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Monday, January 9, 2012

Aliens: Infestation (7.7/10)

Whenever a console reaches the end of its life there are usually a couple of games that come out right at the eleventh hour, a last "hurrah" if you will. However, Nintendo seems content leaving their immensely popular DS/DSi to fade into memory with barely a whimper, instead focusing all their energy on the 3DS (which, to be fair, had a less than stellar launch). But there was one game that just came out for the older models that I had my eye on: Aliens: Infestation. I've written before about being wary of licensed products, and especially after the disaster that was Aliens vs. Predator, I was worrying about encountering a similar debacle. In the end I decided to give it a shot, and while there are some noticeable flaws, I found it quite fun.

The premise is pretty straightforward... after the events of the film Aliens another attachment of space marines are sent in to check out the Sulaco (the massive ship from the movie) and try to figure out what the bloody hell happened. The game plays in the old school 2D fashion reminiscent of the older Metroid titles. You'll find yourself crawling around various locales from the films while monsters jump out of the shadows and try to eat you. Naturally, you're given a wide range of weaponry to dispose of the xenomorphic threat. And like Metroid, you'll immediately notice there are a lot of areas you can't access immediately. Seek out access cards to move elevators, keys to loaders to move debris, and even a wrench to turn off steam vents that block your progress. Your search will take you to all levels of the Sulaco, as well as down onto the infamous planet LV-426 and other areas as well.

The development teams at Gearbox and WayForward have set up an intriguing squad system that serves as the basis for the game. You start with four marines at your disposal. However, you'll only use one at a time, and each plays the exact same way. Everyone has access to whatever you've unlocked so far; there is no class based system here. So why bother, one wonders? Well, if a Marine dies in combat... they die. As in dead dead. The game ends when you run out of marines. As you explore various areas from the movies, you'll find other soldiers (usually well hidden in out of the way areas) you can recruit to replace your fallen comrades. If you have a full complement at the time, the newly discovered soldiers will wait patiently in the spot you found them in case you need them later.

However, the xenomorphs of this particular franchise have an annoying habit of keeping their victims alive for future impregnation. On occasion, if a marine falls you'll be told they are still alive and it's a race to get to them before the unthinkable happens. To be honest, each time I tried to mount a valiant rescue it ended in tears... I never got there in time, only finding a mangled corpse for my efforts. Apparently, if your timing is just off, you can actually put them out of their misery... or watch an alien birth before your eyes.

This is an interesting system that works surprisingly well on multiple levels. Firstly, each squad member has their own preset responses to dialogue prompts, which lends them a small amount of personality. On its own, this isn't a big deal, but I found myself becoming strangely superstitious about my squad, or rather the survivors. While I never felt a connection to individual marines (something other reviewers have espoused), I certainly had my "favorites." Because boss battles are so difficult, being down to your last marine is a common occurrence. There were a couple of times I remember thinking "Boy, it's a good thing I've got three in the squad at the moment or that queen would never die!" But what I find intriguing is that you really start to pay attention to save-rooms and the like... is it wise to not save if you're down to your last marine?

Exploration is key, but also what makes the game so fun. I like the map, which appears on the bottom of your screen. For each new locale you explore, your first task is to download schematics early. Shaded areas show where you haven't been. You'll find yourself making mental notes, dropping flares to remind yourself which areas you need to return to, the location of Marines to supplement your squad, or which areas are still blocked. There are also a lot of hidden areas, access tunnels and the like, that you can explore. These don't appear on the map, and can lead to alternative routes and hidden goodies, as well as lots of bloody aliens.

I like the fact that the developers clearly tried to pay homage to the movies. Even with these graphics it's still possible to see recognizable locations (including a surprising but very welcome moment with the infamous "Elephant Man" from the derelict ship on LV-426). Other than that, the graphics are perfectly functional and that's that. However, seemingly all of the effects are ripped straight from the movies and sound great. The screams of dying aliens mixed with the distinct chatter of a marine issue pulse rifle while a motion tracker is "beep beep beep"ing in the background is classic.

However, as clever as some of the design is, there are some curious choices that detract from the experience. I mentioned earlier how you can drop flares. However, I really don't like how when you transfer between the Sulaco and LV-426 those flares disappear. As a result, you're forced to re-find everything (and everyone) all over again. This is annoying when you're down to your last marine and you can't remember where the hell the others were!

For the most part the controls work well. Aiming at angles can be a little difficult, but I think that's more a limitation of the 3DS controls set up than anything. It is easy to get turned around though, especially with aliens and face huggers jumping all over the place. Just keep in mind that you can't take a lot of damage before winding up KIA. Exercise caution!

Another minor issue is that enemies respawn immediately upon leaving an area. This can be a pain when you have a marine who is on his/her last legs. You have to be very careful and remember from where the baddies pop out. Paying attention to the motion tracker is important! Also, multiple save slots would have been nice. I get what they are trying to do by allowing characters to die, but getting down to your last marine is more than a little harrowing.

But my biggest complaint about Aliens: Infestation is the story... or lack thereof. It's relatively straightforward as these stories go (see every movie since the first). The problem lies in the fact that everything is text-based. A lot of the marines are overly stereotypical characters, and as you roll them into your squad, you'll learn just a glimpse at what their personalities are. But for me this never evolved into any sort of compassionate relationship, a connection with the soldier in question. I know this is par for the course for DS games (and admittedly I haven't played a ton of DS titles to this point) but the dialogue is worse than awful, and every single plot point is predictable to the point that you can set your watch to it. It's not bad as such, just... boring.

It's nice to see developers putting in the time and effort (especially for a system that has reached the end of its lifespan) to not only pay adequate homage to a beloved series, but create an intriguing gameplay mechanic that drastically increases the replay value of the game. I want to find all the marines, and see how each responds to the increasingly desperate circumstances! Sure, I may not feel the emotional investment others have felt, and the story disappoints beyond serving as a vehicle to shoot space bugs, but despite some flaws I find myself recommending this game. It's something different (with just enough old school panache) for a wider audience to enjoy beyond fan-boys of the franchise.


Score = 7.7 / 10

P.S. Oh, and I have to channel Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons briefly... this game has the WORST ENDING THEME MUSIC Eh-VER! Honestly, it's insulting.

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