Normally I am all on board any sort of game built on the design philosophies built off of the Metroid or Zelda franchises. Despite being two-dimensional Super Metroid manages to encourage exploration and memorization, allowing the game’s setting to really stand out and have its own personality. It is one of the reasons the original Resident Evil stands out to me, as the mansion becomes a much more iconic location than Raccoon City itself (or any location explored after).
The discovery that Aliens: Infestation implemented this design was a pretty gleeful moment for me. However, while the game is certainly enjoyable, developer WayForward failed to truly implement it effectively. What you end up with is a poor man’s Metroid that happens to be one of the few playable film franchise adaptations.
You control a squad of marines sent to investigate the recently discovered derelict Sulaco, the ship from the second film that Ripley and company were ejected from in the beginning of Alien 3. A team from Weyland Yutani had already arrived but have run into some troubles. As is to be expected, it turns out there’s a bunch of xenomorphs already infesting the ship.
WayForward manages to do an admirable job of trying to bring elements from the Aliens films to the Metroid style of design. However, they run into a few problems. The first is that the Sulaco is just not a very large location. They frequently have to take the player off the ship and onto a planet or moon in order to try and increase the length of the game. This is part of what prevents the environment in gaining its own memorable identity like SR-388 or the Resident Evil mansion had managed.
The second problem is simply in how bland the ship becomes in a side-scrolling environment. All of the surfaces are flat, differentiating only in size and the occasional hazard or obstacle blocking the way. This prevents the player from remembering many of these locations even after passing by them multiple times. Sure, they’ll be a little familiar, but you’ll find yourself referencing a map much more often than in similar games. In Super Metroid most of the rooms are unique enough that you begin to remember which location is attached to which room, giving a sense of familiarity. It’s like remembering landmarks on your drive to work. Aliens: Infestation has very few landmarks and as a result it’s a lot more like trying to remember that you have to turn right at the white house with red shutters when all the houses are white with red shutters.
There are a variety of tools and items to pick up as well, each valuable in opening up new sections of the ship. At least, when you first discover them. While using missile to open colored doors in Super Metroid may be a bit of a gimmick, the weapons still hold a purpose outside of combat. It also forces the player to be a bit more resourceful so that they are always able to open new doors or have plenty left for combat.
Here, however, it just feels a bit silly to torch through a door long after you’ve find the welding tool. The item serves no purpose but to open these doors, only a sample of which were effective at closing off parts of the ship towards the start of the game. Once you find it there’s no reason to have welded doors except to have welded doors.
Doors sealed by xenomorph slime and goo also must be opened using the flamethrower, which forces the player to either backtrack to a save station in order to switch weaponry or to have it equipped all the time. This is more irritating when you first find the weapon as it will be pretty weak, and as a result the player will want to carry it around a lot less.
Fortunately there are weapon upgrades scattered about the environment. Each weapon can be upgraded three times increasing its strength and stopping power against foes. However, you cannot pick up and upgrade pack if your current weapon is maxed out. This means the player must either backtrack with a weaker weapon or always be carrying an inferior gun.
The game provides the player with flares to help out, but if there is an event that forces the player off the Sulaco then those flares will be removed from the game. This means anything you marked on the map as important will no longer be marked later on, nullifying any usefulness the feature had. This can also be detrimental if the player returns to the Sulaco in sorry shape and needs weapon caches or characters immediately.
Though this brings me to one of the better features of the game. Aliens: Infestation can feature some rather brutal boss fights capable of eliminating your squad of four soldiers. Once a character dies, they are gone for good. The player can find other marines on board the Sulaco or on LV-426 in the event that they lose characters, and each character has unique dialogue throughout the game. This isn’t just one-sided, either. NPCs may say different things to different characters depending on who you are playing.
This combination of loss and unique personality pushes this game beyond being a mere Metroid clone. In fact, a lot of the controls for combat work really well. The player can walk backwards while firing their weapon, an essential ability to avoid acid blood from xenomorphs as they try to close the distance, as well as a variety of weapons to implement against the various foes.
Unfortunately, the foes are a lot less interesting. The player will either be pitted against basic androids that simply duck behind cover and pop up to shoot. If they manage to get directly behind an obstacle, then the only real way to beat them is to toss a grenade. As soon as they pop up they hit the player, and if you wait until they are done they duck back down before you can get a single pop to their head.
The Xenomorphs in all their forms simply use the same basic A.I., which is to run back and forth and attack the player on each pass. Occasionally the player will have to mash X to avoid having their faces hugged or being pounced upon, but on the whole each encounter is roughly the same. There simply aren’t enough types of foe to keep things truly varied.
None of this makes Aliens: Infestation a bad game. However, it does make one wonder if this was the best adaptation of the franchise that could be made. I gladly appreciate any attempt to make more games in the Metroid style, but it just seems like the Aliens franchise doesn’t actually fit the exploration mechanic. Not as presented here.
However, if you like the Metroid style of game or are a fan of Aliens: Infestation, then it’s still easy enough to recommend this game for the Nintendo DS. It’s still fun, especially when you find yourself losing soldier after soldier and are left needing to find new recruits for the squad. It is moments like that which make Infestation more than a mere imitation or cheap cash-in.