Infested Planet hands-on: the right kind of bug hunt

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The tricky thing about destroying hives full of fast-mutating alien swarms on a distant planet isn’t the endless numbers. It’s not even the fact that you only have five soldiers and almost no resources with which to upgrade them or support them. The tricky part, it turns out, is the geometry. At least, that’s what I’m learning from Infested Planet, the indie tactical puzzler from the excellently named Rocket Bear Games.

Alex Vostrov is the mind behind Rocket Bear: like a lot of indies he’s a refugee from blockbuster development. He used to work at EA Sports before jumping ship and heading over to Klei before striking out on his own. I met him earlier this year at GDC, where he was carrying around a tiny laptop with a build of Infested Planet and a brand new pair of headphones so I could actually hear it. He was there without a show pass, hoping to get people to take a look at Infested Planet. Now he’s just put the game on Steam Early Access for $15. It’s a work in progress, but having played it for about six hours in the last week, it feels pretty damn complete. And pretty damn good.

Vostrov’s idea, when he pitched it to me, was StarCraft as a tactical game. Your squad of marines can cut through tons of alien bugs, but you can’t build your way out of trouble. You have to figure out how to storm each new position while holding on to your previous gains.

This is where that geometry comes into play. Each alien hive spawns swarms of slugs that are easy enough to slaughter. Every time you clear an alien hive and hold its former position, a bunker spawns at that location to heal and replenish your squad. However, you only have five soldiers, and the aliens from other hives may start sending their numbers against positions way behind your front line. So while Mr. Rico and the rest of the mobile infantry are charging forward into the next hive on your list, aliens are starting to retake their earlier positions. You can peel off soldiers to go police those locations, but then your advance can bog down and maybe stall completely. So how can you set up the most efficient angles of attack and defense to get the most out of your firepower?

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Two things are in your favor. The aliens aren’t too bright, striking out from their hives in any direction where there’s a hope they can kill something. You can use that to control their pathing: a single soldier left as bait along their line of advance can cause them all to fixate on him, keeping your bunkers safe while they try to kill him. You also have things like turrets and mortars for offensive or defensive deployment. The catch is that each building, and each soldier upgrade, costs a number of “build points”, and there are never enough to go around. You only get more of them when you take a new hive location.

What’s working against you is the fact that aliens mutate as you progress. They start out as simple zergling-like creatures: weak and dumb. But each dead hive gives the aliens a new mutation. Suddenly the aliens might start moving faster, which could cause previously safe positions to be overrun. Or they might spawn hard protective shells that pop up between your soldiers and the hives. Suddenly all your shots are going to waste on a wall of bone while enemy acid-turrets rebuild and the hive spawns more critters. Or you might encounter a cloned version of your own squad, which you can’t defeat unless you change your build.

The coolest thing about Infested Planet is that it’s very easy and casual until it abruptly isn’t anymore. I’ve had games where I was just methodically demolishing all the alien outposts until I hit a trio of interconnected hives, and my guys would get slaughtered by the other two while trying to storm the first one. While waiting for them to respawn, the aliens would retake a hive and destroy all my emplacements, forcing me to regain ground before walking into the same meat-grinder that killed me the last time.

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But this time I’d be more careful, building up a series of siege towers to help thin the numbers at the other hives while storming forward under cover of a helicopter gunship. Infested Planet is all about those setbacks, followed by rethinking, followed by victory. It’s enormous fun to play.

If I had one criticism, it’s that it still maybe be too easy. This is definitely more of a casual tactical game, and while the mutations are a neat twist, many of them aren’t quite drastic enough. If the “blast the hell out it” strategy will usually win through, Infested Planet maybe needs to strengthen its pushback.

On the other hand, I’m less than a dozen missions into its campaign, and I haven’t tried the hardest skirmish options yet. I’m also not sure how difficult I really want Infested Planet to be: right now each mission is about 10 minutes long, with maybe one or two twists that I have to figure out, and then I’m on to the next one. Sometimes, I have to admit, I just want to give my brain a light workout while I kick the hell out of an exotic alien race.