Infested Planet might look like a modest little iOS game or even — heaven forfend! — a tower defense game, but it’s not. It’s a dynamic, constantly evolving, back-and-forth real time strategy sandbox, unique for its sense of flow. Flow isn’t a typical RTS buzzword. But I can think of no better way to explain its unique charms.
After the jump, dam.
Flow is an appropriate word for the moment-to-moment action. This is a game about a handful of hearty soldiers holding out as best they can against an infinite horde of alien bugs. It’s the zerg missions from Starcraft, but without all the silly Blizzard story or RPG elements or Korean clicks-per-second micro. Instead, Infested Planet has the feel of managing liquid dynamics. The aliens keep coming, pouring themselves into your defensive fire, splashing apart against your bullets, spilling out around your flanks. You’re like the Army Corps of Engineers trying to wrangle a river. A river of alien bug goo. You position a unit and watch for a second to see if he’s going to hold. You move another one to keep the flank on the left from crumbling under the surge. You upgrade a weapon to push back a little harder. You consider whether you can spare the resources to bring in helicopter suppport to shore up spillage down the line. Since this is a single-player only game, the aliens have the luxury of playing as a mindless surging tide.
But Infested Planet’s unique appeal is the flow in another sense. Most real time strategy games have a linear flow where I’m either progressing or backing up along a straight line that represents how many resources I have. I gather resources, I build units, I throw them into a battle. Hopefully I win the battle. If I don’t, there goes all that gold, wood, and dilithium, or whatever I used to build those units. Now I have to gather more resources and build more units. It’s my punishment for not winning the battle. Fair enough. That’s the flow. Don’t lose a battle because you’ll have to back up and recover your losses.
Infested Planet’s greatest accomplishment is how it subverts that traditional flow. When you lose a battle, you lose no resources. Every point you spent training, recruiting, building, or upgrading whatever you lost is refunded. You lose only the ground you had seized and the minimal time it will take to rebuild. Which can be crucial, hence the challenge of Infested Planet. You can’t lollygag around when there’s a flood of aliens bearing down on you.
But you are never locked into a particular set of units, buildings, or upgrades. You can spend your points after a loss however you like, on an entirely different strategy. Or — and here’s the truly subversive take on real time strategy games that reminds me of Blizzard’s new skill system in Diablo III — you can simply rebuild at any time. If those snipers aren’t serving you well, cash them in and get shotgunners instead. If those turrets aren’t needed, tear them down and build them somewhere else. If the grenade upgrade is bouncing off armored bugs, replace it with portable medic stations. Infested Planet wants you to adjust your strategy on the fly. It wants you to have moments where you fall back, regroup, and reconsider. It wants you to try new things freely.
But your flexibility is just half of the equation. The other have of the equation is the alien flexibility. They’re also adjusting their strategy on the fly. As you conquer hives and therefore earn more points to spend, the aliens randomly unlock new capabilities. The game you’re playing half way into the nest isn’t the game you were playing at the entrance, and it’s not going to be the game you’re playing when you box in those last few alien spawn point. Now the aliens have ranged attacks, armored defensive emplacements, squads that assassinate your officers, infested marines, and brief frenzied counterattacks whenever you capture a new point. You have to adjust your strategy because they’re adjusting their strategy. Did you play Arcen’s AI War, in which the galaxy reacts as you conquer it? This is the tactical equivalent.
There’s a similar flexibility in terms of how you play. A campaign mode has plenty of dynamic elements, including optional missions and your choice among unlockable upgrades. The custom mode lets you set up games with a ridiculous amount of customization. For instance, you can even specify the progression of alien upgrades, your starting forces, and the layout of the map. It’s basically all the muscle of a scenario designer at your fingertips. Or random missions will take care of all that stuff for you. Weekly challenges are missions with fixed elements — the aliens will upgrade in the same order, for instance — that you play to place on a leaderboard. You can pause a game at any time to consider your options, choose upgrades, and even give orders. The heat of battle isn’t so oppressive when you can freely call time-out. I normally get so caught up (i.e. panicked) that I forget I can pause (note to self: hit P every time you capture a node so you can carefully consider how to spend the points instead of just freaking out and noticing three or four nodes later that you’ve got 20 points you haven’t spent). Those of you less prone to panic will enjoy the option to nearly make this a turn-based game.
Infested Planet is all about the flow of this dynamic give-and-take, back-and-forth, thrust-and-parry, feint-and-regroup, upgrade and counter upgrade. Other real time strategy games are battle lines smashing into each other, often won by sheer force or snowballing advantages, messy, fraught with loss. Infested Planet is a dance.
(Listen to my podcast with Infested Planet developer Alex Vostrov here.)