A well known idiom suggests that familiarity breeds contempt and this idea may very well set in when you first see Aliens: Infestation. If you’ve ever played a Metroid or Castlevania game in your life you’ll know what to expect, and if you haven’t then you’ve got a serious amount of great gaming to catch up on. Set against the well established Alien universe backdrops of the Sulaco and LV-426 Aliens: Infestation is a side scrolling shooter which will have you traversing across large maps slowly gaining access to previously inaccessible areas. It sounds familiar, in fact it feels familiar, but luckily for us Wayforward and Gearbox's latest game avoids breeding any sort of contempt.
The setup to Aliens: Infestation is also familiar and completely by the numbers, so much so that it is purely window dressing to the actual game. You control a squad of marines who are sent in to investigate an abandoned spaceship, it soon comes to light that you are not alone and so ensues a battle for survival dressed in a military and political struggle to either destroy the aliens or preserve them as weapons. The opening hour or so of the game will leave you feeling slightly underwhelmed as you explore corridor after corridor and room after room without a single sighting of the ebony banana-headed menace. It’s repetitious and with reasonably uninspiring robots as the only enemy that you will encounter, at this point you may feel that investing your time will be wasted but persevere and there are rewards afoot. This slow burning start is also the time in which you will get to meet the marines in your squad and you’ll learn about their personalities and limited back stories, not that any one marine seems to give you any difference in terms of ability. You will have a four man squad, if one dies you will continue with another of your choosing but lose all four and it’s, excuse me for this, “Game over man”.
The one thing that Aliens:Infestation does incredibly well is build on this fear of your potential failure, videogames can often be too forgiving with their regenerating health, unlimited continues and quick-saves. However as you work your way through the levels you will be on edge until you reach a save room which will allow you to both save your game and replenish your health. This sense of mortality is something not particularly well quantified in games but here it works incredibly as you weigh up the risks of battling for that medi-kit that looks to be just in range. Similarly you can access air vents that take you off the visible map, these areas can supply you with new weapons, health, ammo or upgrades but again you have no idea what to expect and must weigh up the risk against the potential gain. This feeling of possible failure looming down every corridor and the risk of every air vent is palpable and in returning to gaming conventions of old Wayforward and Gearbox have made a fantastic design choice.
If you do lose members of your squad fear not as you will meet other marines throughout your travels on spaceships and through colonies; if you have lost a marine in your squad you can replace them with one of the survivors you meet. Don’t be expecting any characters to care about as they are very much caricatures ranging from the uber-macho marine to the depressed emo. Its a shame that the characters aren’t better fleshed out and that many of them feel so disparate to the Alien canon, it jars quite badly and you will find yourself just skipping through the conversations with new recruits as you will know exactly what to expect. On the plus side what the characters lack in back story they do make up for in design with each one being stylistically drawn giving a real sense of individuality, comic fans may recognise this as the work of DC and Marvel artist Chris Bachalo. It’s a shame that the characterisation does not match up to the design of the characters as it could have been something special, as it stands it isn’t a complete game breaker as you’ll probably be too focused on surviving to worry too much about your fresh meat.
Throwing up a similar dichotomy in Aliens:Infestation is the audio of the game which seems to stick out as noticeably inferior to the visual dimension of the game. It’s not that the audio is bad per se, for the first hour or so it’s actually quite atmospheric with its low key, sparse synth lending to the atmosphere of the empty corridors with that feeling that something is going to happen. Invariably something does happen and the game ramps up the tension and action but the music seems to never match that change in pace, the music will principally stay the same throughout most of the game with the odd change for boss battles. What does fit into place is the weapon and alien sounds with the pulse rifle sounding suitably ‘pulsey’ and the aliens hissing and screaming as you would expect, stick on your DS headphones and ramp up the volume for a satisfyingly edgy experience.
You will find a similar fluctuation in quality within the graphical side of the game focusing particularly on the design and animation. You will find no great variety in the environments, whether it be a ship or a colony you will see the same corridors and rooms countless times, which in some cases is forgivable, but couple this with the backtracking nature of the game and you have a visual repetition that can grate. This repetition is also seen in character design too with you seeing character models that you can count on one hand for the entirety of the game. However it’s not all bad as the characters and their animation are spot on, your marine feels weighty but nimble with an absolutely essential evading roll as part of your physical repertoire. The 16-bit styling of the game is spot on, with it harking back to the Metroid games that the gameplay so obviously derives from. This stripped down visual approach suits perfectly and allows for a lot of enemies onscreen at one time adding to the tense firefights and the minimal HUD on the top screen (the bottom being used for maps and items) allows for an uncluttered playing area.
The controls themselves are pretty straightforward and very responsive, the ability to walk backwards while firing forwards has been implemented brilliantly although you will invariably press the direction before you fire which will have you firing in the wrong direction. This is usually borne out of panicking amidst an onslaught of enemies rather than the game controls cheating you and you’ll soon learn to not panic every time something leaps from the ceiling at you. The main gripe with the controls comes with the bottom screen; primarily it displays the map of the area but you can swap between this and your inventory which you will need to equip the likes of different weapons of the likes of grenades. While it should be a simple case of tapping with the stylus to switch between these screens it never seems to work fluidly, you will find that you have to try a number of times to make it work and when you need a quick weapon swap you will feel it frustrate very quickly.
When all is said and done what you have in Aliens:Infestation is a short enjoyable blast, you should expect about six hours of gampelay. It can be uneven at times in terms of quality but it is highly enjoyable, especially if you are fan of either the franchise or even if you are just a fan of ‘MetroidVania’ games. If you want a solid side scrolling blaster with tense gameplay and the ability to punch an alien queen while you control a power-loader then look no further.