It’s been a tumultuous time for the Aliens franchise. Ten years after the disastrous release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the franchise has had its ups and downs. Gamers saw the release of Alien: Isolation and Alien: Blackout, both of which took the infamous world into the survival-horror genre. 2017’s theatrical release of Alien: Covenant was met with a mixed reception. 2021 saw the co-op shooter Aliens: Fireteam Elite meet with a solid reception, and the series has been flourishing in printed media. Comic books, graphic novels, and even audiobooks like Alien: Out of Shadow have been met with positive acclaim. While the world waits for the next Alien installment, Focus Entertainment and France-based developer Tindalos Interactive have stepped in to place their own mark on the franchise with the real-time strategy game Aliens: Dark Descent.
Aliens: Dark Descent made the rounds when it debuted at PAX EAST this past spring, lauded for its atmosphere and presentation. With its final launch now available, Aliens: Dark Descent has quite a lot to live up to, and despite a few blemishes, It lives up to it successfully. Aliens: Dark Descent combines survival horror, real-time strategy, and resource management into one of the most unique gaming experiences today. With great reverence for the source material, Aliens: Dark Descent is an excellent game for Aliens enthusiasts and strategy fans.
Another Day In The Corps
The year is 2198. On the fringes of The Frontier, Weyland-Yutani establishes an operation on the moon of Lethe. The area consists of a refinery on the surface, the Dead Hills colony, and an orbiting station called Pioneer. A mysterious ship arrives on Pioneer from the surface refinery. An unknown assailant breaks open its contents and terror strikes across the station. Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes struggles to maintain control, watching in horror as her friends and co-workers are swarmed by facehuggers. The same dropship leaves the station and Hayes activates a lethal quartine measure: Cerberus. Hundreds of armed orbiting satellites launch missiles, destroying the escaping dropship but at a price.
The missiles swarm and destroy a nearby freighter, killing all aboard. Subsequently, the USCM Assault ship, the Ortega is caught in the missile swarm and is unable to defend itself. Trapped, Hayes is rescued by the Colonial Marines led by Sgt Joan Harper. They escaped the doomed space station but as they return to the Ortega, the ship crash lands on the surface of Lethe. The ship suffers extensive damage and casualties, leaving Sgt Harper in charge. Sgt Harper deputizes Administrator Hayes as an Intelligence officer. Marooned on Lethe, Sgt Harper, Hayes, and what is left of the ship’s crew fight for their lives against an unknown threat. As they venture deep into the colony, the definition of Hell itself is defined and rewritten.
When I played Aliens: Dark Decent at PAX East this year, the gameplay demo was already impressive. The game appeared as a title with great reverence for the source material, as well as a clever take on traditional real-time strategy. The enemy Xenomorphs move in shadows, making the threat constant. The mental health of your Marines is just as important as health and firepower. Every action matters in a mission of survival. I had expected the game to follow the traditional bearing of an RTS on a mission-by-mission basis. However, to my surprise, Aliens: Dark Descent is not merely an RTS but an RTS mixed with survival horror and base management, not unlike Firaxis’ XCOM.
The beginning mission of the game properly introduces players to basic movement and actions, as well as skill commands that can be useful when battling Xenomorphs. Following this opening mission, players are introduced to the wreckage of the USCM assault ship, Ortega. The Ortega has suffered severe damage, with sparks flying everywhere in the interior. However, the Ortega makes for the best possible shelter and base of operations. It is in utilizing these bays that will produce the best possible outcome of success and survival.
You are The Commander
The Ortega has several locations. The laboratory focuses on studying Xenomorph specimens to identify weaknesses and defenses. The med bay allows for Marines to be healed and cared for, especially as they suffer from exhaustion and mental health. The warehouse is a mobile factory, able to produce new weapons and materials. Finally, the barracks allow for the training and recruitment of Marines. The Ortega has plenty of Marines to choose from, but choose wisely; once they die, they don’t come back.
The Ortega is where players get ready and level up their Marines. Much like XCOM, these areas expand and grow depending on what is done out in the field. Rescuing survivors in the colony can help aid the respective departments. The first expedition involves rescuing and securing any survivors. One is a former Marine turned criminal that could help the ranks if rescued; another is an engineer that could help in constructing tech. Securing data pads reveal more information as to what is happening on Lethe and why.
The meat of Aliens: Dark Descent is the gameplay, and it is done incredibly well. The game follows the hallmark rules of real-time strategy games. Players click a point and walk to their destination. They can ask Marines to run, but that could draw attention. Marines attack any Xenomorph that comes close and will engage even in motion. Aliens: Dark Descent separates itself from more traditional rules by focusing on survival. This includes resource management, stealth, and the mental health of the Marines on your team.
There are no missions in Aliens: Dark Descent. Instead, there are expeditions. Every venture outside the Ortega is an expedition into the colony to complete various objectives. The game doesn’t follow the traditional mission-by-mission structure one would come to expect. Every expedition introduces a constant sense of unpredictability as the Xenomorph hive owns the very environment players venture into. They are smart and clever, utilizing every advantage to annihilate any hopeless human.
