Two Sci-Fi Games Are Too Far Away

Aliens: Infestation

Alien was a rite of passage. At the precocious age of 10, it was my first peek outside of the sheltered life my parents had arranged for me. I knew there was such a thing as R-rated movies, and that my parents would watch them when I wasn’t around, but those cassette tapes that lined the cabinets, recorded from satellite TV and labeled with strange words like Die Hard and Platoon, seemed to hold esoteric knowledge to my budding brain.

Seeing Sigourney Weaver don a power loader to take on a hideous “bitch” was my first brush with mature content, gaped alongside four or five other impressionable youth at a sleepover on my neighbor’s 12th birthday. His dad had rented it for us, along with two or three other movies I’ve now long-forgotten. While this may seem like the epitome of poor parenting, the guy was at least semi-responsible, requesting that we cover our eyes during the segment in which Weaver stripped down to her underwear, a requirement that I met with enthusiasm.

The next day, I was a changed child. I put away childish things. Mario and Sonic no longer cut it for me. I wanted to play Alien. Some time later, when I came across Alien 3 for the Super Nintendo at the local video rental, I did—and oh, was it bad! If only Aliens: Infestation for the Nintendo DS had existed back then. It probably could have too. Most every game made by its developer Wayforward looks like it was warped here from the 16-bit era. While their resume includes games you would expect to be awful, including Thor, Where the Wild Things Are, and even Sabrina: The Animated Series, they never use that as an excuse. They have a reputation for turning licensed fluff into rock solid, old-school experiences. Aliens: Infestation is no exception.

Infestation plays the way you would expect an Alien game to play on a 16-bit game console. You move your Colonial Marine through corridors, climbing ladders, checking in at checkpoints, grabbing first-aid kits bearing red crosses, and, of course, shooting through slimy eggs and alien mamas guarding their nests. Infestation is similar to Metroid: Zero Mission and Shadow Complex in that it gives you a large alien-infested spaceship to explore, but locks it away behind inoperable elevators and welded doors. You scavenge for keycards, kill squirming grotesqueries, and keep one eye on your map until you reach the end of the game. It feels as if you are disassembling a fighter ship, but after each step, discover that you need a tool that was misplaced on the other side of the hangar.

The next day, I was a changed child. I put away childish things. Mario and Sonic no longer cut it for me. I wanted to play Alien

It is not without problems. While the aliens were a fairly adept species in the movies, here there is no sign of intelligent life. The game’s aliens know one tactic: run back and forth while you shoot them. Gunfights are reduced to a vaudeville routine, with you and your attacker ducking behind opposite sides of the same crate, taking turns popping up and firing a round. Showdowns with mammoth queens feel staged. The simple strategics lead to cheap shots, but putting up with them are worth it to me, because Infestation allows me to revisit my childhood the way I wanted it to be—only the tables have turned.

The experience has come full circle. As a child, I played a crappy game based on the sequel to a movie that, up till that point, was the most mature experience I had ever had. Now, my life is one long R-rated movie. I hadn’t even thought of the Alien franchise since I was around 16. Yet Aliens: Infestation reminded me of a long time ago, when my mind was a blank slate, and the only thing I knew much about was games, and the joy they could bring. — Jason Johnson

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Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

I started playing Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine unclear on the game’s intended audience. Was it for the folks that had played the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game, read the massive stacks of novels, and played the associated boardgames and videogames? Or was this game a gateway drug—a sort of Everything You Wanted to Know About Warhammer (But Were Afraid to Ask)? Warhammer, of course, is an urtext whose various ideas have absorbed into all facets of nerd culture. In games like Halo and Gears of War, a common thread can be traced back to the blood and glory comprising the Warhammer universe and, most importantly, its trope of the Space Marine.

Space Marines seem tailor-made for videogames. They’re about heavy ordnance being unloaded on waves and waves of enemies. They’re cool, calm killing machines in bulky armor that make them look twice the size of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ middle linebacker. We’ve seen this idea countless times and in different contexts. A game nominally about space marines, featuring the prototypical Space Marines, seems like it should be a homecoming—but feels like an act of self-cannibalization.

That Space Marine borrows mechanics from the games it helped spawn doesn’t help matters. It is a third-person shooter. Like in Halo, regenerating shields protect a finite amount of health. The focus on close-quarters action parallels Gears of War. The game’s best multiplayer mode is a slightly tweaked version of Gears’ Horde mode that pits you against waves of green Orks. These are the obvious examples.

I have no sense of why I’m killing Orks, let alone why I should care about killing Orks.

This wholesale borrowing of ideas from other games isn’t unforgivable. Space Marine’s emphasis on melee combat—the only way to replenish health is by physically executing an enemy, which usually leaves you open to more attacks—does add a different texture. Relic tries to create a different pace, too, by throwing waves of melee enemies at the player, having you alternate between ranged and melee attacks. But shooting is, aside from key scenes, treated as incidental; and the melee settles into a rhythm of fight, retreat, execution, repeat.

I’d heard for years about how rich and weird the history and lore of the Warhammer universe is, but none of that is present in the game—which is mostly some bulky dudes fighting some cockney Orks with a plot used as a cattle prod to keep you moving to the next destination. I understand Relic’s urge for restraint: even as somebody who wants to engage with the Warhammer universe, I will only put up with so much dry exposition. Going too far the other way—the way they have taken here—means I have no sense of why I’m killing Orks, let alone why I should care about killing Orks.

Just skimming the Wikipedia page for Warhammer 40,000 (which, apparently, is different from regular Warhammer), I find mentions of bio-engineered swarms and living-metal constructs enslaved by star-eating creatures. Carnivorous avian mercenaries and evil elves in power armor. Soul eaters and gods of Chaos. All pitted against each other in an ongoing, galaxy-wide battle spanning multiple dimensions. Where is all this in the cold hallways and bombed-out ruins of Space Marine? It would never occur to a new player that this is actually a decades-old franchise set in the 41st millennium.

I can only guess that fans of Warhammer won’t get anything out of Space Marine. In trying to recreate its inspiration, Space Marine has forgotten what appear to be its strengths. Even after completing it, the game feels like a small taste of the beginning of space marines. One that has somehow failed to sell me on killing Orks with a giant sledgehammer. — Filipe Salgado