the most fearsome alien as it is the only one that can instantly kill someone: the parasitic alien larvae. Although only present towards the end of the game, the parasite is vicious in its relentless search for a host. Many of my games were restarted due to an early death at the hands of these mobs–although one was restarted by an exploding door which fell down and killed a teammate of mine. It was pretty awesome. AS also features experience points and players can level up with every area completed. Levels are used as a vehicle to introduce new weapons and armors to players which enhance gameplay. Level eight, for example, provides the marines with much needed freezing grenades that make the later parts of the game easier if thrown at the right moment.

But as fun as the game is, the impressive thing about Alien Swam is the direction Valve is bringing Steam in with this release. Free games are generally unheard of, and AS could have easily been priced for ten or even twenty dollars. We probably would have paid it. While the next logical step would be to release paid content later on, even if that happens it doesn’t change the fact that this game and this experience is entirely free. Valve chose to make it free and that makes it a bold marketing move. Incredible still, it is a truly rewarding one for the consumer; it is a polished and strong game. Additionally, the open access SDK and mission presentation make it possible that Alien Swarm will have droves of user generated content. Furthermore, due to its straightforward SDK and map making process, it also makes creating content for AS easier than most games. Valve has essentially handed thousands of people a sandbox along with a shovel and pail then told them to go wild.

I, for one, can’t wait until I see what they’ve built.

Alien Swarm is one big step in making indie gaming and the mod community even more mainstream and accessible. As a game built by mod makers based on older mod, its origins are strong and meaningful. And beyond that, it’s a free and fun experience for any gamer who tries it–regardless of their interest in mods or not. It’s one worth telling the world about and those moments are worth cherishing in video games. This week Valve has done something good for gaming and the industry. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

You can download Alien Swarm free on Steam today by clicking here.

Edit at 7/21/2010, 11:00AM PST:
Apparently they are already generating content! I don’t usually update articles, but I would like to point out that there’s a port of a Left 4 Dead 2 map a person was making of Pallet Town from Pokémon. It’s pretty cool and a good example of what kind of content we can expect to be churned out, especially with how easy to use the SDK has proven to be so far. Thanks for the reader Sarah sending this in as a link and keep up the good stuff, ZidanePyro.

  1. I heard about this but didn’t know much about it until you posted this blog, thanks.

    I must say, from the images I’ve seen, the graphics looks good (for an indie/top down game) and would like to check it out. I just hope the download isn’t too big coz I might wait a few days for it to finish downloading with my current internet speed thanks to the SEACOM issue we are struggling with here in RSA :(

    I don’t like Steam either, but I’ve made my peace with it’s issues after they started showing some improvements and choice of direction. Tbh, I started liking Steam a bit more shortly after the release of CoD:MW2 :P
    But yes, they might be heading into a better direction, but I still don’t launch Steam unless I’m going to play something that requires it…

    • Dominick says:

      Also very good for a free game.

    • Michael says:

      It’s an incredibly fun game. I played it with my brother beside me and it was crazy fun. I haven’t had that much screaming for my fake game life in a long time. There was a lot of “RUUN!!!! WELD THE DAM DOOR”. Extremely fun, and WTF free xD

  2. Dylan Martin says:

    It’s definitely a swift marketing move on Valve’s part, especially considering they released it when they said they would only a few days after the original announcement. Valve is one of the few companies that values their customers and show it to the nth degree. While this is obviously creating new Steam accounts and driving new sales, I can only imagine it feel genuinely good to deliver such excellent service. I’m sure companies like Activision and UbiSoft are itching to know what that feels like.

  3. This sounds kind of stupid, but You wouldn’t happen to know all the controls would you? I’m still trying to figure out how to talk, and use alternate weapons/items.

    • Project_Xii says:

      C is voice chat.
      Q is change to alternate weapon.
      Middle mouse button is alternate fired mode of which ever weapon you have equipped.

    • Jeff says:

      To find out full controls, press ESC, go to Options, and then Keyboard/Mouse…it lists all of the controls there

      • Anzeh says:

        C is voice chat.

        Q or Mouse wheel(up or down) is used for changing to secondary/primary weapon.

        G is used for dropping current weapon(the one you are holding in your hands atm).

        1 is used for activating the item in possesion.

        These are all changeable under the Controls tab in the game menu.