They Mostly Come at Night
Every expedition is a hunt, and players are the hunted. The Marines focus on various objectives throughout the colony, but every step is a risk of being detected. Being spotted by drone Xenomorphs or making too much noise is bound to attract attention as the hive sense gunfire and alien screeches. If players aren’t careful, the enemy is alerted and begins actively tracking down the team. Finally, if spotted, a swarm is initiated. The hive sends absolutely everything to the players for a small time. Warrior Xenomorphs and canine Xenos do everything in their power to capture or kill the team. This is where Aliens: Dark Descent truly embraces the ebb and flow established in the movie.
The Colonial Marines are very tough hombres and can hold their own. In addition to the pulse rifle, Marines can issue commands for special actions. These include switching to shotguns for a few shots or enabling suppression fire on a given area. Additionally, Marines have tools such as deployable sonar and sentry guns. During expeditions, players can weld doors, either for defense or to rest. Resting is a smart tactic to recuperate and save mid-expedition, though it costs one tool point to do so and there are only a small number of points to use. In a defensive stance, players may weld doors to create chokepoints for returning fire.
Express Elevator to Hell
The classic mobile Doppler radar from the movie returns, with that infamous high-pitched pinging sound. Utilizing the radar station and the mobile Doppler is effective in maintaining awareness as to where Xenomorphs may be. Finally, Marines have a berserk mode. This automatically makes the Marines more dangerous and delivers more damage. This is advantageous for tough spots. Occasionally, vehicles, like the recon APC, come to assist, transporting Marines across the Colony and extricating the team and survivors when the danger grows out of control.
Audiences remember the fear of Hudson, Newt, and Ripley in Aliens. Hudson perfectly exemplified the sheer fear and terror the Xenomorph sends. His antics, panic talk, and infamous lines like “Game over, man!” have become a cultural legend. That same atmosphere is here in Aliens: Dark Decent. The regular banter among Marines is spot-on, as well as their names. The game gives the right impression of Colonial Marines in their military cadre doing what they can to survive. However, they are human and they won’t take well to the horrors they see.
Game Over, Man
During gameplay, Marines come to witness many horrors. There are few things more horrifying than seeing a weeping woman suddenly cry out in agony as a chestburster rips from her abdomen in blood and gore. Even worse are Marines being hurt, wounded, or taken away by Xenomorphs never to be seen again.
Every moment affects the mental state of your Marines. After a while, they can start to become fearful and panicky. This leads to detrimental combat performance, like less accuracy or an unwillingness to open fire. Medications can be taken, but that can only hold off symptoms for so long.
As players survive expeditions, the Marines are treated back at the Ortega. They may recuperate from exhaustion and be treated for mental health afflictions. Marines rank up and become more skilled and battle-hardened. Like XCOM, they can be leveled up and assigned skills. However, also like the aforementioned title, Marines can be killed. Losing high-ranking Marines is a significant blow.
Overall, Aliens: Dark Descent is a challenge as the players walk on metaphorical eggshells to complete their objective. However, the Marines are no easy prey and can send Xenomorphs into the meat grinder. Playing the game is unlike anything else I have ever experienced in gaming. The genre of RTS is more reserved for straightforward action, but in Aliens: Dark Descent, it feels like a true war for survival. Every moment outside the ship feels like a matter of life and death.
In on instance, an expedition almost ended in disaster. While trying to finish an objective, a drone discovered my team and a swarm was entering the area. I welded at least one door before the swarm entered. Using special actions, I fought off several large warrior Xenos and barely survived. I revived a few Marines but one was in a coma. I double-timed it back to the recon APC, surviving a few lone Xenomorphs before making it to the APC. As the APC delivered artillery fire to any Xenomorphs, I was able to extricate with my team intact. Moments like that make Aliens: Dark Descent golden.
Not Bad for a Human
Aliens: Dark Descent gets many things right, but it doesn’t escape from a common setback seen in most games upon release: technical issues. Gameplay holds soundly with the occasional blemish here and there. However, in-game cutscenes suffer. Texture pop-ins, mismatched audio, and missing assets occasionally plague an otherwise sound experience. It’s enough that it takes players out for the immersion, but it isn’t game-breaking in any way.
Aliens: Dark Descent should be lauded for its accomplishment. It’s a mixture of different philosophies in survival, horror, resource management, and real-time strategy. Such a choice is risky, but for Aliens: Dark Descent, that mixture works into a concoction of tremendous enjoyment. It is a visual stunner with nailing the immersion and feels of the movie, coupled with gameplay with plenty of challenge and reward.
Aliens: Dark Descent is an excellent take on the franchise, and great for fans of the genre and diehard Aliens enthusiasts. Get on the ready line, Marines!
Aliens: Dark Descent was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 thanks to a key generously supplied to Mega Visions by Sandbox Strategies.