It’s fitting in a way that Aliens: Infestation, a game that relies heavily on the tropes and traditions of late eighties design, has finally managed to capture the feel of a film released in the heart of that heady decade. Casting you in the role of one of a squad of marines sent in to investigate the abandoned USS Sulaco, the game plays like a classic Metroid title, albeit one infused with all the panic and desperation you’d expect from an Aliens game.
The first ten minutes are strangely, uncomfortably empty. You wander through the deserted corridors of the famous space ship, nerves all a-jangle, fully aware that soon, something is going to burst out of a grate, or a door, or from under that table. In true Aliens fashion though, when something does finally fling itself down at you from the ceiling, it’s a frightened cat, not an acid slavering xenomoprh. In fact, the titular aliens are surprisingly absent for a large part of the game, only rearing their elongated heads after you’ve dispatched a few robots and got used to the combat mechanics.
When you are finally set upon, it’s a brutal and breathtaking experience. The aliens here are fast and savage, and a single one is more than capable of killing an unwary marine. You have guns, grenades and an evading roll at your disposal, but they all feel flimsy and inadequate in comparison with the lithe, lightning quick creatures that are bearing down on you. The dank corridors quickly become bottlenecks, as you strive to make it out alive.
You have a limited number of marines at your disposal, and once one of them is dead, unless you can save them from one of the alien hatching rooms, they stay dead. It’s a cruel way of dealing with continues and extra lives, because you’ll find yourself becoming attached to the individual characters, which makes their untimely demises that much harder to deal with. Aliens: Infestation is tough too, unrelentingly so, and it’ll chew up and spit out a team quicker than acidic blood burning through steel.
For some, the difficulty curve is going to be too steep. Modern games have taught us that space marines are tough, virtually indestructible machines of war, but here they’re soft and squishy, all too ready to get mauled to death by terrifying creatures from outer space. The pace will likely be too plodding for others, especially with backtracking and key finding the order of the day. More still won’t like the limitations the game puts on the number of guns you can carry, or the way you can only add new marines to your squad if there’s a space free.
These are only minor quibbles though, because what Aliens: Infestation captures perfectly is the atmosphere of the Alien films. Your back is up against the wall because you’re fighting the perfect killing machine. This isn’t about victory, about wiping out a race or securing an objective, this is about getting out of an impossible situation whilst still drawing breath. You’re not a one man army, you’re a scared soldier who’s blundered into enemy territory and is desperately trying to escape.
Bosses tower over you, creatures skulk in every corner, even the ship sprawls out like a vast labyrinth, broken into sections by key cards, sealed doors and jets of steam. Everything is trying to kill you, and more often than not they will succeed. Then the next plucky recruit will spout their catchphrase, grab their gun and step out into the carnage. Just another glorious day in the corps.
This review was originally published in the first issue of PlaySF magazine (January 2012) and appears here with kind permission from the author, Harry Slater.