If you’re a thirty-something nerdy type like most of us at Finger Guns HQ, you’d have no doubt heard of Space Hulk and/or XCOM.
The former a deep an engrossing space opera set across many universes, it made a triumphant return last year to consoles, based on its board game of the same name. The latter, again being around for a while, has also spawned a couple of highly successful turn-based adventure games based on aliens and the extinction thereof.
Whilst Space Hulk does allow you to play as the alien horde as well, both examples hold the intent of the humans being the defenders of the land. So in Attack of the Earthlings, it’s refreshing to see a humorous riff on the formula, that the humans are the invading force and you’re tasked with keeping what’s yours.
Walking in my…clawed hooves
Played solely as the aliens this time around, the Swarmers, we see their home being invaded by the Galactoil company: a plummy British accented mining corporation. Very much tongue in cheek, with dialogue influenced by Handsome Jack and the likes from Borderlands, these “invaders” become the problem and solution to the Swarmers’ troubles.
Playing almost verbatim to aforementioned peers, or any similar turn-based strategy, movements and attacks are based on an action point (AP) system, between the aliens and humans. Instead of starting a mission with a team, you start as a Matriarch; a sole unit that can produce new units after a certain amount of biomass has been harvested. This is done by consuming the fallen bodies of the humans you kill, meaning you start each mission with a small sense of preservation to not getting instantly killed and slowly amassing a team.
Grunts are the first units you can produce, that have more freedom of movement, as well as being able to use vents to shortcut past an enemy (or avoid their line of sight). It doesn’t long to discover that your basic units aren’t the most resilient, especially when it comes to bullets. There is no emphasis on all-out attack here (despite being called the Swarmers), more the calculated stalking of your foe and waiting to strike when the time is right. For the most part, it usually benefits to leave the matriarch hanging back and using the grunts to explore.
Early missions don’t really present with much threat. Unharmed humans will flee if they hear/witness a kill, whereas armed soldiers can take out a unit pretty easily. As mentioned above, you start a mission cautiously with just a few units and try and negotiate through with them, or take your time and harvest more units for stability.
And I don’t wanna miss a thing
Much like the plot of that one film about miners taking out an asteroid, the Galactoil company are intent on drilling your planet for resources. The mission structure sees you climbing up the literal corporate ladder, to sabotaging the drill all the way up to the boardroom. But you’re not seeking promotion, just pure pandemonium.
Unlike its serious Space Hulk and XCOM peers, AotE has gone down the route of bright colours, exaggerated character movements and wacky dialogue. Getting a tannoy announcement about “not heating your lunches in the radiation chamber” or a reminder to stop losing limbs in machinery is, whilst funny, a weird juxtaposition against the alien murderfest. I mean, it’s not going to derail you in your mission. It’s just a nice, refreshing touch of humanisation before you rip their spines out and craft an army from the corpses.
Lampooning slasher flicks with vent-perspective camera angles, abductions whilst the other character isn’t looking, all those familiar slapstick tropes we’re so used to is actually quite entertaining. Given that Space Hulk is delivered like Shakespeare in space, and XCOM smacks of over the top patriotic jingoism, Attack of the Earthlings turns that formula on its head with its lighthearted tone.
Come forth, my minions!
Of course, it’s not just the standard grunt that you can spawn to aid you. It’d get a tad stale if you had just one type of support unit, regardless of how many you popped up.
AotE allows a few types to be bred as the levels progress, mixing up the strategy somewhat and stopping it from getting too stale. Granted, it is still the same core gameplay, nothing changes there, but it allows for a bit of creativity and planning as you march forth and take back your homeland.
As the name would suggest with the following, it’s a fairly straightforward process of figuring who does what: Goliaths are your tank units, able to take a bit more damage than your standard grunts. Disruptors throw the enemy out of wack and splits their formations up to stop them ganging up on you. As for Stalkers, well…you get the gist.
A nice little touch that AotE brings, that I’ve not [personally] seen implemented in this kind of game, is the group attack. You can line up your units and have them select an enemy to attack. Once they’re all in place, you can trigger a synchronised attack to take out multiple foes at once. It’s a great addition, as it stops any potential cock-up if you’ve missed one enemy on your go and he starts picking you off.
I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies
Despite its bright and rounded use of colour, AotE isn’t a completely smooth game. Movements are very janky, with each unit moving to the desired space and then awkwardly rotating at a speed that’d make Robocop look like Usain Bolt. Now, granted that aliens aren’t regimented military units that move in tactical ways, it would be alien to them. But instead of picking where the unit will go and face that direction, you select where to go and they wait. Then, you select the next enemy/door/objective and watch as your unit cumbersomely rotates towards it, then acting out the command. It’s not terrible, it’s just a very drawn out process that adds unnecessary length to a mission.
It does also feature some slightly unfair-at-times character pop in. Granted, a basic alien race isn’t going to have the technology nor clairvoyance to see the entire lay of the land or where the enemy is. But more often than not you won’t see where the enemy is until you end your go, and a cone of vision catches one of your units and takes it out. It’s a pain if it’s a grunt, as you’d have to harvest and make another. It’s worse if your inquisitive matriarch gets caught out.
All in all, then, it would appear that these few gripes are not as much a dealbreaker as I make it sound. At its heart, it’s actually a rather fun take on turn-based strategy gaming. It’s not easy, per se. Inherently it is a tactical game, to which is does very little to hold your hand once the ball is rolling. I will not cheapen it and call it, “The Dark Souls of turn-based”, because it isn’t. The game itself isn’t hard, it’s down to how you play it. So don’t let my fumblings put you off.
If you’re really into your XCOM’s and Space Hulk, but find the steep curve of the former and the seriousness of the latter too much, then this is a welcome change.
It brings the brightness and colour back to mass-murdering aliens, alongside the wacky, irreverant humour and self-deprecation that the British are so delightful wonderful at.
Attack of the Earthlings is available now on Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed on base console), PC and Nintendo Switch.
Developer: Team Junkfish
Publisher: Wales Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review were purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy please go here.
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