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  • Writer's pictureRoberto Nieves

PAX East 2023: Aliens: Dark Descent Puts Fear First in Real-Time Strategy

You can see the sweat drip coming off of Hudson as the Marines make their way through the bowels of Hadley's Hope. It's a dark, damp atmosphere of alien resin and dark hallways. Fear and concern penetrate the atmosphere. The noise of a beep shatters the silence. An enemy contact arrives on the radar. One blip. Ten blips. 100 blips. They surround the Marines. The enemy emerges from the darkness, and the Marines fight for their lives.

It is a flurry of screams and shouted commands. Flashes of smart-gun rounds are followed by the screams of encroaching xenomorphs. Vitals go offline, and the enemy grows. One by one, the Marines are taken to become part of the hive. There is no help coming. There are no reinforcements. It is you, the team, whatever resources you have, and the sheer will to survive.

Tough Hombres

James Cameron's Aliens changed everything. The 1986 movie invented sci-fi action and horror, combining thrilling scenes of futuristic combat with the horror of a tenacious enemy using humans for their own goals. The depiction of the Colonial Marines laid the groundwork for various depictions of interstellar infantry combat, from Doomguy in Doom to Master Chief in Halo.

There have been plenty of ambitious adaptations of Aliens. There have been tremendous highs, such as Alien vs. Predator, and catastrophic lows, such as Aliens: Colonial Marines. In all these adaptations of the Colonial Marines, a key component has been missing: Fear. There is a fear in the franchise, and that stems from the knowledge of fighting an unknown enemy that is smart and deadlier than the Marines. An enemy that is two steps ahead and knows how to exploit a weakness. Aliens: Dark Descent is the latest iteration of Aliens, but it is looking to put fear first and foremost.

Express elevator to Hell, Going Down

Aliens: Dark Descent is a real-time strategy set in the Aliens universe. In the tactical squad-based game, Marines explore an abandoned installation and complete multiple objectives in each stage, placing survival as paramount to avoid engagement. The enemy is numerous, lurking in the shadows and constantly studying every Marine move. Every choice determines the mission's outcome, but every moment spent on the mission takes a toll on the team's mental health.

"We wanted to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense. The movies were great on the action, and we have that, but the fear and horror element is central to Aliens: Dark Descent. There are many tough choices to make, but the most important part of the gameplay is the mental status of your Colonial Marines."

The developer pointed to the names of my teammates. The UI was reminiscent of the movie, seeing their names and an indication of their heart status. In that, UI was an indication of their mental health status.

They Mostly Come at Night.... Mostly

"The Colonial Marines can receive psychological damage. They can start panicking or feeling traumatized. This can affect their combat performance mid-mission. There are medical supplies to take to keep them sharp and quell symptoms, but they can only help for so long. These conditions can linger between missions and affect their effectiveness in combat. We feel this not only adds to the atmosphere of Aliens but also creates a unique obstacle for players to think about and overcome."

Aliens: Dark Descent takes place on a moon known as Lethe. The team has crash landed and is caught in an infestation of xenomorphs. The facility is massive, with a myriad of hallways and pathways. The enemy uses the shadows to their advantage and can home in on noises made by the Marines. However, the Colonial Marines have the tools for close encounters.

Short-controlled bursts

Each mission is massive. My demo alone was one giant map, even though it was a single level. Making my way through the base, I uncovered areas critical to the mission. A map room reveals locations, and uncovering data reveals secondary objectives. Walking through the maze of hallways, I found information on an armory and a datapad. One of the Marines knew someone who worked at the base and encouraged us to investigate the worker's whereabouts if possible.

All the while, xenomorphs stalked and observed. Aliens: Dark Descent nails the atmosphere from the misty, humid hallways to the sharp visuals and even the banter of the Marines. The Marines cuss and mock each other as they would in the movies. Even the handheld Doppler radar makes an appearance complete with the signature sound effects. The fog of war clears as the Marines go further on the mission, revealing shortcuts and areas where the enemy can lurk in wait.

Let's Rock

Making my way to each objective, drones would appear and engage the Marines. They attack with fierceness and aggression. However, all it takes is one to awaken the hive. The overall Hive alert level was raised during the mission, and the Xenomorphs initiated a hunt. Specific rooms can become defensive nests, and I entered one. Sentry guns were set up, and the doors were welded. In a moment straight out of the movies and comics, the Xenos entered and attempted to wipe out the team. It was a flurry of alien screams, acid blood, and pulse rifle fire.

I was successful and fist pumped at my triumph but noticed the Marines were panicky. Some were freaked out by what they had just fought, and their levs were elevated. I noticed their banter becoming more fearful and panicked as well. Taking meds worked, but as this was a survival mission, procuring resources was essential. Part of the fearful aspects of the game is securing resources wherever they may be, risking alien encounters to retrieve them.

Building Better Worlds

Aliens: Dark Descent promises more than just a bug hunt. During the mission, I completed one of the secondary objectives and found the body of the worker the Marine mentioned earlier. The woman Marine was troubled, but a datapad was retrieved, indicating more information and further increasing knowledge of the facility. Furthermore, the worker wasn't killed by the xenomorphs but was strangled, revealing a mysterious conspiracy at play.

There are still more questions about the story of the game. What is Weyland Yutani doing on the moon, and how does the game connect to the whereabouts of Lt. Ellen Ripley or the Marines from the Sulaco? Still, the visual storytelling and the gameplay were enthralling and potent. I couldn't get enough of the game and what was presented. It was a dark and enthralling RTS that I couldn't get enough of.

Alright, I'm in

Aliens: Dark Descent is one of the big highlights of Pax East for me. Its gameplay is spot-on, and its visuals are sharp, but its focus on horror and combat's mental effects are the game's biggest highlights. There isn't anything like Aliens: Dark Descent in games right now. With a release date of June 2023, it's safe to say this is a near-final game build. It's already one of my favorite, and probably best, games of 2023.

Aliens: Dark Descent arrives on PC and consoles on June 20th, 2023.

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