The cautious bleep of a radar scanner echoes through a cavernous industrial hallway. Gloved hands fumble with a pulse rifle ammo cartridge. Something scutters through the vents above. A scream rings out in the dark. A squad of terrified space marines scatter. All hell breaks loose. This isn’t Aliens, or even one of the many, many games that share it’s lineage. This is Attack of the Earthlings. And those marines? They aren’t your squad – they’re your lunch.
More accurately, your Matriarch’s lunch, the core of your force. She’s tough and versatile, with the ability to heal herself. She can spawn other xenomorphs, and grant them combat bonuses when close. Success hinges on keeping her alive. While she’ll get some abilities to make her a bit more survivable in the later stages, she’s initially very fragile. In lieu of any detailed tactical advice (although the game does contain a short but clear tutorial), the weakness of your Matriarch turns out to be a great bit of design, because it teaches you how Attack of the Earthlings should be played.
Each level starts with just your Matriarch, usually popping out of a vent, a suitcase, or some other hidden place your incompetent human prey have failed to check for 8-foot alien monstrosities. Play is turned based. Each patrolling enemy has a clearly marked vision cone, but as long as you don’t stray into it, you can breathe directly onto their necks without them noticing you. Levels usually progress like this: sneak around. Pick off a few stray humans. Consume their corpses for a resource called ‘Biomass’. Use the Biomass to create your alien horde.
Aliens come in four skittering, ravenous flavors. Initially, the Matriarch spawns just swarmers; quick, but weak and extremely vulnerable. They can still be used in a pinch, but generally become useless after the first few levels. Much more effective is Stalker, an ultra-fast unit that can tunnel through vents and do tremendous damage from behind. The Disruptor is a ranged xenos that resembles the Arachnid Warriors from Starship Troopers and has the ability to create distractions. The fittingly named Goliath is a heavily armoured beast that can soak up hits. Oh, and also create tremors that damage groups of enemies, or reduce scientists to mush through walls. This is just as good as it sounds. Your Matriarch also has the ability to infest human civilians. This creates a useful scout that can also distract your foes for handy backstabs.
Check the Vents!
The kicker is that Biomass is relatively rare. Even the toughest members of your swarm have a habit of dissolving into goo after a couple of hits. I initially expected Attack of the Earthlings to be an energetic, reverse-XCOM meets Zerg Rush type of tactics game. But it’s much slower and more measured than that.
Your foes, while generally predictable, outnumber you heavily. Successful play will see you making good use of hiding spots, unit ability combinations, and stealthy approaches. There’s also an overwatch-type feature which allows you to mark tiles for attack on the enemies’ turn. This sets up ambushes without risking direct confrontation. Combined with enemy AI that notices bodies and bloodstains, and can set up overwatch ambushes of its own, Attack of the Earthlings’ simple systems combine into engaging sessions of stalking and sneaking your way through space.
When Attack of the Earthlings is at its best, it satisfies every gruesome desire to turn hapless squads of terrified space marines into sticky red mulch. A favourite trick of mine was to create a distraction with one alien whilst releasing a stealthy stalker from the vents. Creeping up behind my victim I’d conclusively demonstrate the limits of Galactoil body armour against razor sharp talons. Then use the AP bonus granted upon a kill to slink back to the shadows.
The ability to coordinate attacks between multiple aliens is another delightfully sadistic feature. Even when it’s not entirely tactically necessary, the pure overkill of setting up two or three of your chitinous thralls behind an oblivious office worker then executing a flurry of teeth and tendrils is brutally gratifying.
But set me up on a blind date with an alien facehugger if the pace isn’t outright glacial at times. While your own units respond to commands swiftly, waiting for the enemy turn to play out can start to eat up serious time, even if they’re not doing very much. It’s the sort of thing I imagine could be patched out or improved in future updates. Currently, it starts to seriously affect your enjoyment of the game. I genuinely think I could plan out my own corporate strategy for galactic domination in the time I wasted waiting for the AI to decide which tile it wanted to get eaten in. A few of the larger levels also suffer from pacing issues, as you can spend two or three turns just navigating the maps with no significant encounters.
At least you’ve got a nice view whilst sitting on your thumbs. Everything from the menu screen to the damage bubbles is soaked in striking, overblown B-Movie parody. It brings to mind games like Destroy All Humans and Stubbs the Zombie. Your human enemies take the form of cartoonish caricatures. All foppish haircuts and wobbling jowls as they bark impotent commands at their legion of mooks. The environmental design hovers somewhere between highly-detailed industrial realism and art deco flourishes. Rusted pipes and sleek retro-future tech sits alongside glass-paneled doors and sleek cream couches.
On a purely functional level, the environments are spacious enough to pose a threat, but with enough corridors and vents to always present multiple tactical options. As art direction, it successfully captures the dual nature of the Galactoil Corporation. Cold and industrial, but with a pretentious opulence and flair for the grandiose. It all feeds into their thoroughly despicable character. More importantly, it makes it extra fun to redecorate the highly polished floors in a fresh new coat of earthling entrails.
Tongue in Brain
While Attack of the Earthlings remains largely tongue-in-cheek (or, perhaps more accurately, tongue-through-brain) throughout, it does wear a semi-serious environmentalist ethos on its viscera-soaked sleeves. Through a mixture of dialogue, cutscenes, and environmental storytelling, you’ll eventually learn the insidious source of Galactoil’s wealth. Animal experiments and manipulation of the natural world are winning business strategies for the sociopathic corporation. Even the title, Attack of the Earthlings – which at first seems like a glib play on well-worn science fiction tropes – takes on new meaning when the destructive greed of your foes starts to reveal itself.
If you don’t care about this stuff, there’s enough straight up goofy humor to make killing every bit as satisfying as it should be. It’s an underlying theme that’s present and even subtly powerful at times without ever being preachy. It’s always tied up in enough pitch-black comedy or general silliness to be entertaining. But it’s also an extra layer of motivation to stage one hell of a hostile takeover if you want it to be.
Chink in the Chitin
Attack of the Earthlings has two major flaws: It’s too easy, and it’s too short. I spread my sessions over a few days because the pace of the game was slow enough to become frustrating at times, but I can see dedicated players seeing everything the game has to offer in a couple of evenings or a long hungover Saturday.
There’s an upgrade tree that allows you to pick from a few different options, and it’s unlikely (although possible) that you’ll get everything the first time. I can see that providing some replay value. The difficulty is enough to coax the player into getting good use out of the various systems, but anyone with experience in turn based tactics isn’t going to find much of a challenge here. It’s never easy enough to become outright unenjoyable. But too often it felt like I was just going through the motions rather than developing my own approaches to the missions. This is a shame, because Attack of the Earthlings has such a solid foundations in its art style, humor, and systems that I would have loved to see them developed into something more substantial. As it stands, its less a feast of human flesh, more a snack.
Should You Buy It?
Attack of the Earthlings is one of those rare cases where the Steam trailer is incredibly helpful. If you dig the game’s art style and humor, and want an entertaining distraction for an evening or two that borders on unfortunately unexplored excellence, then Attack of the Earthlings is probably right for you. It’s absolutely dripping with ichorous personality. At times it provides some tense tactical gameplay, but there’s just not enough here to really sink your teeth into. If for no other reason, then buy it so we get an Attack of the Earthlings 2. I get the feeling that one might be a classic.