Aliens is one of those iconic franchises that just lends itself to the medium of video games. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always had the best track record. For every excellent title such as Alien: Isolation, you also have a contrast along the lines of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Which camp will Aliens: Dark Descent land in? Grab your smart gun and motion tracker marine because we are going in hot!
All Roads Lead To Weyland-Yutani
Starting on Pioneer Station, you take control of Administrator Hayes who has suspicions about a ship that has just docked. Ignored by the higher-ups, you make your way down to the hangar where it turns out your gut was right. You have just walked into a massacre. It isn’t long before the iconic Xenomorph is stalking you. As luck would have it, just before you become dinner, the Colonial Marines turn up to save your skin.
You then descend to the nearest planet to figure out your next move, but escape isn’t going to be easy. Back up on the Pioneer Station, you activated the “Cerberus Protocol”, a containment plan which sees any ship in the area shot down. The plan is to fix the USS Otago and try to find a way to get by the Protocol. Along the way, you’ll discover shady goings on with the Weyland-Yutani corporation as you try to avoid becoming the next breeding pod for an Alien outbreak.
The story in Aliens: Dark Descent is 100% for fans of the franchise. There is quite a detailed Codex for catching up and learning terms, along with the who’s who of the Aliens world. That said, I feel it won’t be enough if you hadn’t watched the films. Much like the rest of the franchise, the strained relationship between the Colonial Marines and Weyland-Yutani is a focal point once again.
It’s a well-written narrative with plenty of twists and turns, delivers all the banter you could want from a bunch of Marines, and is respectful of the franchise. It’s a little broader in scope than that of Alien: Isolation but still incredibly engaging as you slowly piece together the escape plan that’ll get you off of the planet and away from the Alien’s menu.
Oorah to Ashes
While Aliens: Dark Descent has you control a bunch of Marines, it’s not the 3rd/1st Person shooter that is the usual port of call. No, this time you control them much like an RTS or squad-based RTS like Shadow Tactics, Company of Heroes, or Desperados.
Rather than each character having specific abilities, it takes a more “XCOM” approach. Your team develops into roles of your choosing over time through leveling up. They are very much a team too, moving perfectly in sync as a unit rather than separately. The exception to this is if you choose to direct them to loot or set something up.
Aliens: Dark Descent borrows a fair bit from the XCOM series. Permadeath on characters and the need to heal and rest your Marines are similar. The headquarters is pretty much a direct lift with a Med-Bay, Lab, and Workshop to develop more equipment and an area to level up and monitor your stock of would-be heroes.
Another similarity is the day system. Each mission will pass a day and you can choose to deploy to a mission or take on a task that stops you from deploying but rewards you with resources or extra marines instead. This is a double-edged sword as there is a constantly growing meter that displays how strong the Alien infestation is in your area. Naturally the higher it is, the more resistance you will face on the ground.
The game starts with a tutorial level where you learn the importance of Alien: Dark Descent’s somewhat cumbersome stealth, how to use first aid, command points, and more. A particularly helpful one is the ability to weld doors shut to give yourself some brief respite from your would-be hunters.
Command points allow your marines to pull off abilities such as a more focused fire at the expense of speed, shotgun fire to stop closer Xenomorphs, grenade fire to make stuff die quicker, and flares which improve accuracy. Later on in the game, you’ll discover the ability to drop motion trackers and even turrets to help you prepare and even the odds somewhat.
When the tutorial is out of the way you’re presented with your first main area. While we mentioned strong inspiration from XCOM, this is where it starts to diverge further. Rather than a bunch of missions to choose from on a world map, you are given all your objectives for the area and can choose how and when to tackle them in an open hub area. Do you keep plugging away at the expense of your marine’s health or methodically chip away at the objectives while the infestation grows? It’s totally down to your choice and this will mold how your experience goes.
