Review – Aliens: Dark Descent
Ever since the fantastic Alien: Isolation I’ve been waiting for another truly great Alien game to come out, and it’s been a rough wait. We’ve had Aliens: Fireteam Elite, which was competent, but severely flawed as a cooperative shooter. Aliens: Dark Descent came under the motion tracker for me, and what a treat it has been. Whilst far from perfect, it’s a truly faithful Aliens experience.
Set a few years after the events of Alien 3, the USS Otego receives a shipment of mysterious crates, soon figuring it out to be Xenomorphs. They are unleashed on the Otego and planetside, as the Cerberus operation starts to contain the threat. As Commander Hayes, you will take command of a squad of colonial marines sent planetside to gather resources and find a way to make the Otego functional again. Although, this is easier said than done, as the infestation spreads and a crazed cult is out to stop you as well.
Dark Descent‘s story is pretty well told. The developers have taken great care into making sure everything fits into the Alien‘s universe. However, some may find the cult stuff or later revelations a bit much. Even for the wild nature of the franchise. However, I love how it just embraced this aspect of the franchise and delivered something engaging. The final boss is also something brand new to the franchise, and one that feels right at home.
Now, when you see a game with the Aliens (with the S) title, you tend to expect not-so-great action shooters that miss out on a lot of the tension. Not here; Aliens: Dark Descent is something different. This time you control a squad of colonial marines from an isometric viewpoint. You control them all simultaneously, and they move in a singular squad around the map. Stealth is a major component of the game, and avoiding enemies whenever possible should be a top priority. By using the map and motion sensors on your marines and around the map, you are able to avoid quite a few confrontations.
When (not if) you get into combat, you may need to use special abilities. The space bar will slow the game speed down, putting you into slow motion to allow you to react to enemy threats. This allows you to more easily move marines around the environment. From here, you will be able to use your abilities. Setting suppressive fire will let a marine target a specific area, and flares light up an area increasing accuracy. Shotguns and grenade launchers are pretty self-explanatory and you get a few more as the game progresses.
The infestation has run rampant and the more time you spend in missions the more dangerous it becomes. Despite being a very capable unit that can deal with the Xenomorph threat, avoiding confrontation is your best course of action. The more combat you engage with, the more the swarm knows where you are. You’ll need to play cautiously, yet always push towards your objectives. Eventually, you will trigger these swarm events where a considerable horde will barrel down to your position. It’s critical to set up defensive positions, know where the Xeno threat is coming from and deploy any turrets or even try to make it back to your APC for safety.
Dark Descent‘s minute-to-minute gameplay is an absolute treat. I was expecting some sort of fast-paced ARPG based on some of the footage, but what we have here is so much better. A slow burn tactics game that stays true to the franchise. Outside a few awkward moments, commanding your full squad is a breeze as they move as one cohesive unit, making it really easy to pull off those movie-like moments as your squad slowly pushes through an Alien hive, using their flashlights to reveal resources or other horrors. There’s nothing like seeing a small horde of Xeno’s approaching and hoping they won’t see you, as you weld a door to create a temporary safe space for your marines. It captures the tension of the franchise beautifully, despite being from an isometric point of view.
Then to put an XCOM spin on things, Dark Descent is a very hard game that will punish you if you make mistakes. Even playing on the game Medium difficulty is a relentless challenge. Xenomorph’s acid blood will damage your squad if they are too close, so making sure you have room to fall back is key. The more combat you get into, the more stress your squad goes through, giving them unique debuffs.
And if a soldier dies, they die. There’s no coming back. It’s this hardcore approach that pushes Dark Descent to that next level. Every action has dire consequences, and this is felt in every aspect of the game. By the end of a level, your resources will be dwindling and sometimes your only choice is to leave someone behind and it hurts. Or if you feel you need to retreat, backing out of a mission early is always an option. The scale of these levels is also fairly sizable.
Xenomoprhs aren’t your only threat, however, and very soon you will meet a slightly different enemy. A crazed cult that has taken other parts of the facilities that actively worship the alien threat. These lead to some of the more wilder moments in Dark Descent, that add a little bit more variety than dealing with your hordes of Xenomorphs. It’s a nice touch to see this direction, and there are some interesting enemies to fight, even if they don’t come close to the standard Xenomorph encounters.
In-between missions you will be sent back to the Otego to restock and rest your marines in the medbay. Each day you will need to make a choice based on some scenarios. But after an in-game week, the difficulty will rise again. The supplies you collect on missions can be used to unlock new weapons and gadgets. Alien samples can be used to create gear that will help you defend against the alien threat. It’s not as deep as XCOM, and I would have loved to see this expanded, but it does the job nicely.
However, it’s far from perfect and there are quite a few things that really hold Dark Descent back from standing up there with Alien: Isolation. First of all the controls are way too clunky. For a game that likes to parade stealth, the cover system is aggressively awkward to use. AI is also pretty rough, with enemies very rarely doing anything than running around, often times straight through the fire.
I’ve had multiple bugs that had me restoring to previous saves, constantly taking me back to before some tricky encounters. Also, a blessing or curse the APC doesn’t trigger searches. Whilst it would be annoying to have the APC trigger alerts if a lone Xeno is travelling by it’s bizarre that you can just hide behind it whilst it kills entire hordes with no punishment. There’s a lot here to like, but also a lot that will take you way out of the experience.
Unfortunately, the game on a technical level isn’t great. It has some of the worst character models of the year, displayed in really low-quality cutscenes. Rough texture work is present throughout, and it just doesn’t feel as polished as it should. It does however capture that sweet low-fi look that makes Aliens such an enjoyable experience in the first place.
Although, the same can’t be said with sound, which is just plain bad. The voice acting isn’t this game’s strong suit, especially during the gameplay where marines will constantly yell commands. I get that some chatter can do wonders to increase immersion, but here it’s just a plain annoyance. Every time you move characters, enter combat, kill an enemy, get attacked, or discover an enemy on the motion tracker, you will get the same handful of lines. It’s a shame as well, because much like the graphics, a decent amount of work has been put into the sound design to keep it faithful, and on occasion it does work.
Aliens: Dark Descent is one of the best Aliens games, period. That said, there are a few caveats. It perfectly recaptures the same action-horror vibes that made the original movies such a treat to watch. It’s a tactical, hardcore, strategy game that doesn’t hold your hand at all. If you are a fan of the franchise, this is an absolute must-play, but be aware that it is far from perfect and there are still some frustrating decisions here.
It perfectly encapsulates the look and feel of the Aliens movies, but the visuals are also incredibly rough around the edges.
An unforgiving, hardcore Aliens-themed tactical shooter is a dream. The core gameplay loop and foundations are solid, but it’s not devoid of technical and design issues.
The marine chatter will drive you crazy, but a good amount of effort has been put into immersing you into the Aliens world.
At last, another Aliens game that stays somewhat respectful to the core elements of its source of inspiration, without feeling overly safe. It has issues, but I appreciate the risks that were taken.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Aliens: Dark Descent is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
Reviewed on PC with an RTX 4070, Ryzen 5 3600X and 16GB RAM. Installed on SSD.
A copy of Aliens: Dark Descent was provided by the publisher.