Wot I Think: Infested Planet

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.

Infested Planet is available on Steam, or as a DRM-free version with an included Steam key via the developer’s website.

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21 Comments »

  1. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Bugs? Whom you send to their graves? Entomb-ology

    • Kirrus says:

      He’s just trying to liven things up.

    • therighttoarmbears says:

      Thank you for destroying the chitinous shell of my grumpiness this morning and making me laugh out loud.

  2. Amaraen says:

    I really like the frustration in this game, I thoroughly enjoy it. The satisfaction from winning is immense. That moment when the tide turns from being brutally assailed on all sides to surrounding the enemy hives with siege turrets and knowing you bested the swarm is second to none, for me.

  3. dE says:

    A couple of pointers:
    - You can, at any time, recruit up to 10 marines. They each cost an increasing amount of BP of course.
    - There actually is a working attack move, used by hitting A and then marking your target. Your marines will move to the target location while attacking anything on the way there. They’ll keep moving, if possible but may occasionally struggle with the sheer quantity of aliens.

    Either way. I love this game. It’s been a long time coming and it almost looked like the Dev gave up a few years into Development. But it was worth the wait. I didn’t realize just how great the game is, until I talked with a friend about it. Up to this point, I’ve heavily relied on giving my marines weapons and made only limited use of buildings. My friend on the other hand went the completely opposite way. Instead of specialists, he sported quantity and boosted them with buildings – and was just as succesful as I was. This is a testament to the great balancing at the heart of the game.

    Talking about balancing, custom maps can be downright evil. I’ll admit, having a spawn with two siege cannons raining death upon you is kinda hard.

  4. Challenger2uk says:

    I just upgrade my marines with shotguns and stand just outside turret range of a base, the shots from the shotguns continue after hitting the enemy and hit the base itself, its only a matter of time. Using this strategy and using just one shotgun guy to block any other streams of aliens at choke points you will sail through all missions.

    As mentioned there is an attack-move feature, its pretty good but not as good as manually doing it. I would like a game mode where the enemy just keep coming, maybe like dawn of war 2 style of hero game mode where each player has a marine and defends each wave of enemies.

    • Chris D says:

      The shotgun thing works until you encounter the mutations that extend the range of the turrets, or heal the base faster than you can damage it, or you encounter brute spawn that leave behind walls when they die, or guardian nests, or a protohive spawns behind you, or the base has a mortar,or….

      • FhnuZoag says:

        Yes, there’s a great sense with this game of “Yes! I’ve cracked it, I’m invincible now!” And then the game throws a wrench in the works with an inopportune mutation, suddenly you’re being pushed back on all fronts, and then you have to scrabble to figure out some way of surviving.

        I’ve finally beaten the campaign, and I can assuredly say that I had to make use of every trick I could think of.

        • Chris D says:

          To expand a little more, you could write a paragraph in praise of any weapon or upgrade. They all feel like they break the game a little. But then the game pushes back and says “That trick won’t work anymore. Now what have you got.?”

          So, loading up on shotguns does work to start with, although I prefer a flamer/sniper combo myself, but then the hives will gain the bombardment mutation and increase the turret range, so you might build the med station so you can heal the damage and take out the hive before your marines die and you take the next hive

          But then it mutates again, and now turrets knock back your soldiers so you can’t get close enough. So you upgrade to a sniper, but then in the next mutation the hive throws up a carapace wall, and in the one after that the wall starts to reflect the bullets back at you.

          To clarify, the mutations are (usually) in a random order but it sure doesn’t seem like that sometimes, and by the end of the game when there may be seven or eight different mutations in play there’ll be at least a couple of combinations causing you big problems.

          The other aspect of the game is that you rarely have enough build points to do exactly what you want, so maybe a minigunner would allow you to take out that guardian nest that’s been bothering you, but they cost 14 points and right now those points are tied up holding back the alien tide thats surging towards you. So you constantly have to evaluate whether you could be doing things more efficiently. How much do you really need that turret? Or would a minefield do the job? Could that marine holding back two separate avenues of attack do without his shotgun? Could you afford to go down to four, or even three marines, just while you make the big push?

