Let me explain for a moment the definition of being dedicated to your work. It’s going that extra mile when nobody asked you to. Only a handful of people may notice what you have done, but to them it means a lot. It means that you understood something that they didn’t even know they wanted but are suddenly very glad to receive. That’s what makes it special.
Aside from the main story campaign, Aliens: Infestation has a bonus mini-game which can be accessed from the main menu. Entitled ‘Knife Trick’, it is a timing-based challenge inspired by the scene in Aliens where the android Bishop (or artificial person, if you prefer) demonstrates his inhuman ability to play five-finger fillet. It is a great little nod to an iconic scene, obviously included just for those fans who can appreciate it. But that’s not the amazing part.
As you can see, the mini-game itself is pretty straightforward. Just tap the stylus in the red area whenever it appears and try your best not hit the fingers. Now, have a look at the right side of this screenshot. Specifically, that yellow object. That is a piece of cornbread.
In the film, the marines complain about having to eat cornbread as a part of their meal before heading out to investigate the colony on LV-426. Despite Cpl. Hicks reassuring them that it’s “good for you boy, eat it”, nobody seems to like it. That cornbread didn’t need to be on screen during this mini-game but somebody made the conscious decision to put it there. An extra level of the movie for those keen enough to spot it. I admit, I didn’t even notice it the first time around. This is a perfect example of the attention to detail paid to Aliens: Infestation.
At the time of writing, Aliens: Colonial Marines is already a high contender to top some Worst Game Of The Year 2013 lists. I have spoken at length in a review as to why is it a very poor game and also why it fails on a very basic level: satisfying fans of Aliens. Many people say they feel ‘betrayed’ by developer Gearbox who maintained throughout development that they were huge fans of Aliens and not to worry because they were on the case and couldn’t wait to release a game that did justice to its source material once and for all. They failed.
Aliens fans started to think that the perfect Aliens experience would never be translated into a video game. No arcade or mobile games, no sharing the limelight with Predators. They wanted someone to deliver upon a promise that was put in place almost thirty years ago. Well, I have some good news.
California-based developer WayForward already did it.
Eighteen months ago, Aliens: Infestation was released on the Nintendo DS. It is a 2D side-scrolling adventure game set after the events of Aliens. It takes the same premise as Colonial Marines but the story, events and characters are wildly different. It was published by SEGA (publisher of Colonial Marines) and despite having Gearbox’s (developer of Colonial Marines) name attached, it is clear in both the game and every press release or developer diary video that WayForward did the work. They put in the incredible amount of effort and dedication needed to translate the Aliens universe on such a small scale. To do it with this level of style and intricacy is staggering.
If you take Aliens and combine it with open-world exploration, the gameplay elements of Metroid, snappy writing and fascinating use of the DS platform, you end up with an extremely fun and rewarding experience. Incredibly, it also manages to create consistent levels of tension. Not only from the xenomorphs but from the fact that the game employs the mechanic of ‘permadeath’. Every marine can die and never return.
You start with a squad of four marines commanded by Lt. Colonel Patrick ‘Stainless’ Steele. On board the derelict Sulaco, you can recruit a total of nineteen marines. All with individual looks, dialogue and backstories. I finished the game with five marines still alive. Because of the personality infused in each character, I felt a sense of loss with every death. Just like the movie, it presents you with likeable, interesting characters and then kills them off one by one. Sometimes they are captured and you are given a short amount of time to track their vital signs on the map and recover them from being cocooned. I only managed to achieve this once. The timing is hectic. In theory, it would be possible to not lose any marines throughout the entire game but it would be a monumental challenge.
The interface is fascinating to use. Tap on the bottom screen to reload weapons, choose a marine, weld doors, check the map and turn your motion tracker on or off. Every iconic weapon is present: pulse rifle, smart gun, shotgun, incinerator unit. All with different capabilities. Even the pistol, as a last resort, isn’t without its merits.
The USS Sulaco as an environment makes complete sense from a design standpoint. Exploring its various decks as each section progressively unlocks (in a Metroid–Castlevania style) is rewarding. The aliens have built nests in the ventilation shaft throughout the entire ship that can only be accessed via explosives. As more hidden sections of the Sulaco open up, it’s clear Weyand-Yutani have been busy. The results of some of their grotesque experiments become apparent. Towards the end of the game, an unexpected spacewalk around the exterior of the ship is tense and exciting.
This is the game. You may have some hesitation due to its platform but for Aliens fans, nothing else approaches James Cameron’s science-fiction masterpiece in video game form. Facehuggers, power loaders, surly and reliable marines, the blip of the motion tracker and ‘the company’ are all intertwined in a superbly designed game.
But nobody bought the thing.
Since its release in 2011, Aliens: Infestation for the Nintendo DS has reportedly sold 110,000 copies. To put that in perspective, Aliens: Colonial Marines sold 354,995 copies. In its first week. Just on the Xbox 360. It is also available on the PlayStation 3 and PC. It is a tragedy to see such innovation and devotion to source material not find a large audience. Meanwhile, a broken product made by people who seemed to have no passion for Aliens tops the sales charts. Despite terrible reviews, Colonial Marines is still selling well. Whereas a copy of Infestation is extremely difficult to find. As such, a game like this will probably never happen again. Not in this way and most likely, not with such care.
Since 1986, people have been waiting for the quintessential Aliens video game. It already exists. It was made with such care and obvious love of James Cameron’s film, that I can’t see it being improved upon.
At the time of writing, people are sifting through the disaster of Gearbox and the development process of Colonial Marines. Who developed how much of the game? Did Gearbox misuse funds? What was SEGA’s role in all of this? And meanwhile, sitting quietly on my desk, is a Nintendo DS game that succeeded on all fronts. Effortlessly, it gave me what I always wanted: a brilliant Aliens video game. I can’t wait to play it a second and third time. And see that cornbread again.