Often, the most interesting period of a console’s life-cycle lies at the very end. For it’s here, when consumers have moved onto newer, more capable consoles, that the constant stream of releases decelerates to something more akin to a steady drip. If gaming history has told us anything, it’s that some of the best – or at least, most interesting – releases emerge at the later end of the timeline, only to be ignored and relished years later with the benefit of hindsight.
Aliens: Infestation could almost have been one of those titles, but it arrived to this party perhaps too late, and didn’t give itself enough time to prepare. One of the final games to be released on the Nintendo DS before attention diverts to its younger, three-dimensional sibling, Aliens: Infestation frequently brushes with brilliance, but is knocked backwards just as often by the results of its own rush to release.
There’s still fun to be had here, especially for the discerning Alien afficionado, thanks in no small part to the generous amounts of fan-service. Stray cat leaping from a vent? Check. Killing an Alien by blasting it through an air-lock? Check. Five-Finger-Fillet mini game? Check, check, and check. The levels are navigated in a non-linear fashion most similar to Metroid, while the slow, lumbering pace of your marine and tight, darkened corridors in which to get eviscerated in recapture the early Resident Evil titles, all with an efficiency that translates surprisingly well to a handheld game. Infestation adopts its proven tropes blatantly and liberally, yet it’s hard to find fault in its application of clichés when the game belongs to the franchise that inadvertently birthed them.
Infestation still finds time to bring some ideas of its own to the table; a roster of 19 marines makes up the game’s characters, with the player commanding up to four at a time. Many of them are hidden in the game’s hiding spots, cowering in the shelter of an air vent, stranded behind a piece of rubble – and once they die, they’re gone for good. ‘Deceased’, proclaims the game’s marine roster, a large red ‘X’ rudely obscuring the character portrait. Complete the game in 19 lives or less; an effective enforcement of Infestation‘s devious intent to incite panic. In a game of survival, it’s an inspired mechanic.
The problem with these elements is that, at first, they don’t seem to gel together. For a game that presents you with such a sprawling map to navigate, your marine’s first, agonising steps out of his shuttle immediately induce impatience. Games with similar approaches to navigation – Metroid, Shadow Complex, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – each featured a nimble, inexhaustible character, one built for rapid navigation; Infestation‘s roster of marines move like they’re made of stone. The first half-hour of the game lurches forwards reluctantly, with only some overly-simplistic battles against cyborgs to arouse excitement. Coupled with the tiring navigation through the identikit corridors of an abandoned space shuttle, the first impressions are underwhelming at best, and this is easily WayForward’s weakest graphical offering to date. For a company that considers 2D sprite animation its bread and butter, the characters in the game animate with little character at all, while the pixellated, dull backdrops remove the thrill of exploring by being so similar to one another.
It really takes a while for these elements to translate into their calculated whole, and it’s easy to see these unfavourable first impressions becoming an immediate deterrent for many. Perseverance, however, yields a better understanding. The slow pace of your marine encourages the cautious stalking of corridors, a gung-ho attitude often leading to a quick death, and the environments expand beyond the spaceship itself, often forcing the player to land on planets of a much more varied, organic design. On a superficial level, the game certainly does improve. But its impenetrable nature extends beyond the look and feel; Infestation has some unusual design choices, and often these simply aren’t explained or implemented sufficiently enough.
For example, your character’s aim is locked until you release the fire button, a nudge in the opposite direction causing him to retreat whilst firing, rather than turn and shoot the other way. It proves useful in a game that’s as much about escape as it is confrontation, but it’s not a familiar control scheme, and this system is covered in neither the game nor the manual; in this reviewer’s experience, it also cost him a number of his squadmates.
Clunky inputs also hinder what should be the simplest of commands. Both the map screen and the items screen squabble for dominance of the DS’ touch-screen, the player forced to switch between one and the other just to reload their weapon. In a game where tactically-timed reloads can mean the difference between life and death, this rigmarole adds frustration to a command that could easily have been assigned to a shoulder button. The game drags itself down time and time again, each time becoming more maddening when the solutions to so many of these problems are startlingly apparent, yet remain overlooked.
The biggest shame of all is that when these mistakes aren’t puncturing your experience, Infestation hints at brilliance. New weapons aren’t just more powerful, they also handle differently, opening up various approaches to attack and defence. The characters have their own personalities and dialogue, and it’s often genuinely disheartening to see a long-standing marine die at the hands of a mother alien. The survival horror elements often instil much more panic than a 2D, sprite-based game should allow. In terms of vision, Infestation is a resounding success, it just allows too much of it to be spoiled by rushed production.
It’s a curious, curate’s egg of a game, and as such, recommendation rests uneasily on a nest of ifs and buts. Those willing to forgive its various flaws, and especially fans of the Alien franchise, might still find plenty to enjoy. For anyone else, Aliens: Infestation exists simply as a minor curiosity, and a relic of the DS’ final moments as a major console. Those expecting to find a forgotten classic within this humble package might want to stay clear; in that respect, Aliens: Infestation just falls a little too short.