While you’re out trying to save the day you will, no matter how careful you are, come across the Xenomorphs. This puts your team into auto-attack mode. The Xenos are fast and can explode into acid so caution is needed. With every battle you add to the “Hive Meter” which sends more and more Xenos to your location. If you stand your ground, you’ll end up triggering an onslaught of them and even “special” types of Xeno. While not always avoidable, it’s these moments that can swing success from your clutches and see your stock of Marines drop. These are some of the best and most tense moments, leading to panic as hordes of hungry Xenomorphs descend on your position leaving you with only one choice, to stand your ground until you can break off to safety.
You can weld off rooms to rest. This heals light wounds and reduces your stress meter, which understandably skyrockets with every alien encounter. If you leave your stress unchecked, you’ll find your marines missing shots, panicking, and not being the general badasses you need them to be. You’ll find resources to collect too. These help you build better weapons or restock for your next deployment. Finally, there are datapads to find which add to the story and give you a better look at the events leading up to your arrival.
Fall To The Hive
Objectives usually involve you trying to save survivors, locate items, or kill special Xenos. Yes, the Queen is back as are a few other surprises. Fortunately, the game does warn you when things are going to get a little hotter than usual.
Aliens: Dark Descent is a tough game and lack of preparation in any instance of combat can see you looking at the Game Over screen. Fortunately, with your abilities, turrets and just a bit of planning you can at least stand your ground. Yes, you’re the Marines but you’re not an unstoppable force. Instead, stealth and clever planning is the order of the day to help you successfully escape the planet.
If the game is still proving difficult you can customize the difficulty. Even on the easiest, don’t expect a leisurely walk through the park though. Of course, you can make the experience as hellish as you want if you’re feeling masochistic.
Not Another Bug Hunt
While all of this is fine, sadly the controls on consoles, or at least the PlayStation 5 which I experienced, leave a lot to be desired. It’s clunky and at times unintuitive which in a game where the slightest mistake can cost you, is more than a little annoying. To add to the annoyance the game has quite a few bugs. While a lot of them are animation bugs, there are also pathfinding issues. One particularly annoying issue that happened several times was that menus would open while I was trying to activate the elevator by mistake. The screen would be scrolling through it while my team got picked apart in front of me!
They Mostly Come Out At Night……Mostly
The presentation is a mixed bag with Aliens: Dark Descent. When it nails it, it is a top-tier experience but there is a myriad of issues that just hold it back from really being something truly special.
The atmosphere is unmistakably Aliens. Corridors are dark, steam comes from vents, and the locations just have that iconic LV-426 atmosphere. Fans will recognize the feeling as the storm bears down outside and you can’t weigh up if you’re safer inside or outside.
Character models aren’t the most detailed. Both through the over-the-head camera angle and sadly even in the cutscenes they look distinctly early last-gen. Animations are stiff but fortunately, the titular Aliens have had enough care and attention put into them that you can somewhat overlook the human characters that bring uncanny valley to mind.
The Plasma Rifle sounds just as you would expect and of course, what Aliens property would it be without that chilling motion detector sweeping and beeping, picking up the movement of your next encounter? Xenomorphs scream as they bare down on you, and your Marines fire banter back and forth like it’s just another day in the office.
As with everything there is a balance and that is ruined by the sheer amount of repeated audio clips. Whenever you click to move, the game will shout the same 4 quotes, over and over again which does ruin the perfectly crafted atmosphere that the game hinges on.
Glitches and annoyances aside, Aliens: Dark Descent is a fantastic experience for any fan of the Aliens franchise. A much higher level of care is clearly on show here than in some previous titles, and that helps stave away the annoyances mentioned in this review.
It’s a tough-as-hell game that feels immensely rewarding when things go right and you manage to achieve a victory over the Xenomorph scum with little to no injury. It rewards planning and keeps you on edge with the constant reminder that even the basic Xenomorph can ruin your day if not taken with the utmost caution.
ALIENS: DARK DESCENT IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Focus Entertainment for a PlayStation 5 review code for this title.
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