Aliens: Dark Descent Review – Not Quite Another Bug Hunt

Ridley Scott’s Alien has, unquestionably, made an indelible mark on popular culture for over forty years. Its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, is not quite that old but almost certainly as iconic, a good trick for any movie. Sadly, the Alien universe hasn’t always had great video games derived from it. So, it’s understandable that one might approach Aliens: Dark Descent with a larger-than-healthy dose of skepticism. Those expecting a great game might not be pleased, but those who were expecting a terrible game are in for a shock.

Aliens: Dark Descent takes place about 20 years after the events portrayed in Aliens. Weyland-Yutani is still a multistellar corporate abomination, but it seems somebody in the intervening years has realized that trying to play around with a hostile alien species tends to get people killed and facilities with substanial dollar values destroyed. A corporate mining outpost on the moon Lethe (the star system is never identified) falls victim to a Xenomorph attack on the outpost’s primary orbital platform, Pioneer Station. The station’s deputy director, Maeko Hayes, activates a quarantine system known as the Cerberus Protocol which destroys the shuttle which brought the Xenomorphs up, along with a freighter and the USS Otago, a USCM assault transport. The Marines send a rescue team to pull out Hayes, but the Otago crash lands on Lethe, sending Hayes and the Marines on a death march against the Xenomorph hive, malfunctioning “synthetic persons,” and a crazed cult who look to the “bugs” as the key to apotheosis. And all of this while the Cerberus Protocol ticks down to glassing Lethe with nuclear sterilization.

Probably the only well lit moments in the game.

A large part of the appeal for Alien and Aliens is the visual design. The biomechanical designs of H.R. Giger combined with the semi-brutalist industrial aesthetic of the USCM and Weyland-Yutani facilities are brought to life in Aliens: Dark Descent, courtesy of the Unreal engine. While the character models look a little off at times, the skin textures and the facial features not quite distinct enough to be called stylized, the rest of the game looks excellent. It evokes the production designs from Aliens almost perfectly, and certain elements actually feel like they’re logical evolutions of what was shown in the films, further cementing the notion that we’re at a point in time well after the movies.

The visual effects are kind of hit-or-miss. Big stuff like flame and explosions look great, but smaller elements like the acid sprays from slain Xenomorphs are less distinct unless you get in so close that tactical control is essentially useless. New elements such as cultist “guardians” who can be seen with a chestburster swimming around inside their torsos seem to split the difference between the film elements and the game elements.

“Worst case of athlete’s foot ever!”

The UI is clean, minimal, and pretty easy to read. That said, certain lighting choices (while in keeping with the spirit of the films) occasionally makes navigating the combat zones a little difficult. And while I can appreciate the clearly delineated point sources on the map, courtesy of the motion trackers, part of me would have liked to have seen the sort of amorphous “blob” return on the screen rather than discrete white dots.

Aliens: Dark Descent takes pains to recreate many of the iconic sounds from Aliens, from the chatter of pulse rifles to the increasing tone of motion trackers as enemies approach. Obviously, none of the characters from the movies appear here, but more than a few of the existing characters have spiritual cousins among the cast. And, for the most part, the voice acting is pretty well done. If there’s any complaint there, it’s perhaps the mismatch of certain barks for certain actions (sending your team to a certain point at a walking pace should not be met with the confirmation of “double time!”) which diminishes the effort. Musically, you’re likely to hear new orchestrations right along with renditions of parts of James Horner’s original film score, particularly during combat sections. The music is well done enough that it’s hard to say which is which at times. Clearly, Tindalos Interactive did their homework on this particular aspect of the game.

“This is what happens when somebody in Colony Administration doesn’t clean out the fridge.”

The gameplay in Aliens: Dark Descent definitely calls to mind at least a few aspects of the movie. In some respects, it freely borrows from tactical RPGs like XCOM. You have an array of grunts who will go forth and blast their way into specialized classes and new abilities. You gather materials to improve your arsenal and tweak your Marines into becoming the bug-hunting, hive-destroying, heartbreakers-and-life-takers you need to survive. And you try to do all this while on a slow clock. The good news is that, out in the field, time is relative. Days and nights don’t pass. The deployment lasts until you evac out, then advance the day. Where Aliens: Dark Descent differs from the typical XCOM formula is in how a squad is handled both in traversing levels and in combat. While you may assign Marines to your squad, there’s just the one squad. It’s fixed at four Marines, and you have no individual control over them as such. The good news is that the squad moves as a squad, so you’re not having to fiddle about with individual positions and facings as far as cover. The bad news is that you don’t have any way to really establish a formation, designate who’s on point, that sort of thing. Since you can’t fine tune, you’re always a little bit off balance when it comes to combat.

When the bullets start flying and the bodies start dropping, you come to realize that Aliens: Dark Descent isn’t your typical tactical RPG. It’s closer to a real-time strategy game or a MOBA than XCOM. It does have a cover system which is pretty intuitive. It has stealth mechanics which (arguably) are kind of a pain in the ass, particularly when large numbers of enemies are out and about. Special attacks require Command Points, which can be spent on anything from establishing a firing lane for suppressive fire to laying down anti-personnel mines. These points regenerate over time, which if you’re willing to spend the time can ultimately lead to some very heavily fortified positions against waves of enemies. Killing enemies helps add a little boost to the regeneration, allowing you to make special attacks faster.

“We have no officers, our ship is falling apart, and we’re facing gory death by alien menace, human cultists, and ‘friendly’ nukes. Another glorious day in the Corps.”