  5. SillyWizard says:

    Just came to chime in and concur with the above commenters: the game is great fun, and while it can be exhausting trying to slog through literally tens of thousands of aliens in a map (though usually not quite so many) — and quite rightly exhausting, at that — the sense of accomplishment when you turn the tide is very thrilling.

    I’m not particularly good, so it’s not uncommon that I’m at the point of giving up because all of my bunkers are being over-run, when some adrenalin-fueled tactical thinking finally forces an important breach in the enemy’s line and victory again comes within reach.

    This is a game where you can have a firm beach-head become over-run, and then you might find yourself scrambling to establish a new “safe”-zone on the opposite side of the map, from which (hopefully) you manage to push to a total victory.

    That kind of flexible tactical experience is sorely lacking in a lot of games, and I’m really digging how Infested Planet operates.

    Pro Tip — a key mechanic of the game is recycling weapons/classes/whatever in order to counter the aliens’ new evolutions. You are fully refunded anything you recycle, so while flamethrowers may have been burning through alien bases a couple of mutations ago, you may need to turn them in to snipers to deal with turrets popping up all over the place, etc. Experiment!

  6. drfish says:

    You can issue commands while paused! Makes a big difference sometimes. Also, even without pausing I found plenty of time to “relax” and study the map planning my next move while all the choke points were covered. I honestly think this is as close to flawless as a game can get.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Yes. This right here makes all the difference between a challenge that frustrates and one that rewards.

      My speed-clicking, micro days are largely done. I don’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I used to (way way back during the glory days of Myth/Myth 2). The ability to issue commands while paused greatly enhances the already methodical nature of the tactical combat in Infested Planet. It lets you deal with the relentless pressure without needing highly-honed micro skills.

  7. knowitall011 says:

    this is a great game. the higher difficulty random maps is very, very challenging. this is a very well made game guys, well worth your money, and time.

  8. jonahcutter says:

    The gameplay is great, as others have mentioned. So I’ll also point out how great I think the art style is. It’s got an almost board-game feel to it. Clean and simple, yet evocative. And even though it it gets pretty gory, it remains bright, colorful and distinctly non-gritty. As much as I love my games gritty and grimdark, it’s a nice change of pace. It’s really well done.

  9. Edgy Mirrors says:

    The screenshots are seriously putting me off. Maybe I need to look for a Let’s Play to convince me.

    • spleendamage says:

      Yeah, a still frame isn’t going to do this game justice. It’s hundreds and thousands of little bugs pouring in rivers towards your marines who are just constantly mowing them down. I like the game, but I’m only 10 missions or so in.

  10. Lusketrollet says:

    You need to stop saying you can only have five guys. You can have up to ten.

  11. radishlaw says:

    I debated for a while when I looked at the steam page, but having just beaten the main campaign last night, I have to say Infested Planet is well worth the money.
    I think what the game does best is the whole dynamic of play. A set strategy can rarely beat all mutations, so you really have to stay on your toes; on the other hand your marines can target pretty well, so you are free to plan your advance and manage your resources (which you have to, there never seems to be enough resources points)
    I do have to admit I just can’t counter some mutation combination. For example, Turret pushback + Turret extend range + Reflect make me immediately click “Surrender”.

    The one

    • FhnuZoag says:

      In that situation I tend to opt for explosives. A mortar emplacement goes a long way, or triplet of stacked helicopter strikes.

  12. Warlokk says:

    Picked this up yesterday after reading this… now I can’t seem to stop hopping in and playing a round. It’s very satisfying, and keeps you on your toes. Highly recommend!

    Wonder how long till someone does a WH40k reskin…

  13. Master_of_None says:

    Graham – you say you play SupCom…. are you playing Planetary Annihilation? There has been barely any coverage of the Kickstarter/beta progress on RPS, so I’m guessing not, but why not give it a try? It’s a lot of fun!