Game over, man
This should sound somewhat familiar: a small band of mercenaries are on a forbidding planet, confronted by a horrific alien force that swarms across the landscape. Well-armed and entrenched, the soldiers have been easily keeping the enemy at bay despite being surrounded when, suddenly, the air becomes thick and acrid. Coughing and sputtering, the squad slowly begins to weaken from poison in the air while the aliens keep coming in force and threaten to overrun them.
That's the experience of playing Infested Planet. No matter how strong your defense or capable your soldiers, death is always just one mutation away.
Infested Planet (PC [reviewed], Mac)
Infested Planet is a real-time strategy game where players are given command of a small squad of soldiers pitted against an unending stream of mutating aliens on a mysterious planet.
The general goal of most missions is to wipe out the aliens by destroying hives from which they spawn in a slow, oozing mass. Destroyed hives are turned into command posts (or bunkers) which must be defended to prevent the enemy from re-establishing the hive, and provide a place to heal units or spawn replacements for them when killed. The insectoid foes are relentless and will attempt to sneak through any gap in defense, and hanging on to what the player has managed to secure means resources will be spread thin.
The size and power of your squad can be increased during the course of a mission, with weapon upgrades and structures that provide passive bonuses and new abilities. These are purchased with a kind of currency earned during the stage by taking over hive locations and retrieving resource crates on the battlefield. The design encourages aggressive play and rewards it with greater power, but the limited size and capability of the squad makes every push forward a chance to lose ground already gained, while the difficulty continues to tick upward with the introduction of new mutations among the aliens.
Mutations are varied and effective at countering player strategies. If you're having a lot of success in taking control points by getting in close with a flamethrower, enemy turrets will develop the ability to push your soldiers back with each shot. Overcome that with a well-placed sniper, and the aliens will erect walls to eliminate line of sight to your targets. There are plenty of them and the variety keeps the game feeling varied and fresh from one round to the next, though it can be a bit difficult to keep track of them all (there are 35 different mutations in total) and remembering the name and function of each is about as much a challenge as developing the appropriate response.
The gameplay is tense, hectic, and generally fun. But there are some elements that the game does a poor job of explaining, notably the spawning of replacement units. When a soldier is killed, there is a cooldown period before they respawn based on their value to the unit (a soldier with a shotgun is worth more than one with a rifle, for example, and takes longer to return). But it's often unclear which of the player's control points those units will spawn from and occasionally they'll spawn in a wholly inconvenient place which seems to make little sense. This can result in idle units far from the front line, easily forgotten, their absence dragging down the rest of the squad.
The game has some visual challenges as well. While environments and enemy character models manage to strike a balance between function and form, the members of a player's squad are too simple and a bit too similar. Upgrading a soldier's equipment changes their color, but the colors don't contrast enough between a few of the designs when they really ought to be popping off the landscape.
Infested Planet includes a 17-mission campaign which serves as a great introduction to the mechanics and strategies, providing a nicely graded difficulty that challenges without overwhelming the player too early, offering abilities over time at a steady rate. The campaign also offers more mission variety, with some stages requiring the protection of specific units or the destruction of specific targets as mission parameters, and some set-piece stages which flip the script and put the player wholly on the defensive.
In the campaign, access to the full range of abilities is restricted and unlocked over time by spending money earned at the conclusion of each mission. Money is awarded even if the player loses or surrenders the battle and struggling players can also use it to hire more (and better equipped) units for the squad on a per-mission basis to give them an edge in future attempts. A series of ten additional bonus stages becomes available about a third of the way through, which offer some alternative challenges and an opportunity to earn more money to help with a particularly troubling primary mission.
The campaign is a enjoyable mix, appropriate for less experienced real-time strategy players. There is a bit of a story there as well, mostly conveyed in text preceding missions with some occasional mid-mission drama to spice things up. There's not much to get excited about one way or another where the plot is concerned, with a couple of stereotypical commanders (one military, one scientific) bickering over the approach to dealing with the alien threat while your team gets dragged back and forth by both of them. Predictable but inoffensive, the story elements are nice as a backdrop to give structure and reason for the campaign missions but serve little other purpose.
Aside from the campaign, Infested Planet offers a "Skirmish" mode with eight difficulty stages, appropriate for players of any skill. Beyond this, custom settings can be applied that control every aspect of a mission to create a wholly original challenge. You can adjust the map size, respawn delay, types of enemy defenses and even which specific mutations the aliens will have access to. It's a flexible, powerful mission tool that will act as an enabler to addicted players who are constantly seeking a new thrill.
While there is no form of direct multiplayer to be found, the game does offer some competitive opportunities through weekly challenges and leaderboards. Three levels of the challenges are available each week, with scores and rankings largely determined by how quickly the mission is completed. Weekly challenges can be attempted as many times as desired, with the best score out of all attempts posted to the leaderboards. The feature should give some additional life to the game over time and those looking to compare their skills with others should appreciate it.
When it comes down to it, Infested Planet is a fun spin on sci-fi real-time strategy that makes good use of tower defense mechanics in an offense-focused game. A little rough around the edges, it still manages to succeed in creating an experience that is challenging and unique every round while providing options which accommodate a wide range of skill level.
THE VERDICT - Infested Planet
Reviewed by Conrad Zimmerman