Aliens: Infestation Review

Rough edges handicap this attempt at a film followup.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 11/04/2011 08:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Metroid-inspired exploration elements; decent music; colorful soldier personalities
Poison Mushroom for...
Clunky mechanics; an underwhelming "squad mechanic;" bare documentation and tutorial support; generic plot

Aliens: Infestation is a side-scrolling 2D action game based on the long-running Alien franchise of films. Specifically, the game is set in the general neighborhood of the James Cameron-directed Aliens, the most successful (and frankly coolest) of the four films. Based upon the adventures of a group of Colonial Marines, the game offers a largely middling, if in flashes interesting, piece of action. 

The action begins on the Colonial Marine ship Sulaco, the ship Ripley and company took in Aliens. In the game’s story, a group of Marines is dispatched to the Sulaco in the aftermath of the events of the film to find a lone survivor and determine what happened to the ship.  Before the game’s few hours are over, players will travel to other locations, including the planet LV-426, also featured in the film. The plot is pretty generic, lacking in the taut thrill that was the movie, but the characters make up for this somewhat with their vivid personalities. Clearly the developer had a good time concocting their eclectic mix of stoner soldier girls and gruff commanders. 

Unfortunately, the game does not make a great first impression. The player is dropped into the Sulaco with little fanfare and the game’s tutorial elements are basic at best. This would be fine if the manual was of help, but the game’s written documentation is extremely bare: it’s little more than a page containing basic controls, with absolutely no explanation of basic gameplay or how the HUD system or map system works. Basics like the fact that weapons cannot be switched out in the field (only at save points) are left to discovery. Even worse, the controls in the manual are both inaccurate and incomplete; the manual claims, apparently erroneously, that the camera angle can be changed by tapping the touch screen. At the same time, the manual does not explain how a player goes about reloading a weapon, and the game doesn’t explain this either.  (Reloading is effected by tapping the weapon icon on the touch screen.)

Now, SEGA touts the game as operating in the vein of Castlevania or Metroid, and indeed there are some influences. Players are placed in specific environments and move from place to place, with obligatory backtracking as new equipment is acquired to open up new locations. The protagonists run, shoot, and jump from place to place, shooting various enemies and tackling new objectives, with the occasional tango with the obligatory oversized alien boss. Along the way, items and a familiar set of weapons are added to the loadout.

This is at best a poor man’s Metroid, though, as none of the mechanics feel quite as refined as its inspirations. For example, at one point the player gains a new weapon in the flamethrower, which is used to burn off alien stuff covering doors. Unfortuantely, the flamepower also proves rather underpowered compared to other weapons, but since main weapons can only be swapped out at save points, players are forced to either forage ahead with the weaker weapon or clear out the muck, trudge back to a save point, and then return to the hunt. 

The game is also touted for its “squad” mechanics, although that is a bit misleading. It is true that the player has a squad of four, but only one character can be controlled at a time and characters can only be swapped when a) the active character dies or b) the player is at a save point. As a matter of practice, the squad basically constitutes extra lives more than a true squad, and indeed new lives (squad members) can be either found in the field or can sometimes (but not always) be “rescued” from alien capture. Squad members, while vividly different in their personalities and dialogue, are identical in terms of their abilities, which somewhat diminishes any tactical value of choosing one character over another.

Another drawback of the squad mechanic relates to the save system. The game has save points sprinkled throughout, but since in many cases dead characters cannot be revived, saving saves the good with the bad.  For example, a player who gets three squad members killed in a tough boss battle could find themselves forced to either save the game with just one squad member left or restart at the last save point and try to beat the boss with fewer fatalities. The game likely makes it easy to lose squad members in order to create incentives to recruit new ones– deaths are commonplace in the movie series, after all– but it also can make the game frustrating when left with just one “life” in a difficult area and no rescuable or recruitable characters in sight. Since characters are not as liberally available as in, say Fire Emblem, this approach to permanent death ends up being more irritating than it should be. 

The game is designed from the ground up for DS, and the controls, once figured out, work decently. Movement and combat is handled through the d-pad and controls, while item selection and the map are tied to the touch screen. The map feature is well-conceived and the touch screen is intuitive, and the activation of special tools through the touch screen makes sense. 

Face button controls, too, are generally mapped adequately, although some of the actual implementation of them is at times rough around the edges. Jumping, for example, is awkward, as the height isn’t that great, so simple tasks like surmounting a box require players to jump vertically or press against them to clamor over. Combat can be a pain, too, as many of the enemies are so tough they require an inordinant amount of ammunition to fell. This irritant is compounded by the fact that the Marines are not terribly tough– a single swipe or shot from an enemy can knock them down. Players are liable to find themselves being knocked down repeatedly while emptying a clip into a xenomorph or angry robot.

Endemic to the entire game, the production values are hit or miss. On one hand, the music isn’t bad, and some of it is quite epic, although other parts are adequate at best. The game’s graphics are vintage 16-bit, with adequate special effects. The art design is especially uneven: outstanding character design (orchestrated by veteran comic artist Chris Bachalo) is juxtaposed with levels that are generic, often repetitive, and forgettable. 

Even basic controls are relegated to trial and error here.

Overall, this DS foray into the Alien universe winds up being largely so-so. The ideas in place aren’t bad ones, but none of them are implemented as well as they could be. The Metroid-esque approach lacks the full polish of even the original Metroid.  The squad-based system fails to live up to its billing, with characters that are colorful but ultimately little more than extra lives. The controls are clunky, with players that fall down too much and lack any real nimbleness or agility.  The characters certainly look memorable, too, but the rest of the game looks just passable and doesn’t really capture the movie as they could. And the game’s mechanics, thanks to extremely brief documentation and little in-game tutorial, are more about trial and error than they should be, even regarding basic controls.

These various rough spots might be overlooked if the Aliens: Infestation fleshed out the mythology of the franchise, but ultimately it does very little in that area, either, other than shoehorning a rather basic plot into familiar locations. The gravity of James Cameron’s film doesn’t seem to be transplanted here, perhaps in part because the soldiers, with all their flavor, are ultimately disposable and lack a true Ripley– or even an Isaac — among them to be the anchor for the storyline. It’s clearly a game with some heart, but it also misses on enough of the tangibles and intangibles alike to stand out among the rest of DS’s offerings.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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