Aliens isn’t scary because it stars hulking bipedal insects with two mouths that breed by violating people via crabs, then birthing larva through their chests while they’re still alive. Actually… yes, that is why it’s scary. The heart of that fear, though, is that the monster’s mere proximity means someone is going to die. While the xenomorph and the films that birthed it make for good game stuff—designers have used the monsters, guns, space marines, and James Cameron-y technology to exhaustion—it’s rare that games capture that stress. Death is a blockade in videogames, not an ending. WayForward’s Aliens: Infestation comes close to nailing it, though. While it calls back to Metroid, it’s less about exploration and dread than about managing death.
The game starts on the Sulaco, the ill-fated ship from Aliens, after the events of that movie. You control a squad of four marines with caricature personalities straight out of that movie—hardened leader, green twerp, hard-nosed chick, etc.—sent to investigate the derelict ship when, surprise, surprise, the ship turns out to be infested with the titular beasties.
What follows is an impressively varied tour through not just the Sulaco, but the planet LV-426, the derelict alien ship the monsters came from, a research facility, and an opposing military faction’s secret base. All these locales have you exploring interconnected halls and air-ducts, searching out items to allow progress into blocked areas. Doors welded shut? Find the blowtorch. Progress at a steady pace, shoot aliens, reach the next objective dictated by your stern-but-honorable commanding officer.
It would all be bland if not for the marines. Your team will die, permanently. There’s no avoiding it, especially during the game’s handful of boss fights against larger beasts, but even regular aliens can dispatch you quickly. While there are sometimes opportunities to save team members from various alien hives, it’s often impossible to reach where they’ve been stashed before they expire.
Instead, you replace them by locating one of 15 other marines scattered about the environment. These characters provide the game’s heart and soul: Palms, the gambler; Beta, the text-messaging flake; BBQ, the guy you actually find cooking ribs near a hive. They all control identically, but their animated personalities go a long way toward making them likeable and familiar, and they give the game a much-needed sense of humor. The effort to keep them alive brings real tension to an otherwise-cartoonish game. There’s consequence in progress.
It’s a shame that Aliens: Infestation peters out by the end. In the push toward the conclusion, the upgraded weapons you’ve collected lessen the threat, and the thin plot culminates in a boring fight against a big alien queen. The tension is never released, just allowed to dissipate, leaving Infestation feeling incomplete. A day in the corps is like a day on the farm, though, so while the hard work of playing doesn’t lead to a reward, the work itself can be satisfying.