By Graham Smith on March 12th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
Infested Planet keeps drawing me back. ‘I’m not ready to write about it. I need to play it more before I decide what I think.’ Then the same thing happens as every other time. I play a mission, and it’s not hard exactly, but it is a slog. It’s a battle of attrition, territory claimed inch by inch against a skittering mass of Starship Troopers-inspired bug aliens. There’s thousands of them, and clearing them away feels like fighting a rising tide with a leaky bucket. I’m sick of it. I’m bored of it. I don’t want or need to play anymore.
Right as I’m about to give up, the tide turns. My five soldiers gain a foothold in the war for the map’s capture points, and I claim enough resources to defend my turf against counter-attacks using turrets. From there, I begin to rapidly advance, pummeling my enemy into submission with helicopter bombardments and rocket blasts. My troops mow down thousands, and it feels immensely satisfying to win a hard-fought battle against overwhelming odds. I’m thrilled by it. I’m confused by it. I need to play more.
This is wot I think.
From the onset, Infested Planet’s videos and screenshots offers two fantasies. The first is obvious: it’s themed like the strategy game someone should have made using the Starship Troopers license. You’re fighting on an alien planet against millions of chitinous bugs. It mirrors some of the film’s plot beats, like discovering that the race has brain-aliens who do the species’ thinking. Its between-mission story bits, and its tiny character portraits, depict your military leaders as suspiciously fascist. In these things, the game is successful; it’s not aiming for the satirical bite of Verhoeven’s film, but it evokes enough of the setting to scratch a certain itch.
The other fantasy is that it looks, from the outside, like a strategy game from a simpler time. It looks like a power fantasy, with more in common with Cannon Fodder’s four-man death squads than with the economy management and base-building of StarCraft. If you’ve read my first two paragraphs, you know that it’s less likely to fulfill those power fantasy desires than it first appears. It’s a more complex game than that.
Your side is more than just your five soldiers, first of all. As you progress, you purchase unlocks using money gained by fighting in missions. Depending on which you choose, these new tools allow you to swap one of your regular grunts out for a sniper or a flamethrower guy, or to give your soldiers the ability to place buildings which offer battlefield boosts like extra ammo, strength, or the ability to call in helicopter bombardments.
These upgrades are essential if you’re going to keep pace with the aliens, who introduce new types as the missions progress. An early set turn to ice when shot, making your flamer a handy addition to the crew as he can quickly cut through their defenses. Another is a single, large alien who creeps towards your base, then explodes, littering the ground with pale eggs. They burst to reveal a field of turrets.
The aliens also evolve, tweaking themselves in much the same way as your own buffs. “Bombardment” allows their defensive spit towers to spit further, while “Spore Mines” surrounds all enemy bases with proximity mines. There are lots more.
Once unlocked, these tools don’t make you feel suddenly more powerful. Instead they become another part of your routine. Initially, you’ll clear out a base, destroy its spawning pods, turrets and main structure, and then stand on the point to capture it for yourself. Then you’ll move on. Later, as enemies become tougher and advancement slows, you’ll spend a moment at each point you capture establishing a fire base. You’ll recycle old, now redundant turrets, and place a new set on the frontlines. You’ll grab your health pod, which can be dragged behind one soldier to provide area-of-effect healing to anyone nearby.
And then you’ll move out, making small advances, claiming territory little by little. The slow progress of your frontlines makes advancing feel methodical. You know your tactics; it’s where to deploy them that makes the difference between success and being overwhelmed. Battles themselves are a kind of shove-of-war, where your stream of bullets smashes endlessly against the stream of spawning enemies. In these fights, your new powers are what let you turn the tide back, and slowly edge your way towards the next base.
But while the unlocks may change the literal flow of the game, variety instead relies on the mission objectives. Campaign missions are split into four paths, offering story missions and random missions. Random missions are what they sound like, but story missions offer different gimmicks. In one, you’ll be working within a timer to fight against enemies who alternate between defense and rapid attack. In the next, you’ll be defending a convoy as it crosses the map to deliver precious cargo.
These are familiar ideas if you’ve ever played StarCraft or Command & Conquer, but much like the best of those games they layer a careful pace on top of the action. That makes them a more powerful draw than the skirmish mode and online leaderboards of the timed weekly challenges. Even after I knew my toolset inside and out, every time I thought I was about to be defeated by frustration, victory in a campaign mission would arrive and be gratifying enough for the struggle to compel me forward.
Frustration continues to be a concern though, because it’s too often the awkward consequence of the game’s controls. If you tell a soldier to move to a location, but accidentally click on an enemy, the game accepts that as an attack order. If the enemy you clicked on is then killed as your soldier moves towards it, the soldier will stop moving and remain where they are. This makes perfect sense, but it’s an issue when there’s more enemies than ground on screen and you desperately need your soldier to advance.
Since there’s only five of them, the game expects you to manage every little movement and action of your solders. Again this makes perfect sense, but there are times when mission design necessitates that you deal with attacks on multiple fronts. In these instances, it’s fiddly to find your tiny men so you can repeatedly prompt each one to kill the aliens, while they insist on giving up as soon as a portion are beyond their fire range.
This feels like the consequence of Infested Planet’s mash-up of shooter and RTS. It requires strategy from you, but doesn’t provide the granular control you need to smoothly execute that strategy. I badly wanted, for example, to be able to put my soldiers on patrol or tell them to defend an area, or to have an attack-move command which didn’t so often cause my soldiers to freeze up in the face of their enemy.
I think there are two reasons I play strategy games. One is for complex campaigns requiring deep thought and careful planning, whether that be in Unity of Command or Supreme Commander. The other is for the relaxing power trip provided by swirling numbers of units, as in Eufloria or Galcon Fusion. Infested Planet sits somewhere between the two, a mid-point that’s more satisfying in some ways for the greater sense of accomplishment it delivers and less satisfying in others for the frustration of never quite letting you relax.