Version tested: DS
Death has always been a significant part of video games, but in recent years, he's had to settle for a relatively minor role. His mortal enemies, the checkpoint and the regenerating health bar, have relegated him to bit-part status. No longer feared, he's a minor inconvenience, a small bump on an otherwise smooth road to the finish line.
But some developers aren't prepared to let Death shuffle around in the wings, promoting him to a crucial role as both fearmonger and educator. Demon's Souls and its imminent follow-up hark back to a time when games weren't afraid to kill the player. You die, you learn. You take better care. You improve.
There's arguably no finer proponent of this old-fashioned mentality than WayForward, whose most recent game, Bloodrayne: Betrayal, set blood boiling with its brutal difficulty level. WayForward's Aliens: Infestation is slightly easier, but still punishing: reach a save room and you'll exhale deeply. When your life meter is but a single swipe of a xenomorph's tail away from empty and you're a long room full of motion signatures away from safety, the elation and relief as those metal doors slide shut is euphoric.
Infestation takes its cues from Acclaim's Alien 3 and the early Metroid games (which were an Alien tie-in in all but name), but it feels a little slower, mainly thanks to the very deliberate movement of the characters. Yet it's not long before you'll realise why you need to take your time. There's a run button, but you'll only ever use it to flee.
WayForward wastes no time in creating an imposing atmosphere about the USS Sulaco, where your adventure begins. Metallic clanks and hisses are accompanied by an ominous synth-led soundtrack, creating a slow-burn tension through the early stages that is released by one of the cheapest scares in the book. (One which I, playing in the dark with headphones turned up to full volume, was completely suckered by.)
But soon the jolts are for real. The aliens aren't really scary in and of themselves - there are too many of the buggers for that - but it's the knowledge of the harm they can do that makes you enter every room with trepidation. Standard xenomorphs are joined by skittering face-huggers, bursting messily from their ovoid homes while chest-bursters shriek horribly as they hurtle towards you at a rate of knots. If the aim was to match the intensity of James Cameron's sequel, then WayForward can consider it job done.
You begin with a four-strong team of marines, their characters sketched out through brief snatches of dialogue, with exchanges rejigged depending on who you're currently playing as. Mass Effect got you to care about your crew mates through extensive back-stories and lengthy conversations, and while these are little more than efficient caricatures by comparison, their deaths hit equally hard - because one man down means one life down.
It's easy to get attached to those you've kept alive for a while, and some obsessives will struggle to reconcile their inner completist with the need to press on. Gotta save 'em all? If one should fall, you'll have to delete your single save file and start over again.
Potential replacements are scattered across the labyrinthine levels, but it's a finite supply, and many marines require a lengthy trek through alien-infested crawlspaces and corridors to reach. Weapon upgrades, frequently tucked away in the furthest reaches of the map, also encourage thorough exploration. Spot a hatch just begging to be blown open with a grenade and several minutes later, you might have a more powerful flamethrower.
Yet Wayforward understands that reward must go hand-in-hand with risk, with such wanderings leaving you further from both your destination and any save points. Respawning enemies, so often an irritation, are an essential part of Infestation's design: a reminder that, no matter where you are, you can't afford to get complacent.
The efficiency of the design is reflected in the thrifty reuse of assets: repeat visits to the Sulaco with fresh tools gradually open up more of this intricate maze. Yet if some of the environments feel a little samey, the attention to detail is remarkable.
There's a demonstrable love for the lore - Giger's space jockey pops up in the background, as does the derelict alien ship on LV-426. Beat the second boss and you'll unlock a neat mini-game based on Bishop's knife trick. And yes, there's a fight between a queen and a marine in a power-loader. All this is brought to life with some splendid sprite work; it's the kind of game we kid ourselves all 16-bit games used to look like, and WayForward indulges our blind nostalgia accordingly.
There are a few concessions to accessibility, like flares with which you can mark useful locations, ammo boxes, first-aid kits, or survivors who won't join your team until you're a man down. Elsewhere, there are elements of survival horror in the design, the scarcity of ammunition and the addition of a stamina meter often leading to desperate battles as you fend off aliens with a feeble pistol while hoping you've got enough energy to sprint to safety. You can even weld doors shut to prevent aliens from chasing you through the ship, leading to moments of heart-stopping tension as you thumb the touch screen to seal off your pursuer just before it bursts through.
Encounters with human enemies are less agreeable, puncturing the flow with dull and repetitive stop-and-pop shooting as you crouch behind crates waiting for them to stand before blind-firing into their faces. You'll need to repeat this at least twice before they drop, and usually two or three times within the same room: a drawn-out process that makes the backtracking and respawning more frustrating. There's also a particularly egregious example of poor checkpointing in the early game.
But fans of Scott and Cameron's fiction will be delighted to see this iconic universe recreated in miniature, while anyone hankering after a 2D Metroid (let's face it, we're not likely to get one from Nintendo any time soon) will be equally satisfied. It seems that, in keeping Death so busy, WayForward has ensured the DS will avoid his scythe a little while longer.
8 / 10