Review: Aliens: Dark Descent
Aliens: Dark Descent arrives a decade after the disastrous calamity known as Aliens: Colonial Marines. The game presents itself as a bold experiment for the franchise. Aliens: Dark Descent combines real-time strategy with survival horror and base management. While it may not be perfect, it results in what is easily one of the very best games for the franchise, as well as an incredible game experience for Aliens fans and fans of the genre.
Another Fine Day In the Corp
In space, no one can hear you scream, and doubly so on Pioneer Station. A mysterious craft takes off from the refinery moon of Lethe and lands in the hangar bays of Pioneer Station. Within moments, a horrifying outbreak of facehuggers occurs. Within minutes, the station is overrun with facehuggers and drone Xenomorphs, with the screams and cries of chest bursters echoing through the station. The Administrator, Hayes, fights to stay alive and is rescued by Colonial Marines of the USCM Ortega. Suddenly, and with no warning, the area is hit with a barrage of missiles. Cerberus, a quarantine fail-safe, uses a myriad of armed satellites to destroy any vessel. While the suspicious ship is destroyed, many casualties are incurred. The Ortega suffers damage and crash lands on Lethe.
The Ortega is no longer space-worthy, but it acts as a fortified base. While the ship suffered extensive damage and losses, the ship is functional. The med bay, arms factory, barracks, and lab all remain intact. The best hope for the Marines and the now deputized Administrator Hayes is to work together to survive. The best shot is to venture into the colony Deadly Hills and find a means off the moon. The further they get, the more dangerous the situation becomes. Something far more sinister lurks beneath the surface of Lethe, and the Marines are about to face it head-on.
Looks like love at first sight to me
When I played Aliens: Dark Descent at PAX East, I was impressed by this experiment in the Aliens franchise. The game felt like a truly horrifying walk on eggshells, where resources were limited, and Xenomorphs could end your team at any moment. The only other RTS in the Aliens universe was Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction for the PlayStation 2, and that specific game became a free-for-all between Aliens, Predators, and Colonial Marines.
With Aliens: Dark Descent, the game mixes real-time strategy with horror and survival. With the final game, Aliens: Dark Descent, is even more becoming a base-builder and resource management with real consequences for choices made in the field. In fact, veteran commanders of XCOM will find a strong degree of familiarity here.
Very tough hombres
The beginning moments of the game do a fantastic job of orienting players to the movement and controls of Aliens: Dark Descent. Later moments introduce combat, healing team members, skills commands, and resource management. Most real-time strategy games focus on raw combat and go on a mission-by-missions basis. The closest example to this is the amazing WWII strategy game, Sudden Strike 4. However, Aliens: Dark Descent presents a familiar formula but experiments with it into something new and refreshing with potential.
Aliens: Dark Descent isn’t mission-based. It’s all about survival expeditions. The colony has been hit with a Xenomorph outbreak, and the goal is to explore the colony and the adjacent refinery. Each expedition is a voyage into Hell. The deeper you go, the harder it gets. The Marines are lethal and can put down anything before them, but resources are limited. Players locate resources in the field, from medkits to tools, but those are small saving graces in a hostile environment. If Marines go down, tough choices will have to be made. If a Marine is dragged away by a Xenomorph or is outright killed in combat, they are gone permanently. Being as they can be level up, losing an experienced Marine is a tough blow to the player.
Short controlled bursts
The Xenomorph is not a traditional foe. They lurk in the dark and rely on numbers. They are among the most infamous creatures in sci-fi and cinema. Aliens: Dark Descent treats this creature with respect. The colony is a massive hive. The Xenomorph constantly searches for the team. Venturing in the colony is akin to walking on eggshells. The Xenomorphs track movement and sound. Gunfire is waving the dinner bell to the Xenomorphs. The infamous drone alien from the first movie patrols certain areas. If detected, they will alert the hive and begin a hunt.
Once a hunt is initiated, the Xenomorph will attempt to get a fix on the team. Subsequently, they call in a swarm. Here, Marines have to set up a defense. Rooms can be welded shut, but that costs tech points. The enemy sends its worst to the player, ranging from large “warrior” Xenomorphs to canines and others. Marines can fight back with their armaments and skill commands. These allow for special functions such as utilizing a shotgun or mainlining suppressing fire toward a certain area. Special tools like the sentry gun can help as well. If Marines survive, they gain invaluable experience, but like the star system in Grand Theft Auto, the hive grows stronger and more dangerous. This is where Aliens: Dark Descent begins to truly feel like the harrowing moments we saw in the movie Aliens.
Delusions of morality
There are many challenges in Aliens: Dark Descent, but the biggest one will be the mental health of your Marines. The Marines are already in a stressful situation, from their crippled ship to being marooned far from Earth. The horrors witness make the situation far worse. The team fights a dangerous alien that is intelligent, bleeds acid, and uses them as an incubator for their young. Civilians die horribly as a chestburster rips from their chest to the cries and agony of their deaths. All of this affects the mental capacity of Marines. They’ll begin to feel exhausted and panic, even behaving erratically as they react to the horror. Their mental condition can greatly negatively affect the outcome of an expedition, from missing shots to hesitating to pull the trigger. Players can use an isolated area as a rest area to quicksave and recuperate. However, this is a dangerous environment. The enemy is everywhere.
Gameplay is a matter of survival. Complete as many objectives as you can, and get out. If players are successful, they may recruit survivors into working on the Ortega. They can increase recovery for Marines in Medbay, research new weapons in the Workshop, study alien specimens in the lab, or receive training in The Barracks. Marines need time to recover and level up, making the med bay and taking a day essential. Survival depends on how well a player handles themselves both in the field and at the base.
Not bad for a human
Aliens: Dark Descent feels straight of the movie and the universe making for an incredible one-of-a-kind experience. The banter among marines is straight out of the movie. The visuals are impeccable and profoundly atmospheric. The sound and music perfectly evoke the horror and fear of the Xenomorphs. The combat is challenging and fierce but rewarding, especially after surviving a swarm. The only things holding back the game are technical glitches with presentation and the controls. Though, the controls, which use gamepads on console, are optimized. They just take getting used to. The technical glitches can be buffered out in time, and by no means does it compromise the game.
Ten years after Aliens: Colonial Marines failed to capture the sensation of being a boots-on-the-ground space Marine, Aliens: Dark Descent gratefully succeeds. Its infectious atmosphere, combined with familiar but refreshingly inventive gameplay, makes for a unique experience. This is a risky choice as combining genres amounts to a lackluster game more often than not. Here, the team did an excellent job with reverence and respect for the source material. Aliens: Dark Descent is a horrifying tactical thrill ride unlike any other and certainly one of the best games of 2023. Get on the ready line, Marines. You are on the express elevator to Hell, going down. Stay Frosty out there!
Aliens: Dark Descent was reviewed on the Xbox Series X/S thanks to a key generously supplied to Stack Up thanks to NYC-based Sandbox Strategies