I complain sometimes about games being difficult, or make the excuse that I’m terrible at games. It’s more about saving face than anything else, but there’s always this feeling of frustration I get before I make either pronouncement – it builds until I have to quit for fear of raging. In Infested Planet, that feeling never arrived. I even had to step away from the computer for nearly 2 hours for a phone call, and came back to my paused game with no loss of the sense of what I was doing. In short, this game was pretty awesome, and I’m actually pretty good at it. That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, but it doesn’t throw that difficulty in your face – there’s a build-up, and the stress you feel is more helpful than distracting.
Infested Planet was released March 6 on Steam, by Rocket Bear Games. The story is very basic – strange pods of aliens have been setting up camp in inconvenient locations, and the game begins with you learning how to command a group of Marines to help the Army dispose of them through firepower. There are waves of very small aliens (they look like neon ladybug larvae), defensive “poison dart” aliens, and large central pods that spit out both at an alarming rate. When you reach a certain level (“Crow’s Neck”), the defeat of certain pods begins to incite mutations in the aliens, so not only are defensive mines sprouted in the vicinity, but the central pods will begin acting like proper in-game base camps to their minions, providing healing to the aliens in the immediate area.
I hit a snafu when beginning the game: It asks if you’d like to make your way through tutorial levels, and I said I would. What you see in that photo is the first level I played. That is not a tutorial, that is the 6th level of the game, and I had no idea what was going on. I still don’t know why it did that, but I was able to win (eventually), and go back and visit the earlier levels to learn the basics. The map is very easy to navigate, and as long as you’ve played a level, before, you can go back and replay it at any point. If you reach a tight spot and need to revisit some tactics without being in the heat of battle, this can be helpful (you earn money every time you complete a level, as well, helping you to earn necessary upgrades). Navigation on-screen during the game works very well, and to see a different part of the map, you simply move your mouse cursor to the edge in the direction you’d like to view, and the screen will move appropriately. Zooming in and out can be achieved using your mouse wheel. If you’d rather use your keyboard, moving the camera can be done with arrow keys, and the “-” and “=” buttons zoom out and in, respectively. You can pause the game at any point by pressing “P.” As I learned, it will stay paused pretty much as long as necessary.
The key bindings seem to make no sense when being viewed for the first time on the menu, with “G” being for rockets, “V” being the hotkey for building, “W” for building a small turret, and “E” for training a Marine to hold a shotgun. When you go through the tutorial, however, the game teaches you these shortcuts one by one, effectively ingraining them into your memory. The tutorial and game are interspersed with dialogue by a commanding officer and a research professor, which gives you an idea of why you’re playing the game, and what you might be tasked with further down the line.
Graphically, the game looks great. Zooming out gives you less detail, zooming in gives you more detail than you know what to do with (especially with the alien pods – they’re terrifying). Certainly, it’s quite easy to tell where your soldiers are, which ones are riflemen and which ones are shotgunners (without the HUD, even, though it does tell you which Marine you’re currently ordering), and where your defensive/offensive items are located. Management of these items is very similar to tower defense, but the game feels fluid enough that you don’t feel as if the pods are waves of enemies that come at timed intervals – they’re merely points that must be taken and secured. It reminds me very much of XCOM in that way, except this game isn’t turn-based, but constantly in motion.
Since this is a military strategy game, I fully expected the noises of combat to be invasive and irritating, especially because the only two volume sliders are for sounds and music (sometimes voice commands exempt themselves from either category, and most of us have heard the helicopter in Left 4 Dead 2 that refuses to be tamed), but they’re used as indicators only, with no frills and no unnecessary dramatic impact. You can hear your Marines firing and know that they may need backup. You can hear when they’re overwhelmed by enemies, when they die, and when they respawn at the last base of capture. Turret guns have a different firing sound. Enemy deaths are indicated by blood spatter, not sound, which is awesome because with the number of aliens that are killed, that would get old very quickly. The music is battle-friendly, and helped me to lose myself in the game without being distracted by it. The voices of the Marines, saying things like, “Awaiting orders!” and “Yes, sir!” as you direct them around the map are, dare I say it, cute.
As mentioned earlier, any point in the map can be replayed, and apparently the areas are randomly-generated in terms of the paths and the spawn points of the pods, so every new game you begin will require a different strategy than before. This adds to the replayability, while also adding a bit of a challenge. Researching different items (via the shop, accessible between levels) in a different order will also change how the game is played.
Infested Planet is currently $14.99 on Steam, available for PC and Mac, and is worth every penny, even for those (like me) who aren’t usually enthralled by military strategy games.