Aliens: Dark Descent captures the sense of terror and claustrophobia made famous by the legendary horror franchise to which it belongs, despite being a tactical strategy game played from an isometric perspective. It alternates between intense tension, explosive action, and contemplative strategy, occasionally undercut by a technical hiccup or UI irritant. Deeply rewarding, with smart additions we hope to see developed by more games in the future, this Aliens outing doesn't perfectly stick the landing. Nevertheless, it remains an easy recommendation for anyone even remotely interested.
Dark Descent tells the harrowing story of deputy administer Maeko Hayes, a Weyland-Yutani exec turned unlikely strategist by desperate circumstances and extraterrestrial horrors. The action primarily takes place on the remote Colonial backwater of Lethe in the year 2198, telling an original tale set in the storied Aliens universe. After an inevitable and instantly devastating xenomorph outbreak, and thanks to a planetary containment system called Cerberus, Hayes and a small group of survivors find themselves trapped on the planet's surface with an unknown number of rapidly reproducing, extremely deadly predators.
In this endeavour of survival, she is ably assisted by a ragtag (and highly customisable) platoon of foul-mouthed Colonial Marines, with all the attitude, laconic one-liners, and heavy ordinance that comes standard issue. Without giving too much away, it tells a surprisingly verbose, well-written tale that had us engaged throughout — and planning a series rewatch of the films to boot.
In terms of presentation, Dark Descent has clearly been a labour of love for the developers at Tindalos Interactive, and they've knocked it out of the park. The hard-sci-fi industrial look is pitch-perfect, with blood-soaked Weyland-Yutani logos emblazoned across stark and futuristic structures. The sound of roaring pulse rifles or the steady beeping of a motion tracker as it detects movement combines to make this feel like one of the most faithful licensed games we can recall playing.
A fascinating blend of genres, Dark Descent mixes interesting mechanics from other games and comes up with something simultaneously familiar and yet wholly unique in the process. Gameplay takes place within two distinct phases ala the XCOM series: a strategic layer from which players launch parties of Marines on away missions, and the tactical engagements themselves, where alien abominations relentlessly hunt your Marines in real-time, and you do what you can to prevent the inevitable for as long as possible.
Aboard the Otago — a USCM frigate which serves as your base of operations — you can outfit your Marines, deal with dilemmas as they arise, and direct what amounts to a hopeless war against impossible odds. This strategic layer, in our reckoning, is about a single step back from what was asked in XCOM: Enemy Unkown, which is to say, you only have to worry about your Marines. While there are some unlocks as the campaign progresses, you aren’t constructing buildings or really allocating forces or aircraft. Instead, you have to worry about a dozen or so fragile, fleshy humans whose minds can be broken as swiftly as their bones.
Missions take place on persistent maps, which bear the scars of previous encounters. Deploying a squad to one of the varied and impressively detailed settings, your troops explore blood-soaked hab buildings and abandoned labs, encountering the rare survivors not already infected or insane, scavenging for resources all the while. Doors can be welded shut, allowing a safe Shelter where the squad can rest and recuperate before grimly continuing on. To be clear, there can be no victory here: you simply get in, do what you can, and get out as quickly as possible.
Combat plays out in horrifying real-time and is quite unique, with the closest analogue to our mind being in charge of a single squad of soldiers in Company of Heroes 3 (even utilising a similar cover system). Your Marines will automatically fire upon enemies, and the action can be set either slowed to a crawl or paused entirely when activating a skill or employing some of the more specialised weaponry in the USCM arsenal. The good stuff, which ranges from automated sentry guns to portable flamethrowers, is the secret to turning the tide against overwhelming odds. Your Marines even have access to an armoured transport vehicle, which can be used to safely redeploy around the map or to extract back to the Otago once the hive begins to wake up.
Taking an elegant page out of the Darkest Dungeon playbook, the experience of being hunted by xenomorphs is a heart-pounding one for both the player and their fragile Marines. Backs to the wall, with hordes of chittering xenos pouring out of the woodwork and ammo running low, even the bravest soldiers will begin to crack.
Your enemy is smart and will actively search the map for its prey, popping out of air vents and remaining clear of sightlines, even attempting to take your screaming wounded alive. You're encouraged to avoid fights where possible; increasingly more powerful aliens will enter the map in response to a commotion, with Praetorians and Crushers eventually backing up the rank-and-file Drones, Runners, and Facehuggers.
This psychological trauma has a tangible effect on Marines in the field and needs to be managed back at the Otago. Mechanically, this forces the player to rotate fresh troops into the field, letting shell-shocked veterans recuperate while untested rookies are forced to earn their stripes. Naming, customising, and becoming more than a little emotionally attached to your troops is easy to do, and it's devastating to lose a familiar face.
Everpresent is the threat of xenomorphs and the level of difficulty we found to be challenging in the best possible way. Playing on hard difficulty with Dark Descent’s version of Ironman Mode enabled (craving a challenge), we were punished relentlessly over the course of an addictive 50 hours of campaign gameplay, and we might even go back for more on Nightmare someday. The difficulty is, thankfully, highly customisable, and if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, it can be tailored as you see fit.
The experience was only marred slightly by a few crashes and some technical hiccups (bodies bugging out, Marines getting stuck in the environment), which did, unfortunately, lead to several hours of lost progress all told. The experience of wrestling the UI on the Otago can become something of a chore as the game progresses as well, and we do wish the management side of things was a little cleaner, but these are admittedly small issues in the grand scheme.
Aliens: Dark Descent is easily one of the best video game adaptations of the legendary franchise to which it belongs, somehow managing to be an excellent tactical strategy game and genuinely terrifying at the same time. Tense, engaging, and extremely faithful, it stumbles only in technical execution, and even then, not enough to spoil the experience.