Silently you move through claustrophobic corridors filled with plastic wall panels. The only sound is an insistent beep from your Motion Tracker; something is moving in the next room. With a body full of adrenaline, you command your squad to keep their heads down. You enter the room. A Xenomorph has made its nest there. Promptly, a second creature appears. A soldier panics. He unloads a salvo; the firefight begins.
In the 2014-stemmed Alien: Isolation, the above scene would not have been out of place, except for the violent ending. In that sense, Aliens: Dark Descent seems mostly inspired by the film of the same name Aliens, directed by none other than James Cameron. More often than not, you reach for the iconic pulse rifle to make many a xeno’s head smaller. Still, Aliens: Dark Descent is at its core a stealth game, despite its top-down real-time tactical action genre classification.
Keeping tabs on
In Aliens: Dark Descent, you maneuver a squad of Colonial Marines through narrow corridors of a space base or ship in isometric perspective, while two officers from a nearby ARC personnel carrier provide you with tactical information via radio. The squad moves as one entity, so there is no question of individual commands. The squad also shoots on its own – sometimes resulting in unexpected skirmishes such as the one shown in the above example.
This mode of control exudes a healthy dose of tension in Aliens: Dark Descent. Your soldiers are just people who panic for various reasons, a statistic tracked percentage-wise in the HUD. You want to keep them alive at all costs by gathering enough ammunition and other supplies, so you carefully sneak through corridors and regularly barricade the team in restricted areas. Once the team is spotted by a xenomorph, you have only seconds to react before the jet-black monster has drilled its iron-sharp claws into one of your soldiers.
Saving your mission in between is hardly an option, moreover. Aliens: Dark Descent employs an autosave feature that only triggers after main objectives or when your soldiers are resting in fairly sparse shielded areas. So you don’t blast your way through the level, because you’ll run out of resources in no time. Instead, you place mines and turrets to protect yourself, as well as placeable Motion Trackers to keep an eye on the enemy.
The fear that Aliens: Dark Descent instills in the player is exactly the emotion that makes the Alien franchise so iconic. Even with a continuously active Motion Tracker, you can be caught by a lightning-fast runner xenomorph. Although a single alien is fairly easily killed by a four or five pulse rifle, a Hunt always activates if you are spotted. You then have two choices: flee and take cover until the Hunt is over or dig yourself in at lightning speed with turrets and cover fire. You will be hunted and either way you will end up with increased stress, less ammunition and maybe even a fallen comrade.
Fortunately, your soldiers are not alone. Each soldier starts as a Rookie, but soon specializes in one of five classifications: Recon, Sergeant, Gunner, Medic and Techer. Each possesses skills you can use in missions that are quite literally life-saving. A horde of xenomorphs approaching? Flame them by setting the access road on fire. Is an alien nibbling at your flanks? Shoot it over with a well-placed shotgun salvo. Skills can be used as many times as you have Command Points, a resource that recharges itself. In other words: don’t be stingy.
In the world of Alien, death is caused by more than just a bullet.
If you do frugal, you soon experience the consequences. The stress of your soldiers increases during each battle, with debilitating consequences such as reduced accuracy. Stress can be reduced with medikits or by resting – both options that will soon run out. If you let stress get too high, your soldiers can suffer trauma, with long-lasting adverse effects. Indeed, in the world of Alien, death is caused by more than just a bullet.
Missions in Aliens: Dark Descent are set up according to a fairly linear story. In most levels, objectives provide some tension, such as time limits or predetermined obstacles, such as getting trapped in a warehouse with a xenomorph Queen. Unique is the option to abort missions early so you can complete them later. Suppose a soldier has been taken back to his nest by an alien and your remaining manpower is bruised and ammunition-less, then retreating is usually the best strategy to avoid multiple losses.
Between missions, you can “build up” your base – the spaceship USS Otago – à la XCOM. I use apostrophs because, unlike the base building in XCOM, the Otago feels particularly empty. You can occasionally do some research, need only minimally use the Workshop for new weapons and can train your soldiers with a particularly cluttered UI. While this phase is a nice change from the stressful missions, it is anything but well done.
More effective is the timer that the campaign introduces after a few missions. After all, you find yourself on a planet that you need to get the hell off of, but due to a stranded USS Otago and xenomorph-infested colonies, there is nowhere to feel safe. The story is leading in this. The script and especially the voice acting is nothing to write home about, but a ticking timer – the so-called death clock – makes you take risks more often to progress. It’s an effective way to continuously pressure you even outside of missions.
Plagued by bugs
At its best moments, Aliens: Dark Descent is the perfect game translation of the movie Aliens. The fear, the stress, the cheesy one-liners from your soldiers and the iconic sounds are reminiscent of everything that makes the franchise so recognizable. At the same time, the game keeps getting in its own way. Missing sounds, repetitive music, a clunky UI and a laundry list of bugs make you throw your arms in the air in frustration practically every mission.
A simple example is the seventh mission. Normally, you can save your progression by resting your soldiers in a locked room. Not on this mission; due to a bug, it only saves after cutscenes. Just let this be one of the longest and hardest missions. I lost over an hour of gameplay due to this bug when I wanted to reload, thinking I had saved it ten minutes ago.
Now developer Tindalos Interactive is not the worst. In fact, with patches, they fixed an array of bugs in the two weeks after release. Still, they don’t get the game running smoothly, emphatically on the PS5. Characters often get stuck in the environment, which does require you to reload the game, and during cutscenes you can see the graphics being actively loaded. Remarkably, the difference between Performance and Quality mode is nil, while the latter delivers dramatic frame rate drops.
An optimal gaming experience for Aliens: Dark Descent can be found on PC. The lightning-fast and thus terrifying movements of the xenomorphs is practically impossible to keep up with with a controller, unless you turn on the option to be able to pause the game in the skill menu (normally this activates slow-motion). This does take away a lot of the tension, which is exactly what you don’t want in this game.
Aliens: Dark Descent is the perfect game translation of the 1986 movie Aliens. The adrenaline races through your body as you try to keep your squad alive in claustrophobic spaces, while the iconic xenomorphs constantly lurk. You’ll take the rather outdated graphics and occasional choppy sounds for granted; it’s the thrill you want to experience as you once again manage to tactically exterminate a nest full of aliens. The only thing bothering this challenging and iconic game is a laundry list of bugs (the wrong kind). These get in the way of gameplay so often that I would almost advise you to wait a while with your purchase, hoping that patches can fix things.