Aliens: Dark Descent Review – Man Down

Aliens: Dark Descent Review

For all their best efforts and good intentions, game developers have found the Alien films to be a challenging inspiration. There have been some decent games to be sure, but greatness? Rarely. So, how does Aliens: Dark Descent fit into the roster of games inspired by the iconic films?

Mix It Up

Right out of the date Aliens: Dark Descent scores some points — figuratively, anyway — for its core mechanics. Instead of being a first-person shooter, turn-based strategy, or team-style action game, Dark Descent is a squad-based tactical shooter, with some real-time strategy elements, survival horror mechanics, and a bit of stealth. Whether or not it’s a great Aliens game, at least the genre mash-up feels fresh.

Aliens: Dark Descent’s narrative is original, but weaves in elements and iconic-feeling moments from all the films. Following an inadvertent — or possibly intentional — xenomorph infestation on your ship, the USCM vessel USS Otago, you crash land and begin to scour the environment for repair materials. Aside from the generally well-told story and plot machinations, you control a squad of four marines recruited from the Otago’s crew. The alien infestation grows, and the firefights become more tense and seemingly impossible.

This thumbnail sketch only hints at some clever, deep, and actually original gameplay ideas. For one thing, your marines are much more than interchangeable cannon fodder. Of course, they level up the longer they survive and have specific roles to play in battle. Their psychological health is immensely important, too. Their bodies can suffer injuries, but if their stress level is too high, their performance begins to suffer. You can ease their minds, but at the cost of using your too-scarce healing items. Not unlike X-com, developing your marines into useful soldiers is a meta-game unto itself.

Face Huggers and Xeno-clashes

Alien encounters are where Aliens: Dark Descent really shines. Many fights are built around a hive system, where taking out — or even just being spotted by — a single xenomorph alerts the hive. Soon the map is crowded by an ever-growing swarm of red dots moving towards your position and the effect is terrifying. Additionally, as the game progresses, the alien population continues to increase.

Fighting the various and familiar alien forms necessitates a range of techniques and equipment. You control and give commands to a specific member of the squad and the rest of the team does their thing depending on their role. This places a lot of emphasis on both friendly and enemy AI, and generally, both are good and effective. Equipping your team with the most useful, upgraded gear and death-dealing toys is a micro-manager’s dream. Absolutely no one comes out unscathed, but smart squad management and picking appropriate marines can mitigate damage.

Light Show

While I think the camera is a little too zoomed out by default, and up close the human character models scream last-gen at best, the game looks great. The HR Giger influences are there in the architecture, landscapes, and aliens. Environments are detailed and everything is accompanied by excellent, squishy sound design. A real standout element is the game’s lighting engine, throwing tentative flashlight beams across shifting shadows and lighting up the scenes with colorful weapon effects. Alien games need to get the feeling of tension and surprise exactly right, and Aliens: Dark Descent nails it.

The game’s story and dialogue are well written, and the lead voice actors do a effective job with only a few, bland exceptions. The rank-and-file marines and exclamations in battle don’t fare as well, but it doesn’t detract too much from the experience.

What does detract from what could be an alien home run are the game’s bugs and wonky pacing. Over a couple of dozen hours, there were a lot of little things that didn’t work, commands that glitched out, squad AI that became brain-dead, and missions that failed to connect. One of Aliens: Dark Descent’s best ideas is its persistent world. Actions have consequences and the environment stays altered. Unless, of course, a non-alien bug gets in the way.

In terms of pacing, Dark Descent gets off to a slow and pretty unimpressive start. It takes a good, long while for the gameplay and action to evolve and reach their potential.

Finally, The Best Aliens Game?

Aliens: Dark Descent nails the tone and tension of the movie franchise. Its genre-fluid mechanics are clever, too, and provide some unexpected challenges and opportunities. A very slow, creaky start and some consistent technical issues hold it back from the top spot, but Aliens: Dark Descent is still appealing for fans of the films and tactical action games in general.

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Great Aliens atmosphere
  • Interesting RTS/tactical mechanics
  • Grows more engaging over time

The Bad

  • Slow start
  • Dated figure models
  • Lots of bugs/lack of polish