Aliens: Dark Descent is a real-time strategy game which comes to us from French devs Tindalos Interactive, otherwise known for their Battlefleet Gothic: Armada games (not, us neither). It is, of course, based on famous series of horror/sci-fi films in the radpidly declining Alien series.
Not many fanbases have had it as rough as us Aliens fans in recent years. From Prometheus and Covenant being rubbish (especially the latter), Alien 5 getting cancelled, an upcoming TV show that seems to be more bothered about ‘societal inequalities’ than, you know, the eight-foot monsters, to a frankly middling series of videogames (and say what you will about it, but Alien Isolation really wasn’t as amazing as many people made out), Aliens has given us as many reasons to be disappointed as Terminator and Predator combined.
So when Focus Entertainment announced Dark Descent, we could barely be bothered to click on the announce trailer. But when we did, we have to admit we were intrigued. For too long, games based on Aliens in particular (as opposed to Alien) have relied too much on the familiar staples. The strobing emergency lights, the sampled pulse rifle sound, the screeching baby elephant noise that the Aliens make, the iconic blip of the motion tracker. The film gives you 95% of the atmosphere right there and then what tends to happen is that a dev comes along and uses that as a skin for their ‘generic action FPS’ template.
Well, Dark Descent goes for a different approach altogether. This is a single-player, squad-based strategy game seen from above. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing though. Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction tried the same thing back in 2003 to a pretty lackluster reception but that was twenty years ago and, frankly, we’re just desperate for some good Aliens content now so we were tentatively optimistic about this one.
This game is set in 2198, 19 years after the events of Alien3 but, as with a lot of games and content in the Alien universe, this doesn’t really follow on. Instead, everything is pretty much an alternative version of what you got in Aliens. Instead of LV-426, we get the habitable moon of Lethe. In place of the spaceship Sulaco, we get the USS Otago. And instead of the colony, Hadley’s Hope, we get the depressingly named Dead Hills (although this whole colony is much larger and has plenty of other areas too).
You play as Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes who you’d think might be a substitute for Ellen Ripley but is kind of in the role as Lt. Gorman, overseeing the action as she sends her squad into action. In the tutorial mission, you do play as her and get to run around, hide and shoot so that you can learn the basics, but eventually she’ll stay on the Otago and you’ll send in a squad of four marines to complete various missions.
At first it might all seem a bit overwhelming, it certainly did for us. Aside from all of the things you can get the squad to do, there’s also a lot of upgrades, roster management, tech research and so on. And, of course, you’re controlling all of that on a DualSense, not a mouse and keyboard set up and so that can initially be tricky.
Thankfully though, Dark Descent, has a reasonably well-designed interface. For one, your squad moves as a single unit, so there’s no micromanagement involved. If you click on something interactive to activate it or pick it up, the game will just send one of the marines out to do it and they’ll rejoin the group after. Likewise, any combat techniques used (such as switching to suppressive fire or using a special weapon) will be assigned out automatically to whoever is best suited or placed to take care of it.
That said, there’s still a lot going on. While things start off gentle enough with maybe the odd alien running into your squad and needing to be dispatched, things go to hell pretty quickly and that’s where Dark Descent starts to shine. The devs know that you’ve seen the film so they don’t drag out any attempt at suspense so you’ll be seeing the Alien Queen on the first mission. It’s all new to the characters of course but there’s no point pretending we don’t know what’s going on and this does all help with the pacing early on.
When things do go inevitably awry, you’ll suddenly realise why Lt. Gorman freaked out. Your squad of four rookies can take down an alien drone but it’ll likely get within swiping range of them. They don’t die easily. So when you’ve got four or five of them charging at your squad, the panic can set in. You’ll need to rely on your combat techniques from using a devastating shotgun at close range, to laying down suppressing fire which slows down oncoming enemies. Add to that grenade launchers, flares, sentry guns and plenty more and you’ve got a lot of tactical wiggle room to play in. Thankfully, the game slows down the action when you’re in the sub-menus making these things happen or, if you’re smart, you can opt for things to pause entirely while doing that. But initially at least you might find yourself getting overwhelmed.
What does that mean? Well you might have one marine in a coma, another traumatised and missing a leg with an alien wandering off into the nearest vent carrying one of your other squad members. Trying to turn these situations around is where Dark Descent really thrives and if you manage to escape from such an encounter to the relative safety of your APC, it’s a special feeling. Likewise, setting up the right defenses and taking out an Alien Queen is also quite the thrill.
In terms of the general play and tactical feel, Dark Descent is a slow-moving game, full of tension and worry. You do kind of get the feeling of being there, tip-toeing past dormant aliens and nests, welding doors shut for protection and doing what you can to stop your marines from having full on nervous breakdowns. None of them are particularly prepared for what’s ahead and do tend to handle it more like a Hudson than a Hicks.
When you’ve completed a mission, or bugged out mid-way, you’ll be back on the Otago where you can assign medical care. However, each passing day on the Otago gives the alien menace more time to spread making things even harder when you go back. Sure you can spend days on automatic side quests and additional medical care or therapy but that’s at a cost to future success. It’s an interesting gimmick but does add a little bit of pressure that we’d have liked the option to remove.
Oddly, the game took us back to the days of Cannon Fodder with you controlling a squad of marines where you genuinely want them to get home safely. Losing a marine in battle when you’ve levelled them up can be hard to take and this just adds to the tension. Sure, there are rookies who can take their place but they’re all weak and prone to breaking down where as your favourite marines have become a bit more battle-tested.
This is definitely a game that rewards time spent with it. You’ll start to read situations better, you’ll be able to use the controls more fluidly and you’ll start trying to clear out entire levels in one visit to mitigate the further spread of the aliens. After an hour of the game we were ready to quit but after two or three days we couldn’t wait to get back to it.
In terms of the feel, this genuinely feels like an Aliens experience. The locations all look similar to things you saw in the film, the Aliens move and attack like they are meant to and the general feel of suspense is bang on. There’s a bit early on where you have to investigate a mine and it’s scary just getting in the lift to go down there. The whole thing felt overwhelming but we did it and we made it out alive, albeit with a few less limbs.
It’s not all good news though. Dark Descent is a buggy game, as of the time of writing, with bugs that have been patched out on PC still being evident here. From simple things like marines getting stuck on scenery, buttons becoming unresponsive, missions becoming broken (leading to having to roll back to an old save) and other general niggles, it’s a shame that things aren’t just a bit smoother. Also, while there is a choice between graphics and performance, you have to go with the latter as the former runs terribly and doesn’t even look any better.
In terms of the visuals, everything looks pretty good here. The top down view works well for reading the action (although we often found ourselves in the map screen when we needed a more tactical view of things) and the atmosphere is impressively foreboding and gloomy. Things maybe are a little too dark and they probably should have released this in winter as any sunlight entering your room will make it even harder to see what’s what but in the right conditions Dark Descent‘s visuals really set the scene. And, of course, there’s all the familiar music and sound effects to ensure the game sounds the part too.
While Aliens: Dark Descent maybe didn’t make the best first impression, it’s definitely a game worth sticking with, especially if you’re a fan of the films and also of strategy games. It’s complex enough to be interesting but not so much so that it becomes overbearingly dense and impenetrable and if you want a game that actually delivers on suspense and panic, this is the best example we’ve seen in years.
+ Tactical elements work well
+ Feels like the source material
- Visuals can be a bit too dark in some settings
- Has a few technical issues
- Is maybe a bit too long