It is a fair question to ask why SEGA and developers WayForward, in cahoots with Gearbox Software, chose to ignore the still-burgeoning 3DS market and develop a brand new title solely for DS. Certainly the newer technology would have given them more options, more power and clarity to present their vision for the franchise. It is only when you start playing Aliens: Infestation that you realise that it’s possible that they purposefully wanted to avoid the new mechanics of 3DS and make an experience that relies entirely on the console it is played on.
After a few hours you begin to appreciate that Aliens: Infestation would struggle on any other system than the one it was tailored to suit. The cramped screen, tight controls and awkward difficulty mirror the atmosphere and intricacy of a title that is designed to be a tough and at times an uncomfortable experience.
Taking place after the film Aliens, Infestation puts you in control of one of four marines tasked to explore several familiar locations including LV-426 and the Sulaco. As the story develops you repeatedly visit the same areas, uncovering more about a sinister plot to spawn the xenomorphs as biological weapons. It is up to your small team of marines to fight off the ever-increasing swarms of enemies and stop a desperate situation worsening.
There are no overt references to the films in Aliens: Infestation, but their influence can be seen in every inch of the design of the sprawling levels. You’ll run past the clinical silver tables where the crew gathered to eat in Alien. You’ll be thrown through familiar looking holes and vents and sent to explore locations covered in eggs waiting to hatch. It’s a pleasure to see such diligence and respect paid to the films by referencing them by location rather than by character or narrative.
Exploration is the key mechanic of Aliens: Infestation, and with your team making your way through the ship battling xenomorphs you’ll soon discover that not all areas of the environment you land on will be available to you on first visit. It’s an old Metroid mechanic, but in Aliens: Infestation it feels fresh because of the effect it has on you as a player. Unlocking areas is an experience filled with dread, not relief, as you begin to doubt if your worthwhile exploration will achieve success by finding a precious item or breed misery in discovering a horde of xenomorphs. There were numerous times when I found myself wandering round in circles, not because I was blind to the way forward but because of the threat posed by a possible deadly encounter ahead.
Aliens: Infestation is a tough game, and the paranoia you’ll feel before heading down an unknown corridor is only further exacerbated by the fact that when your selected marine dies, that’s it; they are gone for good, with play moving on to the next character in your group. There might be a slim chance of rescuing a downed marine from an alien nest or stopping a xenomorph before it delivers a gruesome forced C-section, but often you don’t get the chance and you will have to contend with losing members of your team forever.
At times it can be genuinely crushing to lose a marine who you have become particularly attached to. However, there are other times where it can feel infuriatingly unfair, with aliens and human opponents able to strip your team from four to one in a very short space of time. WayForward do try and balance the situation, though, because at times you’ll be able to recruit other marines that you find whilst exploring the different locations. The sense of terror that permeates Aliens: Infestation is only ever matched by the relief of seeing a marine to add to your team. Each of the nineteen marines in the game that you can discover all have their own unique personalities and lines of dialogue, meaning that finding and meeting new characters is an effective way to break the tension - for a while.
The prospect of losing a team mate is something that will hurt the first time round, but unfortunately the combat in Aliens: Infestation makes it too much of a common occurrence. There is not a wealth of tutorial or instruction to go through when you first start the game. Therefore, through no fault of your own, marines will tend to feel more like cannon fodder in your attempts to find a way to get through lengthy battles or understand the intricacies of the combat mechanics. It’s a shame, but fighting in Aliens: Infestation is sometimes counter-intuitive to the whole experience of the piece.
You do have a wealth of fire power at your disposal, from the recognisable pulse rifle to the indispensable flame thrower, but your enemies often exude more clout than your puny guns or seem impervious to your attacks. Xenomorphs are some of the most aggressive enemies I’ve encountered in a DS title. Their swift ranged attacks and tenacious nature make them fearful opponents. However, it is the human adversaries in the game who often feel the most resistant to your combat. They attack in a way that means you can’t recover without being shot again and the only way to defeat each single encounter is to blind fire from behind a box. Losing a precious marine to this type of bad design and combat is cheap and one of the severe blots on Aliens: Infestation.
It doesn’t help, either, that enemies respawn as soon as you move past them on the screen. It’s an old mechanic to add a bigger challenge to an already tough experience. However, with the threat of a losing a marine always lurking, it feels like some situations are not worth exploring if it means facing xenomorphs or humans twice over. Health, ammo and items also have a habit of respawning within an instant, resulting in some circumstances not feeling as perilous as they should.
At no point will you ever feel under-powered in Aliens: Infestation, but there are times when you’ll feel badly treated, all for the sake of creating a challenge. Checkpoints are few and far between; combat is ill explained and, in some cases, badly implemented. Boss battles can also be confusing saps of time - and, more importantly, marines. However, there is no getting over the brilliance and dynamics of a game designed for the limitations of a dying console. WayForward have picked their moment to bring DS back into the fore and in one single swipe almost overshadow its younger brother.