When you hear about a video game called ‘Super Mutant Alien Assault’, you don’t need to ask many questions to understand what it’s about. There are some mutants from an alien world. Or perhaps some aliens who have mutated. Which way around is it? It hardly matters. But these aren’t your garden variety mutant aliens. No. They’re super! And they’re launching an assault. And, presumably, you’re expected to do something about it. Despite a creative adjective or two, Super Mutant Alien Assault is a very clear title. An equally viable name could be, “Skrillex Run and Gun”. Surprise Attack and Cybernate have brought an exciting platform shooter to Steam that’s got a whole lot of firepower, a great sound, but not a lot of rounds. Prepare for the Mos Eisley cantina of weapon collections. SMAA will have you alien-slaying with everything from a turret gun to a pogo stick, but just how “super” can it all be?
The story goes an extra-terrestrial race has inexplicably had enough of Earth and its inhabitants. What, with all their unannounced interplanetary expeditions, littering the cosmos with satellites and general human-ing. So the aliens launch a devastating attack on earth, seemingly sending it the way of Planet Krypton, creating a scene straight out of Independence Day except for 20 seconds long and made out of 32-bit graphics. Mankind, somehow not caught off-guard (we knew we’re bound to push some alien species over the edge at some point), manage to prepare three colony ships and blast them off to separate galaxies for the survival of the human race. Unfortunately, three large life-preservation vessels leaving the planet you’re in the middle of blowing to smithereens is something an alien fighting force might notice. And so they do. The aliens tail the colony ships and send waves of monsters to finish off the remaining humans in cryostasis. That’s where you come in. Taking control of the ship’s plucky robot defence droid and staving off the assault from the mutant aliens who are super.
Each time you boot up the game, you’ll be treated to that tale by the narrator (don’t worry, it’s skippable). The overall story advances no further as Super Mutant Alien Assault is all about its gameplay. In fact, I imagine the only reason the creators would feel the need to make any kind of story would be to pre-emptively inform the player that there are only three worlds available i.e. the three colony ships. With each colony ship only offering 3 levels and a boss each, SMAA makes for an extremely short game, being able to be beaten on normal difficulty in under 3 hours. A lot of inspiration has been taken from free-to-play game Super Crate Box, a game which didn’t need any context or setting to deliver a simple yet increasingly tense action experience. Thankfully, SMAA has improved on that formula by lightyears.
At the start of every level your gutsy little robot will teleport into a randomly generated 2D room where, quickly, aliens will start to enter from all angles. Creatures that will run at you, fly at you and hurl poisonous blobs so foul it’d make Slimer turn the other way. Present in many of the levels there’s a machine I’ve taken to calling the “alien amplifier”. It’s a device which periodically sends out a pulse that powers up all the enemies on screen, improving their size, stamina and speed. If unchecked, small scampering cubs grow into huge leaping jackal beasts. Insignificant itinerant insects, after a matter of seconds, become unstable sinister scourges. You need to dispatch all the enemies to complete the level. Your robotic operating buddy only has 5 hearts of health and touching an alien does half a heart of damage. Although the game uses auto-save, dying at any point means you have to start the entire colony from the beginning. You’ll be fighting the alien aggressors by collecting an assortment of guns and grenades from a dispenser. But one small thing to note. The weapon you’re given is chosen entirely at random. Good luck.
Main weapons have finite ammo, disappearing from existence when used up. So in order to continue being the most effective alien slayer since Predator, you’ll be returning to the dispenser to collect a new weapon a lot, as with grenades. And Super Mutant Alien Assault is not short on weapons. You’ll be playing with everything from shotguns to rocket launchers to even a lightsabre. It’s got so many weapons, I briefly wondered if Broforce was solely made to one-up this game or vice versa. And by forcing the player to swap guns so often, you learn all of their playstyles evenly. Every weapon has its own nuances in their fire rate, reload times, trajectory etc., and quite quickly they all feel good. However, as great as this mechanic can be, it can also be a bit bothersome. Naturally, you’ll gravitate towards one or two weapons more than others, so being forced to let them go, some players may find annoying. For example, dual-wielding submachine guns which cover both left and right sides offer a sense of security only appreciated by National Rifle Association members. But shifting to a grenade launcher whose shells bounce around so much that, like an NRA member’s household glock, is more likely to hurt you than the target, can be irksome. Additionally, there’s a real possibility you’ll pick up a weapon not suited to the situation you’re in. Like receiving a sniper rifle which deals a fast, straight horizontal shot, in a room with thinner vertical spaces. Aliens will tend to float alongside the barrel of the gun rather than in front of it. The weapon dispenser can be a godsend one moment, and a liability the next.
In addition to the main weapon, you’ll also carry a side arm: a smaller, less capable weapon like a pistol with unlimited ammo. You can also carry an explosive, dispensed similarly to main weapons. There is an assortment of explosives including regular grenades, mines, cluster bombs or remote detention bombs. Explosives can be held before being thrown so they’ll explode sooner than normal. Just don’t hold it too long. You can also pick up a special move like a wall of energy, and a defense move to improve your maneuverability like a dodge roll. Moving around feels very responsive, much like Super Meat Boy without wall jumps or like Broforce without the ability to atomise everything in sight. At any time you can press a button to see your current loadout of weapons and abilities, not that you’ll ever want to. Rather than break the pace of the action, it’s much more fun to just press a key and see what variety of explosive comes out this time.