But there’s a catch to all this. Your troops are not superhuman. They’re not automatons. They’re flawed, fragile, and ultimately mortal people. Most of your Marines in the pool of potential troops are going to have flaws. Some of these flaws are irritating. Some are likely to get your squad killed. Compounding this is combat fatigue. As you get into firefights, your Marines will be under stress. Too much stress, their flaws kick in, hampering combat effectiveness. Keep them in the fight too long and heavy stress will exacerbate these conditions. You can rest up if you seal certain rooms with a “house” icon on the map, indicating you can create a shelter. Not every room on a map has that icon. A lot do, but then it becomes a question of resources. Do you shelter up, using one or more of your toolkits? Do you use medkits to knock down the stress that way, risking potential injury later on? You’ve only got so many resources you can carry, and there’s a lot of map to cover.

Moreover, while you’re fighting, you’re also advancing an aggression meter for the Xenomorphs. When you’re not actively engaging the Xenomorphs, or other enemies, you’re considered “undetected.” But once the ball starts, unless you’ve capped one inept guard without all of his dumb little buddies hearing you, the hunt is on. At certain points, you’ll be hit with massive waves of enemies, requiring you to dig in and hold a position against all comers. Keep the fight going on long enough, you’re facing miniboss Xenomorphs who’re just as likely to stomp or bull rush you as hiss at you menacingly. The good news: all that experience can be used to improve Marines, removing their flaws, reducing susceptibility to fatigue and mental traumas. Some of them might be in sickbay for a while, but they’ll be tougher for the next fight. And if you’re very good, you might even get all of them off Lethe. But it’ll take a lot of resources, a lot of time, and more than a few Marines to make it all happen.

“You know, the last time we went wandering a space port at night, you got that cute tattoo, didn’t you, Sarge?”

The campaign gives you the option to withdraw from a mission zone and come back with a fresh squad. This, however, presents its own set of resource issues. Whatever you take from the map with Squad A won’t be there for Squad B to utilize. On the other hand, if Squad A has built up a lot of experience, you can send Squad B in to clean up the bits and pieces they missed, including datapads which provide background information with what happened right before the Otago went down. But then again, you’re on the clock. Each deployment advances a tick on the strength of the Xenomorph hive, and once you’ve reached a certain point in the campaign, the countdown really kicks into gear. Moreover, there are side events which occur when advancing to the next day. They might give you much needed resources while basically burning up a deployment window, or they could diminish your available pool of Marines which might not leave you with enough forces to actually send out a squad. Get a well equipped and battled hardened Marine squad assembled, and taking big bites of mission objectives becomes feasible. But even then, it’s no guarantee all of them will come back.

There are, of course, shortcomings in the gameplay, both mechanically and narratively. While the UI is pretty clean, the controls are not always quite so cut-and-dried. One particular hangup involves sentry guns. You have to set a position, then try to adjust the firing arc before confirming it needs to be established. And when you’re facing down a horde of murderous aliens, getting that arc wrong can be the difference between continuing the mission and “game over, man!” From a management standpoint, I kind of wish I could create a squad template rather than just picking who’s available off a list. Yeah, I know, it’s good to mix people up, give the guys who haven’t seen the elephant a chance to pick up experience. Thankfully, you have a training room to help compensate, but it’s another risk-reward system: regular training produces small XP gains, intensive training gets you levels but leaves the Marine unavailable for a deployment later. Command Point abilities can supposedly be set to actually pause the game, giving you time to think and plan the next few seconds, but for some reason it seems to revert to a “slow” mode which stills gives you some time but not as much. And for all the Xenomorph queens you end up killing, the infestation just keeps getting bigger and bigger with every day that passes. The final insult involves RNG mechanics, particularly around vents when enemies are hiding and waiting to ambush you. Walk out of the ambush range, you’re golden. Run out of it and you’re automatically attacked. Plus, there’s no telling when new enemies will pop out of “spawn closets” around the map, and there’s times where the RNG is damned inconvenient. It reached a point where I was mining any red triangles on the map to cover my flanks out of habit, and some maps have a lot of red triangles on them.

“Seriously, Administrator, would I callously betray the entire crew for a chance at priceless scientific knowledge and a quarterly bonus?”

Narratively, Aliens: Dark Descent might be riffing off Aliens, but it misses a lot of what made the movie work as a story. Since the narrative is essentially linear, the story and character arcs for the NPCs need to be important. We may love the grunts we send into the meat grinder, but we’re embodying those main character NPCs, and it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Weyland-Yutani doing crooked things in remote star systems possibly infested with Xenomorphs? Shocking! Well, not that shocking. Crazed cultists being crazy and culty? This isn’t Warhammer 40K and the whole conceit of the “Darwin’s Era” cult just feels tacked on, as though the devs thought we needed human enemies to break up the monotony. Psychic powers? Way too much of a stretch, no matter how many “lost” family members you try to cram in. There’s a distinct lack of narrative tension to match the mechanical tension from the various game systems in play. For all the good things Tindalos Interactive did here, they dropped the ball where it counted.

How you feel about Aliens: Dark Descent I think ultimately comes down to what you’re looking to get out of it. If you’re wanting to see how the typical tactical RPG can be changed and played with, given a dash of RTS for spice, then this is probably one you want to pick up. If you’re looking for a worthy side story to Aliens, whether it’s the movie or the spin-off books and comics, you’re likely to be disappointed. As a game, it plays well enough, and there’s enough potential replay value to make it worthwhile. But with the various control snags and narrative failings, it might not be worth reliving right away.

Axel reviewed Aliens: Dark Descent with a purchased copy on PlayStation 5.  It is also available on PC, Xbox One/S/X, and PlayStation 4

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