Infested Planet Preview
Infested Planet is a game I’m excited to see evolve, as it has the potential to be a unique and engaging RTS unlike any I have played before. There are no resources to harvest. You start with all of your units, and the only buildings you construct are turrets. It’s a squad based game where you take five to six marines and attempt to claim territory from nasty alien bugs. The traditional values of the RTS are out the window: no more resource wars, no more strength in numbers. Infested Planet is a different beast.
Your team begins as default assault units, and they have grenades that use a shared ammo pool that replenishes and standard machine guns. This little team is what makes Infested Planet stand out. There are five of the same unit, all of which respawn at death without any resource cost to the player and with only a minor time punishment. The most the player can bolster numbers by is one additional unit. The strategy of the game is much more small scale then is traditionally seen in an RTS, and it contrasts well with the enemies of the game. Enemy locations constantly spawn rivers of bugs at the player and the screen can quickly fill with writhing masses of them. You need to constantly push these waves back and claim territory from the bugs, and this little team is all you have to push them with.
Of course, playing an entire game with just five or six of the same unit would amount to a boring experience, but this concern is alleviated by specialization. By spending build points, you can upgrade your units to unique roles like sniper, flamer, minigun, medic, or a dude with an explosive shotgun. Each plays a unique role in combat and mixing these roles up is the key to victory. The flamer can keep crowds at bay while the sniper picks off defensive towers one shot at a time, the medic is keeping everyone alive, and the minigun guy is tearing everything apart like he should. The trick to this is balancing those build points. Points are an incredibly limited resource only acquired by taking enemy positions or dragging boxes of points back to base. Each role requires a different amount of build points to train, points that you get back if you revert to a normal unit. The real meat of it comes when you start to sweat over where to spend the points, on unit upgrades, turrets, or research.
Turrets are the only defense you have, and they cost points you could use on the squad. This means you are often left making a choice between protecting territory or strengthening your ability to attack targets. If the level generation was in your favor, this can lead to satisfying puzzle solving moments of tackling the level in just the right way. Other times you just feel like your bashing your face against a wall, but we’ll get to the level generation and difficulty curve in a bit. Turrets come in bullet, mortar, and massive death machine flavor, with some mines, protective barriers, and teleporters thrown in as well, just to be sure you have plenty of things to agonize over building in any given scenario. Do you save up for the massive rocket turret with the range of a small area code or do you invest in teleporters to get your squad to territory under attack by the aliens? Shield walls or mortar turrets?
Or instead of unit upgrades or mechanical advancements, do you invest in some research? Why you could generate base mounted turrets and the capacity for self building turrets, freeing up your units to fight rather then build. Upgrade to plasma grenades or increase your amount of ammo for grenades? Regenerating health, shared health among units, or just an additional unit? You have lots of things to spend an agonizingly small amount of build points on, and what combinations you use and when you opt to sell old purchases for emergency points are the keys to victory. If you want to survive, the battlefield will need to constantly shift to reflect the current situation, your units and tactics need to evolve as rapidly as the enemy you fight.
With every hive you take over and convert to a base, the enemy evolves to retaliate. It may grow armor on units and buildings, clone your units for a devastating attack on your territory with your own team layout, or generate tough defensive units to guard bases. As you gain build points to change and advance your attack, the enemy is doing the same and constantly pumping out more units and splitting its attacks up on the map. When it works, it works well. It turns a RTS into almost a puzzle game, with the player needing to take positions and adapt in different sequences to ensure victory. Which is why its such a shame when it doesn’t work because the level generation decides that humanity does not deserve to be happy.
