Don't get too attached to these marines—there's a good chance they won't be seeing the credits.
Aliens is 30 years old. I know this, because I can use calendars. James Cameron's all-guns-blazing sequel to Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror masterpiece of 1979 came out in July 1986, pulling in a box office of well over 100 million dollars on a budget of around 18 million. It won two Oscars, seven Saturn Awards, and was undoubtedly my favorite movie of all time until I reached an age where I could better appreciate the pacing and tension of its predecessor (and had seen more films). Its director's cut was a regular watch when underage parties finally cooled down, and we all slumped in front of the TV set. So far as action movies of the 1980s go, though, few come better—IMDb has it placed eighth in terms of popularity for the decade, encompassing films of all genres.
Aliens developed a rabid fanbase, eager for more stories of heavily armed marines battling acid-for-blood xenomorphs across the stars. So when Alien 3 came along in 1992, scarred by scripting problems, director's chair changes and featuring no guns whatsoever in opposition to just a single alien, people got pissed. Cameron himself was a critic of the film, calling its killing off of the survivors of Aliens a "slap in the face." The all-action follow-up to Aliens, sold as a "true sequel" and effectively rewriting the series' story as steered by Alien 3, would ultimately come out as a video game in 2013. Sadly, Aliens: Colonial Marines by Gearbox Software was a disaster of a shooter, riddled with bugs and awful enemy AI, set in boring environments and featuring forgettable characters. "You have to ask, if this didn't have the Alien branding, would it even have seen the light of day?" asked Eurogamer in its review. If only it'd remained in the dark.
For anyone wanting to celebrate Aliens' thirtieth by getting stuck into a video gaming experience of comparable drama and adrenaline, featuring familiar iconography, weaponry, and worlds, it might seem that Colonial Marines is the only option. Suck it up, stick it in—the disc, that is—and just go with it. Yeah, yeah, that is Hicks, and I know, the whole thing's an absolute state; but what else are you going to play these days, on still-active systems? Alien: Isolation is a phenomenal game, of course, but it's a tonal cousin of the first movie, a far cry from the pulse rifle-lugging grunts of bug hunts past.
Well, you could play the WayForward-made Aliens: Infestation. Scratch that: you should play Aliens: Infestation (let's stick with the colon), especially if you're the sort of person who a) loved Cameron's movie more than you should have given you were something like 11 the first time you saw it, and b) know your way around the metroidvania genre, as this is very much an experience that mirrors the 2D open-world design of Nintendo's 1986 explore 'em up. Which is absolutely fair enough, as Metroid certainly borrowed its share of aesthetic cues from Scott's Alien, the game's character designer Yoshio Sakamoto declaring the movie a "huge influence," and its art team looking to H.R. Giger's work for creature inspiration. Infestation is merely cashing in what the Alien franchise was inarguably owed.
Infestation is a Nintendo DS game, meaning that it's also playable on the 3DS range—meaning that there are somewhere in the region of 210 million people out there who can pick this up and immediately play it on their handheld console. But it came out right at the back end of the DS's lifespan, in the autumn of 2011, which hardly aided its commercial visibility. This wasn't the first time a more than decent Alien franchise tie-in emerged when gaming technology had all but moved on.
In late 2000, with the PS2 already selling in big numbers, Alien: Resurrection came out for the original PlayStation, a full three years after the movie it shared its title and plot with. Although it doesn't look too similar at a first glance, Resurrection being a grimy first-person shooter, the game shares a few qualities with Infestation: both are heavy on atmosphere, in place of genuinely transportive graphics, and use multiple player-controlled protagonists. Both are incredibly tough, too, the difference being that once a soldier is dead in Infestation, they stay dead, XCOM style.
Which is why you can never rush anywhere in Infestation. It does put you in the boots of a number of marines, each one packing some serious firepower; but race into a new area of the game—be that during one of its USS Sulaco-set stages, or on the surface of the infamous LV-426—paying little mind to the bleeping of your motion tracker, and you'll swiftly be overwhelmed by aliens, enemy soldiers (alas, this isn't strictly a men (and women) versus monsters affair), aggressive robots or any combination of Bad Things. On opening each and every door, via keycards or blowtorch, you creep into the newly discovered space, just in case. Because underneath all that armor, behind all those guns and bombs, and beneath those layers of attitude, you're just a puny human. And puny humans die real easily.
I've had my crew—four at a time, and no more, with new recruits available to fill vacant roles, assuming you can find stray soldiers willing to step in—obliterated inside 20 minutes of play before. Lose all four of your squad without an opportunity to recruit replacements, like in a tough boss battle encounter, and it's game over, man, game over. Every character plays the same way, at the same speed and with the same abilities, but Infestation's vibrant character designs, by X-Men artist Chris Bachalo, means that each has a distinct personality when exchanging messages with the operation's commanding officer, one Patrick "Stainless" Steel.
'Aliens: Infestation,' launch trailer
And the mission at the game's narrative core is unashamedly indebted to Cameron's 1986 story—"the company," Weyland-Yutani, is again trying to get aliens into its research facilities with the objective of using them as biological weapons. Your team isn't about to let this happen, even with a "generic company man" (the game's words, not mine) interfering. Plenty of callbacks to Aliens are inserted into the gameplay, including a loader fight, flambéing eggs, and a frantic APC escape; and the music's bombastic blasts and eerie turns are deliberately evocative of James Horner's original score.
Infestation looks simple, primitive, as a great many 2D games do nowadays. It's not going to blow anyone away with its looks, however nice some of the idle animations are. And it's not going to take up days of your time—if you're good enough, and that'll take practice, you can finish the whole thing within three hours, barely longer than the film that inspired it. But this is a deep and memorable Aliens-affiliated experience that does a terrific job of continuing the action that Cameron's movie delivered. It's not considered canon, as Colonial Marines so depressingly is, but by leaving the events of Alien 3 untouched but still returning to so many memorable locations—you even see inside the Derelict—it assuredly earns its unofficial place within the series in fan-pleasing style.
This is not the perfect Alien/s game—its respawning enemies can absolutely dick off, and there are times when the environment is almost conspiring against you, trapping your marine between a crate and an enemy with a gun, with no wiggle room to get your own shots away. To be honest, I don't think any game tied to 20th Century Fox's continuing franchise has quite nailed its interactive potential. But Infestation is absolutely the best game, the only game, to celebrate Aliens' thirtieth anniversary with, that you can easily play today without having to source a defunct console, or Konami's thoroughly bananas arcade game of 1990. Because zombies were a thing in Aliens, right?
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