  4. Project_Xii says:

    Alien Swarm is excellence. The difficulty can be quite brutal if you don’t have a decent team, especially around those damn parasites.

    I love Steam. I no longer buy anything retail, and have been rebuying all my old favourites on Steam too. The 300+ games I have on it will take forever to play/replay, but at least I know they’re always there… never going to get lost, or scratched, or outdated on a new OS. Love it X)

  5. Thinkpadius says:

    I enjoy valve multiplayer games, counter strike was great to play with friends in college. TF2 is my replacement for counter strike and I like the sense of humor that comes with it. I find it brings a better brand of player. Nice post, I like reading about games written from a more personal perspective.

  6. Brad says:

    Looks great, I can’t wait to give it a try. Valve definitely was a class act in this deal as well. It was extremely generous of them!

  7. [...] I would download. If you want to learn more about the game, check out Ashelia’s writeup about Alien Swarm. It’s an excellent review, it almost makes me wish I had the time to play [...]

  8. Cyphr says:

    Did everyone completely fail to mention the fact that Valve was only responsible for the port frokm UT2k4 to source? the UT2k4 was just as amazing and supported 6 – not 4 players games

    • Cyphr says:

      somehow i missed 2 paragraphs of this that mentioned UT2k4 – please ignore my previous uniformed statemnt

  9. Sebu says:

    “256mb and 512mb standard of the year Steam was first introduced”

    By late 2003 I think 1GB was pretty much already a “standard” for anyone who used their PC’s for gaming. 256MB was imo the bare minumum for decent experience on Windows 98, unless you did spreadsheets and email. And by the time of XP SP1, anyone who considered gaming a serious hobby had 512MB. By s939, everyone and their grandmother had 1GB… :P

  10. There are already a few mods in development: http://www.moddb.com/games/alien-swarm/mods

    and given the SDK is free, expect a huge bunch more

  11. [...] have been possible without Steam and its large audience of varied gamers to distribute to.Source:http://hellmode.com/2010/07/20/alien-swarm-is-free-fun-and-full-of-potential/ Jul [...]

  12. Alan says:

    Steam really has become an indispensable tool for me, not only for digital delivery of games, but it is one of my top two sources (combined with Digg) for new game information. It is a list of friends that game, so multi player is rarely an issue.

    I used to go wander the game aisle at the local future shop and best buy looking for deals and new releases but that stopped quite some time ago. With sales like their Steam Summer Sale or the EA publishers week… the prices simply can’t be touched (or adapted to quickly enough) by a physical retailer for them to be worth my time.

    I sit down to game, check the store quickly for their random midweek / “it is a day that ends with -day” sales, then jump in to whatever I was planning on playing.

    When Starcraft II hits I’ll likely buy that in a physical format, but that is more due to a lack of a digital option from Blizzard (or am I missing something?) than a desire to have a marine shaped box on my shelf.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes you are missing something Alan. You can order SC2 already and install it even. Once it goes live you just have to type in your code and play…

  13. Taerh says:

    It is a great game. The only problem I’ve seen with it is the short campaign length, and the fact that maps need to be downloaded outside of the game, whereas TF2 and counterstrike would download maps right away. It leaves a bit of “If i create this server, will anyone play it?” thoughts.

    • Yes, and we can probably expect Steam/Valve to charge us for the campaigns to come. They get you hooked with a free game, and if you want more you got to cough it up :(

      • dave says:

        Not entirely true: i have only recently obtained steam, and I got it because a few months ago, I read an article very similar to this one: portal was released for a couple weeks for totally free download, so I got it. then I heard about Alien Swarm, which seems absolutely incredible; I think that valve is just an intelligent group of people who love games just as much as their customers, and there’s a sort of respect that comes from that. I’m hoping for and expecting more free content in the future, maybe not expansions to Alien Swarm, but perhaps some new game entirely.

  14. Chad says:

    Pokemon blue and red music!

  15. Swarmer says:

    Alien Swarm is hella rad. Loving the multiplayer co-op. Great writeup, btw!

  16. Abbot says:

    Excellent game. I played through it on hard the other day with some pals of mine. Probably the best fun we’ve had since L4D2.

  17. pimphand says:

    I didn’t even realize their were gonna be so many cool updates to this game. I downloaded it when it they released it; it is pretty awesome…especially for being free. It sucks I haven’t had a chance to do the multiplayer yet. Gonna have to try it out.

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