That’s what it feels like at least. When you press the start button and find your starting location within the line of sight of an enemy controlled siege cannon. I can just imagine the look on the poor faces of my units, as they materialize in the world ready to fight and the first thing they see are hundreds of rockets exploding in their faces. This is essentially an instant lose scenario, and as the game tries to ramp up difficulty, it happens with increasing frequency. As of this writing I have tried twenty times to beat a level called Ruins; six of those times I had that massive death machine as a neighbor eager to give me baskets of flaming pain as welcoming gifts. Four of those times placed me in the center of the map surrounded by four or more enemy bases spawning units at me–not instant flaming death, but still certain doom. Three times the first enemy mutations were the much more difficult ones to counter early in, like clones, protobase attacks which spawn mini bases nearby that attack in waves, or other such scenarios where the difficulty spikes absurdly early into the map. The rest of the time I just died as the opposition spawned more and more difficult mutations, being unable to defend half the map while trying to attack, constantly losing border bases and being beaten down by clone attacks.
After the last friendly neighbor situation I gave up. As frustrating as the other situations are, I just don’t have the patience for 1/4th of my attempts starting in an instant lose scenario. Randomly generated levels can be a great thing in games, but for this game, I’m not sure I believe they are beneficial after this. They would need some balancing to ensure a consistent experience for the player, guaranteeing a start location free of rockets for instance, and perhaps keeping it at least somewhat defensible. Half the time you start a level and you’re in a nook and life is good. The other half you are in the video game equivalent of one rough neighborhood, and life is filled with pain and gangs of aliens who snap their fingers rhythmically at you. A difficulty curve shouldn’t shift as violently as an elected official’s stance on the tough issues, it should stick to progressively getting harder in a manner that’s manageable. No one wants a game that reverses its stance on net neutrality, or one that’s just randomly impossible either. If anything needs to be fixed during the beta period, this is the big one, this is the game killer while other problems are just bearable nuisances.
The main nuisances for me are sound related, specifically a lack of sounds. With no music the game is audibly barren, and it also lacks sound cues to alert the player to deaths, respawns, locations being under attack or lost; it’s basically limited to the sounds of gun fire and squishing. Having these kinds of sounds would greatly improve player awareness of the state of play. AI pathing also needs some work. If you right click on a location for a unit to move to, it will walk there oblivious to everything around it except for the rocks that divide up the level. You cheer as the little dude navigates around the rock, and then sob as he lets enemies eat him while he walks in place against the side of a building. The lack of self preservation is cured by using the assault button to assign movement orders, units can still end up walking in place against a wall, but at least they shoot the ghoulies out to eat them as they do it. This is crucial when the hives mutate land mines, because they love to skip over those bad boys like kids in an antiwar commercial unless they are told to assault the place you want them to walk to.
My last complaint isn’t a bug or an issue found in the game that will hopefully be patched during beta. It’s an absence. The game has no story of any kind in the build I played–you open in tutorials devoid of any substance outside of mechanics and proceed from there. I have no idea who my units are or represent, or why the aliens are here determined to own the planet. For that matter, what planet are we even on? Why is it exclusively underground caves? Is the surface lethal or something? The graphic design of the game is so beautiful and compelling to look at, why not give me a hint of a narrative to really keep the hook in place? Right now the game has no personality. The lack of music, voices, dialogue, and the like makes the game seem so much more sterile and hollow then it needs to be. Give me a colorful world to match the wonderful design the rest of the game displays, give me a reason to keep playing despite the migraine level frustration of rockets bombarding me before the screen is even done fading in the environment. The biggest thing that makes this game stand out is the limit of five or six marines facing living seas of aliens, I should care about those units more then I do now, make them feel alive. It would make the premise that much stronger.
Infested Planet is like a half finished painting. What you see is a thing of beauty for sure, but so much is missing that you just can’t feel the impact you just know the final work will have on you. I’m hopeful that the beta period will resolve the issues I faced, because it does stand to one day be a unique entry to the RTS genre. It’s a handful of units against a world of constantly evolving enemies. Everything you do needs to be changed constantly to stay viable in the field. It’s micromanagement on every level of play, and it’s unlike any RTS I have ever played. If you want something different from your RTS experience, then keep your eyes on this one through its beta, because it’s something else. Then again, if you really want to get involved with it now, grab the beta and give the team feedback to make sure this one arrives as a stellar release. You can check it out at the developers site here.