The sci-fi classics Alien and Aliens are films from a different era. Released in1979 and 1986 respectively, neither film could rely on the CGI that currently drenches multiplex cinema screens the world over; at that time, if you wanted to create a spaceship, you built a set. If you wanted to engineer a futuristic vehicle, you hired a mechanic or model maker, not a geek with a PHD in Maya. And if you wanted a monster in your film? Well, you had no option but to put a man in a suit, dub in some suitably scary sound-effects and hope no one noticed the zipper running down the back. It seems fitting then that 2D-maestro’s du jour, Wayforward Technologies, have been brought in to create Aliens: Infestation; a game for the Nintendo DS that harks back to that same era, a time when 2D sprites were king and mention of polygons would most probably result in confused contemplation as to what, exactly, dead parrots had to do with anything.
Though in some ways a companion piece to Gearbox Software’s upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines, Aliens: Infestation shouldn’t be dismissed as a b-movie designed to do little more than prop up that particular title. As anyone who has played any of Wayforward’s other work (such as Mighty Flip Champs, Mighty Milky Way and Shantae) will know, it is a developer that goes to great pains to hone quality experiences. This pedigree is visible throughout much of Aliens: Infestation, most notably in its palpable admiration of the humble two-dimensional sprite and, more importantly, of the source material on which it is based.
Set directly after the conclusion of Aliens, Infestation sees you assuming the role of the US Colonial Marines sent to investigate hulking spaceship, the Sulaco, from which Ripley made a speedy, escape-pod enabled exit after destroying the alien Queen. Arriving on the ship, you set about exploring a reasonably large map, stumbling across obstacles that in classic Metroid-style can only be overcome by acquiring the correct tool-sets. So, welded doors remain impenetrable until you locate a blow-torch; pitch black areas require a light and xenomorph-residue encrusted hatches are off limits until a flame-thrower finds its way into your arsenal.
While the game design is unequivocally (and unashamedly) derivative, Aliens: Infestation does have some ideas of its own, most prominently in its quirky twist on the concept of lives. Rather than relying simply on save points or arbitrarily dishing out a set number of lives, the character you control is one of a team of (up to four) Colonial Marines. Should you perish, you can pick another of your squad to leap into the fray. Lose all your marines and its back to the save point you go. As well as fitting quite nicely with the concept of being part of a team, this also allows for some fairly nice characterisation as you meet and recruit new squad members. It’s disappointing that all marines are identical in terms of how they play but, through the charismatic design of individual characters in static cutscenes and of their idling animations when safely within the confines of a save station, it’s easy to find yourself picking favourites and mourning their demise.
Aliens: Infestation also does a fantastic job of capturing the look (albeit in two-dimensions) and sound of the movies. The depiction of Saluco, the planet of LV-426, the cast of characters (both human and alien), vehicles and weaponry are not held back by the limitation of two-dimensions, making the game instantly recognisable as an Aliens game. Wayforward also showcase a clear understanding of the movies’ soundscapes, effortlessly layering the fuzzy-beep of the marine’s scanners, the elephantine-screams of xenomorph and the signature sudden, cataclysmic bursts of orchestration to create an impressive degree of tension and foreboding. That the developer manages to make the dropping of tiny pixelated cats from the ceiling a spine-tingling event speaks volumes.
While the game’s look, sound and structure are polished and engaging, in other respects it does sadly fall short of the mark with the combat being particularly weak. Though all the weapons featured feel suitably authentic (the sound alone of the M41A Pulse Rifle sets the tone perfectly), confrontations are generally brain-dead affairs with little requirement for skill or tactics. Shoot-outs with human enemies can actually be quite comical, with both you and your foe hunching down on opposite sides of the same box and taking pot-shots at each other. These moments are quite filmic, but only in being reminiscent of a Frank Drebin shoot-out from the Naked Gun movies, and we’re not entirely convinced that his particular combat style has any place in the Aliens universe… The various boss battles sprinkled throughout the game are similarly disappointing, with even the iconic clash of xenomorph Queen and cargo-loader exosuit failing to make much of an impact.
The game’s biggest failing is its length; we managed to finish the campaign within three or four days of fairly light play and were actually quite surprised when the credits rolled. Sure…these credits are accompanied by a hilarious slice of heavy metal called ‘LV-426 by the band Holy Light of Demons, but to see them roll so soon was disappointing. There also isn’t really much incentive to return to the game once finished – completists may want to hunt down all squad members and there are hidden areas of the ship, but when the reward for exploration is usually just some more ammo or a health-pack, it’s difficult to feel much of a pull to venture back into Infestation’s world. That core missions are lacking variety (with nearly all being of the ‘go there, find that’ variety) also doesn’t help.
Aliens: Infestation is slickly produced and generally fairly engaging, but it’s not quite an essential experience. It definitely gets a lot right – most notably in its fan-service, charming production values and it all feels very authentic. The fact it manages to create such an atmosphere of menace within a sprite-based, two-dimensional world is also hugely impressive. Sadly, for all its successes, the slightness of the package and lack of depth given to important elements is disappointing. Though at the game’s conclusion the Colonial Marine have done a great job of destroying hordes of xenomorphs, you’re left wishing that there were a few more of them out there waiting to find themselves on the wrong end of a pulse rifle. As it is, “game over, man…game over” comes far to soon.
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