Developer: Cybernate | Publisher: Surprise Attack Games || Overall: 8.5/10
Super Mutant Alien Assault (SMAA) bears no shame in calling itself a clone of “Super Crate Box.” Fortunately for SMAA, I never heard of (nor played) the game it is a clone of, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt when it says that’s what it is. Now, aside from the gasping in the back corners of the room by those who cannot fathom that someone does not know the “smash hit” Super Crate Box, I say nay nay, good sir. I heard of it now, and Super Mutant Alien Assault appeals to me on its face much more than whatever that other thing is. Plus, I like clones because it reminds me of one of my favorite Schwarzenegger movies, The 6th Day.
“You should clone yourself. So you can go fuck yourself.” (Paraphrased quote from The 6th Day)
SMAA is a platforming shooter that constrains you in one small level. Each level contains a particular objective that must be completed before proceeding to the next, along the way massacring as many aliens as you need to. SMAA, at its core, rides on the “roguelite” wave, but only wades in just a bit. Power-ups are collected, but don’t endlessly stack — you have a limited amount of slots available for special abilities, weapons, and defenses. Your character isn’t going to get crazy combinations of power-ups, but most of what you use will be swapped for something else that drops. This forces you to work on a constantly changing strategy throughout your gameplay, rather than sticking with “what works” for as long as you can. On top of it all, health can be very hard to come by, which makes the game quite a bit unforgiving. Friendly-fire is also a thing here, so you’ll have to be careful where you chuck your explosives, just in case it bounces back in your general direction.
Level designs and objectives are randomized, but there is a set amount of maps that cycle within each “Galaxy,” which is a set of four levels. There are no procedurally-generated maps, and objectives will only appear on particular levels designed for that objective. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment but it can get a bit stale depending on how long you decide to play in one go. Objectives include moving an item from Point A to Point B or releasing a build-up of pressure on multiple points on the map. It is important to get the objective done as fast as possible, as enemies will gain strength the longer you stay in a level. A level will always require you to clear whatever enemies remain once the objective is fulfilled, so the path of least resistance will not be rewarded in the slightest.
Game unlocks occur as you complete more levels. Each time you clear a stage you gain a token that sets you along the path to the next automatic unlock. As you unlock more weaponry/items you’ll also unlock more enemies to have fun with — although this seems more like a punishment when it happens. It would have been nicer to see enemies unlocked in a different progression, such as number of enemies killed or if a particular boss was cleared.
“Kinda takes the fun out of living, doesn’t it?”
When you actually get into the gameplay it can be quite frantic and most of it is satisfying. Each level is equipped with its own configuration of Weapon/Explosive vending machines that randomly equip you with one of the weapons you have unlocked so far. Explosions are by far the most fulfilling thing about the game and it’s a lot of fun to be able to blow the aliens up with a well-timed grenade or cluster bomb. Some of the normal weaponry is not as exciting, such as the dual submachine guns and the AK47, but the minigun, sniper rifle, and grenade launcher are fun to wield. My favorite by far is the pogo stick that explodes things you jump on top of — it would have been great if this was more the kind of thing you saw in the game, but instead it is the outlier. Your weaponry/explosives all have a set number of charges, so you’ll be needing to re-equip yourself as soon as you use up your ammo, which means you’ll get a random item and change your strategy to effectively use your new combination. Each level also grants you new power-ups in crates to fill out your other ability slots, such as Special Abilities and Defenses.
Special Abilities are fun to use and varied, despite the fact they aren’t able to be used that much due to needing to collect Special Ammo. Special Ammo drops when you defeat empowered monsters that stick around for a while on the map, and you have to run over the green squares that are dropped before they expire. This may not always be possible. Special Abilities and Defenses (that are free to use) include but are not limited to a pillar of energy, pushbacks, running fast, and bullet time. Defenses don’t damage enemies, but not all Special Abilities deal damage either.
The art is nice and attention is paid to the aliens and levels. The art style reminds me of old Windows 3.1-era games (not that far removed from DOS games) with a 90’s retro-futuristic design. The game also runs like a dream 95% of the time, except when you enter hyperdrive when that objective comes around. The frame lag is helped if you turn off the Screen Shake in the options, but is still apparent even after turning it off — I’m unsure if this is actually intended or not, though, since it “snaps out” of the frame lag as soon as you exit the hyperdrive sequence. It unfortunately gets pretty annoying when you experience it for the umpteenth time. The music is all high-energy EDM/Dubstep/electro music and depending on your personal tastes may either be enjoyable or create misery. It all matches the tempo of the game, but I was somewhere in the middle of the scale with the arrangement. After about an hour of gameplay, I muted the music and opted for some of my own with the sound effects still on top.
“Doesn’t anybody die any more?”
The game feels a bit bare-bones when you realize that the progression is tied to unlocking weapons through a small number of levels. Three Galaxies of four levels account for a total of twelve stages, each Galaxy cycling from its own small pool of levels/unlocked bosses. By design, you’ll be retrying the game over and over since death is inevitable. Each Galaxy has their own color scheme and set of levels to cycle through, and the game lets you begin on either of the three galaxies you like once you’ve beaten the previous boss level. To unlock a higher difficulty level you have to start from the first Galaxy and go all the way to the last without dying — which can be quite a task depending on your skills. Familiarizing yourself with the levels that cycle within a chosen Galaxy is the only way you’ll be able to get through it all in one go.
Super Mutant Alien Assault essentially appeals to those who look for a challenge in their games. A lot of gameplay comes from perfecting your skills and attempting to get through as many levels as possible before dying and resetting. The assortment of weapons are fun, keep you on your toes, and as you unlock more powerful weapons and abilities, you’re bound to get further at some point. However, the biggest buff isn’t a tangible item in the game, it’s your own perseverance to try again and again and again and again….
Super Mutant Alien Assault is available now on Steam for $7.99, currently discounted by 20% from $9.99.