Aliens: Dark Descent Review

When Aliens: Dark Descent was announced I had to raise an eyebrow. A Real Time Strategy game based around controlling a four-man squad as a single unit? The vibe seemed right, but I kept thinking to myself ‘Why not a 4-player co-op game?’, and ‘Surely, turn-based strategy would make more sense?’

The more I played of Aliens: Dark Descent the more I realised how wrong I was.

Developed by Tindalos Interactive, Dark Descent is an isometric 3D real-time-strategy game. The opening tutorial introduces the player to Maeko Hayes who discovers a xenomorph infestation aboard her space station. In an attempt to control it she totals nearby ships and brings herself into contact with a group of marines. Realising the aliens came from the nearby planet, the two forces unite to eradicate them. The story is a bit more complicated than that, but I don’t want to spoil it past the intro.

Dark Descent itself is broken into two parts. The first is a base management game – with research, upgrades, and levelling up done there. There is also the aforementioned RTS element, set on sprawling maps with multiple objectives that need to be completed before the map can be considered ‘done’.

The moment-to-moment is moving the one unit through the map, when spotted the marines will automatically open fire on enemies, and by going into an overview mode the player can also use special abilities like throwing a grenade, using a shotgun, and a multitude of other unlockables. Combat isn’t always the best thing to do either, as each encounter with a xeno will up each marine’s tension meter. Once they reach a threshold a marine will develop certain negative traits such as a fear of fire, or terrible aim. So, the player is encouraged to hide from enemies where possible in order to maintain the squad’s physical and mental health. This is not something I’ve seen before, and the moments where I was negotiating my way through tunnels while predators stalked around them was really intriguing.

Stealth is made more nerve wracking by the fact that there is a ‘Hive Activity’ meter in the top right that is constantly going up – when it hits a threshold a swarm of aliens assaults the player. You don’t want to go too slow as that can end up being just as bad as running and gunning.

Dark Descent has a really interesting approach to levels too. The squad can extract at any time and return to the ship, as long as they can return to their parked armoured vehicle. This allows for them to level up, rest, and purchase new equipment. However, each time the team returns, the threat level increases on the current map and random events fire off that can escalate the problem. It creates a very real sense of having to push each incursion to the limits of the squad’s capabilities and treading that thin line between success and failure.

This is the core of what makes Dark Descent one the best Aliens games out there. It feels like Tindalos looked at the one scene (SPOILERS for a 38-year-old movie) in Aliens where a group marines go into a hive and proceed to get dismantled in a bewildering fashion and went: “How do we make that the whole game?”.

With every foray into a map, I was on edge, the familiar sound of a motion sensor sparking off when movement was near. Each time this happened it felt like I was only moments away from a gunfight that could end badly for any one of my team.

On top of that it finds places for Aliens fan-service that actually works within the game framework. The turrets from the director’s cut of the film make an appearance here, welding shut doors as a means to hold off enemies is a key tactical advantage, and of course the familiar sound of the smartgun ripping through acid induced flesh. It feels perfect.

So, the few negatives. For those that are a fan of the Alien franchise but do not enjoy getting beat up by a game that delights in that – it is going to be an uphill struggle. The other minor one? I did not personally enjoy listening to my marines barking a repetitive sound bite every time. If Dark Descent had been turn based it would have slowed down the pace, given the player too much time to think and calculate. If it had been multiplayer the fear of the ever-present threat would have been set back by cheery banter from other players. I hope it is affirming to the developers that I write that I cannot imagine Aliens: Dark Descent as any other type of game.

Conclusion

With a fresh take on the Aliens game franchise and a deep understanding of what made that movie tick, Aliens: Dark Descent is a great Real Time Strategy.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.

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Good
  • Nails every part of the mood of the Aliens film
  • Really tight ideas for levels
  • Sound effects are on point
Bad
  • It is going to be challenging for some
  • The repetitive marine barks needed turning down a bit
8.8
Great
Written by
AJ Small is a games industry veteran, starting in QA back in 2004. He currently walks the earth in search of the tastiest/seediest drinking holes as part of his attempt to tell every single person on the planet that Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine are the greatest games ever made. He can be found on twitter (@badgercommander), where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.

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