Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: Aliens: Infestation


Super Metroid is hailed as one of gaming's timeless masterpieces, Fusion was great all around (though some fault it for being relatively linear) and Zero Mission took the classic that started it all and made it playable by modern standards. Despite the collective cries of Metroid fans the world-over, we have been given no indication Samus will ever return in a sidescrolling format. Luckily, there are games like Aliens: Infestation to fill that unknowingly large gap.

Tasked with rescuing what is suspected to be the sole survivor of a mission gone awry, Fire Team Fox, consisting of four marines, is deployed to the USS Sulaco. As is the case with any "metroidvania", access to the majority of the area is blocked, requiring the player to locate keycards and tools to open up additional paths. Some doors are welded shut, for example, while others are stuck closed with Xenomorphic gunk that needs to be torched with a flamethrower. Obstacles such as steam vents and piles of rubble are also present.

Colonel "Stainless Steele" serves a role similar to that of Adam in Metroid Fusion, feeding objectives to the marines and remotely assisting them when possible. Interaction with the colonel is frequent, and serves to keep the pacing tight and the player entertained as they navigate the desolate ship. The sense of dread and isolation is intensified by the game's excellent score, but the marines are not alone as there are plenty of Xenomorphs on board to keep them company, forcing the player to remain vigilant. Despite the radar revealing Xenomorph locations, the constant, looming presence of lurking aliens ensures there's never a dull moment. If anything, the anticipation is more taxing than the reveal. These life forms are renowned as the ultimate killing machine, and they have been programmed with a ferocity and intellect worthy of that title. 

In contrast to the predictable patterns of early-game gun-wielding drones, Xenomorphs don't fuck around. They launch their offense by emerging from the scenery, dropping from the ceiling, or by charging the marines head on. Their deadly repertoire consists of slashing, spitting acid, retreating then charging, and climbing the walls and ceiling to get the drop on the marines. The first few encounters are particularly tense, but facing them one-on-one soon becomes routine and a little boring. However, fighting two or more in tight quarters is a frequent occurrence, and often makes taking damage from one's own explosives a wise maneuver. Throw some facehuggers into the mix and things can get ugly.

Combat is a balance of shoot-em-up action and quick tactical decision-making. Marines have limited stamina, which is depleted upon running, jumping, and rolling. Rolling consumes the most stamina by far, and it's easy to repeatedly roll in a panicked attempt to put some distance between the marine and Xenomorph, leaving the marine at the mercy of the alien's claws, but players will soon learn to keep their cool in the face of these beasts once they lose a marine or two, because once they're dead, that's it. The game's life system is novel in that each one is a literal marine's life with their own personality and backstory. Other marines can be found hiding away on the ship, but cannot be recruited unless someone has fallen in battle, effectively setting a cap of four lives. 

For most of the game, a crew of four is plenty, but in the face of, say, a Queen Xenomorph, it becomes clear just how few in number and fragile the team is. Players can expect to lose three of their crew in the span of a minute while learning a boss's attack patterns. However, unlike most games of this nature, a lost life doesn't mean restarting from a checkpoint and starting the fight anew. Instead, the selected marine jumps in from where the other left off without breaking the game's flow. Like a swarm of ants conquering a spider, casualties are inevitable, and this reinforces the contrast between the ultimate Xenomorphic killing machines and the fleshy, fragile human form. 

What inter-species conflict would be complete without petty civil conflict among humans? To nobody's surprise, there are those who wish to capture and weaponize Xenomorphic life forms to replace human soldiers. The figurehead of this operation, referred to as Generic Company Man, is a constant pest, taunting the marines over the PA, locking passageways, and sending goons to intercept them. It's just the plot twist needed to tie the bow on this neat little package.

Aliens: Infestation can be completed in five hours on the first run through, which sounds like a fault, but is actually a strength as there just isn't enough to extend the game beyond that point. In Metroid or Castlevania, new upgrades, weapons, or spells add gameplay mechanics. While new guns in Infestation certainly help to keep combat from growing stale, they can't broaden the game in the way that the freeze beam or screwattack do in   Metroid. And that's fine. The game has just enough meat on its bones for a sitting or two and is made more memorable, not to mention replayable, for it. Though it stands on the shoulders of a giant bounty hunter (and movie franchise), both veterans of the genre and the uninitiated will want to track this one down.

Find Aliens: Infestation on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2011-10-11
Publisher: Sega
Developer: WayForward Technologies, Gearbox Software 

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