Aliens: Dark Descent review-in-progress - Xenomorphs have their bite back

Aliens: Dark Descent review-in-progress - Xenomorphs have their bite back
Images via Tindalos Interactive

Written by 

Tarran Stockton

Published 

19th Jun 2023 15:26

The Alien franchise has been explored through a million different lenses across various forms of media, with gaming being no stranger to extraterrestrial Xenomorphs. From Aliens vs Predator, to Alien: Isolation, and even the recent Aliens: Fireteam Elite, it seems like methods of interacting with the titular aliens have been exhausted, especially in a way that retains the horror found in the early films.

However, from my short time so far with Aliens: Dark Descent, developer Tindalos Interactive has found a fresh new take on the IP, combining squad-based real-time tactics with a dash of X-COM, to create the first true spiritual successor to James Cameron's Aliens

A familiar premise

an image of Aliens Dark Descent gameplay, showing marines fighting in close-quarters
Click to enlarge

Aliens: Dark Descent takes place on the colony planet Lethe, where a Xenomorph outbreak has wreaked havoc across the planet's outposts, towns, and industrial sectors. You start the game on a station above the planet, controlling Maeko Hayes, a Weyland-Yutani administrator who's investigating a disturbance in the hangar bay.

This first thirty minutes or so is more overtly horror-focused than what comes after, and primarily serves as an introduction to the basic controls and mechanics, while setting the tone of the story and experience to follow. As expected, things go awry, and you eventually crash-land into Lethe on a marine spaceship before teaming up Jonas Harper, a marine officer. 

If you've ever seen any piece of Alien media, then this set-up should be pretty familiar to you, but in keeping the story grounded in the basic elements established back in 1979 with the first film, it allows the gameplay and mechanics to do much of the heavy lifting.

"Eat this!"

an image of Aliens Dark Descent gameplay showing marines fighting an alien
Click to enlarge

From my time with the game so far, Aliens: Dark Descent can be split into two sections of gameplay: the missions, and the base of operations. There's a clear inspiration from the X-COM series here, but Dark Descent puts its own twist on the formula, favouring real-time tactics over turn-based strategy, and a less complex form of base management that won't potentially ruin your save 25 hours in because you picked the wrong upgrade path. 

In the majority of gameplay, you'll command a squad of colonial marines, completing primary and side objectives across various missions and locations, ultimately attempting to find the source of the Xenomorph threat.

Commanding a squad is performed from an isometric viewpoint in real-time, with commands automatically carried out by the most suited marine. Call for a door to be welded shut, the nearest marine will quickly get it done; signal for one of the marines to be healed, and the best medic amongst the group will perform the job. This helps to remove the minutiae common in real-time strategy or tactics games, allowing you to primarily focus on what you want to do, not how to do it - and the small matter of surviving.

Experiencing this part of the game has been a massively refreshing window into the Alien universe. Horror and strategy are not commonly thought of as something that mixes, but the game combines them effortlessly so far, facilitating the rich, tactical options you'd expect from a game of this genre, while also keying into the tension, dread, and stress of managing your marine's physical and mental health, while dealing with the constant Xenomorph threat present around every corner. 

Hearing that familiar ping of the sensors, and watching a white dot creep its way closer on the map is frightening even with four fully locked and loaded marines aiming at the door. Much of the tension arises from a sort of hot and cold state. The aliens aren't omnipotent and don't know exactly where you are, allowing you to do a lot of sneaking around at first but getting caught will force you to put down the threat immediately, and then every enemy in the sector will know exactly where you are.

The tension rises and bursts in a way that had me on the edge of my seat throughout the first several hours, never knowing where the next threat was, and how it would present itself and challenge me to adapt. 

Xenomorph-COM

an image of the command room in Aliens Dark Descent
Click to enlarge

The base gameplay lacks depth in comparison, but I'm still yet to unlock all of the options and choices available here. From the base, you can select a number of rooms that have different functions: a command room for launching missions, a medbay to heal your marines, a laboratory to research new technology, a workshop to purchase new equipment, and the barracks where you can manage your marines, such as their classes or appearance. 

There are still tactical choices to make here, though. For example, you can only go on one mission a day, but sometimes after ending a day you'll be presented with a choice that rewards resources, or a new soldier, but loses you a deployment for the day. Along with this, every day sees the planet infestation metre tick up, which increases the number of aliens you'll encounter in missions, presenting a ticking clock of sorts that forces you to make decisions and stick with them, consequences be damned. 

Do you risk an extra level of threat in favour of more resources to build extra equipment, or do you face the mission with fewer resources in the hopes you can lower the total infestation? It feels rewarding to have to make these considerations, and it ultimately treats the Xenomorphs as the world-shaking threat they are in the canon. 

The Verdict So Far

an image of a marine in the barracks in Aliens Dark Descent
Click to enlarge

The first six hours of Aliens: Dark Descent sets up a promising real-time tactics game that revels in stressing you out and ultimately forcing you to make a choice and stick to it.

Perhaps its greatest achievement so far is presenting a fresh take on the iconic Xenomorphs by borrowing the decision-making nuances of X-COM and putting its own twist on them that goes beyond just being a derivative clone with a different skin. The real question is whether it can continue to uphold the same quality throughout.

Reviewed on PC. Review code provided by the publisher.

Tarran Stockton
About the author
Tarran Stockton
Tarran is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon. He previously wrote reviews for his college newspaper before studying Media and Communication at university. His favourite genres include role-playing games, strategy games, and boomer shooters - along with anything indie. You can also find him in the pit at local hardcore shows.
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