Aliens: Dark Descent Review - Strategic Xenomorphs
The Alien franchise is one of hits and misses. The first two movies are stone-cold classics, yet everything that has followed has been uneven at best. The same goes for video game adaptations. Alien: Isolation is one of the best survival horror games ever created while Aliens: Colonial Marines is one of the most infamous flops in franchised games history. So when a new Alien game is announced I experience this sort of morbid curiosity. Will it be Isolation or will it be marines? In the case of Dark Descent, it is thankfully at the Isolation end of the scale.
For the first time ever, the Aliens franchise is going strategic. Dark Descent sees players take control of a squad of marines from an isometric perspective as they complete various missions on an infested planet called Lethe. The kicker here is that combat is in real time, not the more common turn-based strategic system, so things can get hectic quickly. Thankfully there is a slow-down mechanic (or even the option to pause) so players can wrangle their marines into action and take down the Xenomorph threat before they are overwhelmed. This gives the combat the feel of something like Knights of the Old Republic (believe it or not), a mix of real-time actions with some slow moments to make strategic decisions.
During the combat slow-down, players have access to a range of special abilities. These abilities are essential to success in what is a punishing game. Using suppressive fire to slow down the nimble aliens is important and if they get too close, whipping out a shotgun for an instant kill is a great life-saver. Knowing these abilities and their best use will be the difference between victory and failure so learning them should be the first order of the day for any prospective player.
Each mission is enormous, with a massive map and multiple objectives to complete. To counter this, the game allows the team to extract at anytime, as long as they can get to their APC, to reload, heal and re-equip. The catch is that this causes a day of in-game time to tick over and therefore the infestation level of the whole planet increases. This creates a unique conundrum in that players want to ideally get as much of a mission done in one sitting as possible without losing any marines. To add to this mechanic the longer you are on a mission, the more aware of your presence the alien threat becomes, so things get harder the longer you hang around. The final piece of balancing that needs to be managed is the stress levels of the marines themselves. If they get too stressed, they get ability debuffs, causing them to be less effective. This can be managed in-mission by finding a quiet space, welding some doors and having a rest (which is also the game’s save mechanic) or by extracting. All of this combines into what is one of the more interesting risk/reward systems I have seen implemented in games.
Outside of missions, there is a wonderfully familiar meta that feels like it has been pulled straight from Xcom. There is a home base that can be upgraded with different facilities like a med-bay or an armoury, you can upgrade and promote marines, research new weapons and abilities and plan for your next mission. It will feel very familiar to anyone who has played a turn-based tactics game in recent times and I honestly don’t have a problem with that. It is a time-honoured system that serves its purpose perfectly.
During my playtime, I actually gravitated towards using a controller to play. It really felt like I had more control over the camera with the thumbsticks than I had with the mouse and as the action is real-time, moving the camera around quickly is a must. Everything mapped well to the gamepad and while I usually find strategic experiences better with a keyboard and mouse, the gamepad just felt more appropriate here. The game also works well on both the Steamdeck and The ROG Ally but you might want to make sure you have your glasses if you need them because things will be a little hard to make out on the smaller screens.
For me though, the biggest success of Aliens: Dark Descent is just how well it captures the feeling of the Aliens film. There are long periods of quiet with only the motion tracker to keep you company, slowly building tension, ramping up the adrenaline until suddenly there is a burst of activity, an alien busting through a wall or a group of alien-worshipping cultists rushing around a corner. It just feels so authentic to the movies that fans are undoubtedly going to be happy and it may even encourage players new to the franchise to seek out the classic movies to see just how good they were.
There are a few problems however that hold things back from being an absolute must-buy experience. The first is graphically the game is a little underwhelming. Character detail, especially for the Marines, is disappointing and the mission maps all begin to feel very samey before too long. There are also a few graphical bugs and glitches that seem to pop up, especially as the game goes on. The lighting on the game feels out of wack as well. This is a very dark game, which is understandable, but in this case, it comes across as unbalanced lighting. I found that I had to fiddle with the brightness and gamma settings quite a bit to make it playable. Finally, there are a lot of actions and commands to consider as you play and in the heat of the moment, it is very very easy to select the wrong thing. I feel like the UI could be refined and improved to a point where this is minimised, giving players a more precise way to select their desired action. These problems add up a bit over time and while they are hardly unforgivable sins, they do take the shine off an otherwise fantastic experience. Hopefully, we see a patch soon that fixes these issues.
Aliens: Dark Descent is, simply put, a wonderful addition to the franchise as a whole. It feels authentic to the movies in a way that surprised me given the type of game it is and it captures that trademark tension and fear. When my marines started screaming in a Bill Paxton-type voice about their chances of dying, I couldn’t help but smile. This authenticity is matched by a wonderful set of strategic game systems that will keep players happy for a long time. Tough, rewarding and engaging gameplay is the order of the day, but it never feels alienating or elitist, all are encouraged to play and all skill levels are catered for. A few fixable issues hold this back from being the ultimate Aliens game, but really if you love either Aliens or strategy gaming this is a game you won’t want to miss.
Aliens: Dark Descent was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the publisher.