Generally, every mission largely boils down to ‘survive the horde’. But SMAA does throw a number of other objectives into the mix to keep things fresh, and keep those adrenaline levels elevated. An example of a particularly good level are the pressure missions which has two or three containers placed randomly around the map. Frequently these will begin filling with what looks like too much dolmio sauce and when this happens you need to race over to the container and release the pressure, bleeding it like an intergalactic radiator. If you don’t, then it overcharges and explodes, doing damage to everything on screen including yourself. Keeping eyes on that as well as judging your next weapon change, figuring out your routes between your points of interest, not allowing any enemies stay on screen too long lest the alien amplifier turn your molehills into mountains – SMAA piles on the pressure harder than an overbearing parent. It adds up to make a tense yet compelling challenge.
Sound & Music
Aside from recreating the Lethal Weapon series with a sentient keychain, the other half of this game’s appeal is without a doubt the music. Super Mutant Alien Assault heavily features an energetic dubstep soundtrack. During each and every level, funky techno tracks pulsate with the fervency of an underground rave. Electronic cymbal clashes, synth scratches and bassline beeps & boops will be all to be heard alongside the sound of your own shotgun being cocked. Of course, dubstep isn’t everyone’s favourite genre and some reading that sentence may wish they could turn the gun on themselves. I understand to some people dubstep music sounds more like a pair of Transformers getting hot and heavy than it does a relaxing afternoon with a book. However, even to those people, the advice would be to not let that alone stop you from giving SMAA a try.
Firstly, the songs are well made. Each melody swings up and down, rising and crashing in distinct and interesting ways, you’ll wish there were more than 8 tracks. But more importantly, the choice of music not only fits the action remarkably well but in fact accentuates the work already being done by the other aspects of the game. The funky colour palette is befitting of the eccentric tones found in dubstep. The pace of gameplay perfectly matches the tempo of the tunes, sucking you in more with every weapon and instrument change. You hear every single gunshot, explosion and clatter of grenade against steel, and you’ll listen out for the beep that informs you when the weapon and grenade dispenser have restocked or the health regenerator is ready for use, but the music itself never distracts, but only increases your investment.
Except for during one moment. You see, SMAA is so far the only game I’ve played to date that has managed to incorporate the much-hallowed dubstep drop into their gameplay. Occasionally, you’ll feel the spaceship shake with the anticipation of a party girl moments before she screams “this is my song”. When this happens, hold onto your keyboard because the beat is about to drop harder than DC Comics film’s rotten tomatoes score. When it does, all the creatures on the screen automatically raise in power level. That beat build is by far one of the most evocative moments in SMAA. Initially, it felt joyous to experience the rapturous crescendo blast into an explosion of music. Eventually, it became a countdown to clear as many enemies on screen as possible before, in a flash, you were swarmed by a legion of lethal space monsters, 3 times your size with 5 times your health.
Super Mutant Alien Assault has a visually striking colour palette and crafted pixel graphics that all gel together beautifully. The animations are pleasing throughout the alien’s various stages of amplified mutation (it’s that way around). The flying insects almost visibly breathe while hovering in the air. Their acid globules grow in stages until they’re bulbous and ready to be slung at you like a particularly enthusiastic Pokémon Go swipe. The creatures enter the room through visible holes in the back wall, holes that could have very easily remained non-interactive to solely make for a more interesting background. Furthermore, outside the bounds of the playable area and through the glass, a galaxy can be seen panning by. Small touches across the board help SMAA feel like everything is moving along at a deliberate pace. Although it must be noted that during beat build up before the dubstep drop, as the screen vibrates there is a noticeable frame rate drop. But this is the only time that ever happens.
As you might expect, Super Mutant Alien Assault is controlled with the keyboard, with the option to reassign the controls to different keys. However, by plugging an extra controller into your PC, you’ll be able to play multiplayer co-op with a friend. And if you’d rather compete against someone than with someone, getting as far as you can in the game’s endless mode will see your high score submitted to an online leaderboard. This is the only other mode outside the main campaign.
And to clarify, the main campaign consists of defending 3 colonies each which contain 4 levels, the format of which is 3 levels, then a final boss, and repeat twice more. Dying sends you to the beginning of the colony, so players essentially need to complete 4 levels in one run in order to progress. Once you complete all 3 colonies on normal mode, the game will ask you to complete the game on a higher difficulty – ‘heroic’ and ‘epic’.
It’s available at the moment for £6.99 on Steam, which is a fair price if you’re unaware the game is only three colonies long. I’d happily pay that for five colonies to protect, which given the current ‘3 levels and a boss’ format means I’m really only asking for 2 more bosses. Heck, throw in an online co-op mode and players would be willing to pay in the upper echelons of indie game pricing. Just leave friendly fire turned off.
Super Mutant Alien Assault is a fun, tense, action game with a great dubstep soundtrack, but it’s an extremely short experience. The game has several elements working in tandem that’ll keep you on your toes. The randomness and sheer multitude of weapons. The random stage generation. The variety of the objectives. The behaviours and rate the enemies fill the ship. Players will never play any two levels in exactly the same way. Lush pixel art & animation (which, admittedly, is very popular with indie games) keeps the eyes visually engaged. Driving dubstep (which, admittedly, isn’t) keeps the action thrilling. With games like this, why would super mutant aliens ever attack Earth? Maybe they just aren’t a fan of Deadmau5.
|+ Random weapon generation||– Random weapon generation|
|+ Loads of guns to try||– Extremely short length|
|+ Energetic dubstep soundtrack|
|+ Variety of mission objectives|