The Alien franchise has a chequered history in terms of gaming. For every Alien: Isolation or Aliens vs Predator there has been an Aliens: Colonial Marines or a mediocre Aliens: Fireteam Elite. Taking a fresh approach with top-down real time tactics, Aliens: Dark Descent turns out to be a fantastic fit for the oppressive and claustrophobic menace of Aliens. I’ve enjoyed my time with the game so much that I’m even happy to overlook the shamelessly stolen subtitle.
Aliens: Dark Descent starts off in a suitably cinematic fashion. You play as Maeko Hayes, a deputy administrator for the Weyland-Yutani company who finds her routine savagely disrupted by an outbreak of the legendary Xenomorph on her space station. This opening introduces you to the basic camera and movement controls and also effectively situates the game in the wider Alien universe. The bureaucracy and corporate complacency is totally in keeping with Weyland-Yutani’s role as human antagonist and sets up the story well for some interesting twists, as well as providing Maeko with a welcome depth of character. Once the Xenomorph is detected, Maeko must set off the quarantine procedure, Project Cerberus, sacrificing innocent people to contain the alien threat. Maeko herself is rescued by a squad of colonial marines and then sets out to redeem herself and save whoever is left.
Rather than a traditional RTS where base building and resource management are key, Aliens: Dark Descent is more like a real-time XCOM. You set out from your base ship with a small group of marines and must manage their skills and abilities to survive the maze-like levels. You can choose from a small range of character classes with different strengths which can be developed and levelled up as you progress. Individuals themselves accrue experience points and become more skilled, but are still just as squishy when cornered.
All marines start off as classless Rookies, equipped with a pulse rifle and abilities such as shotgun blasts and grenades. Once levelled up enough, you can specialise into Sergeant, Gunner, Medic, Recon and Tekker. The key to later missions is to assemble a balanced squad that can cover multiple challenges, but I did find that the powerful Gunners were the most useful. Variety is ensured through a levelling system that only offers a choice of two randomised classes for each new recruit.
Marines are visually distinct, though clearly with the look of procedural generation about them, and they have no specific characterisation outside of their skills and negative traits. These traits manifest as a result of combat trauma in a fashion that reminds me of Darkest Dungeon, although this DD isn’t as punishing or RNG dependant as Red Hook’s game. That being said, it is easy to become attached to long-serving marines, not least because it takes a genuine investment to level them up. This attachment is almost always a mistake, though, as things can go very wrong in an instant.
While the game plays out more like a squad-based RPG than a RTS there is still a need for a strategic approach. Using cover, setting up ambush points, juggling valuable command points for special abilities, and deciding when to withdraw and return to base are all vital parts of the gameplay. The latter is particularly important as Tindalos Interactive has resisted the temptation to go down the ubiquitous roguelike approach and instead have opted for a persistent world. This means that you can leave a mission to regroup and return to it in order to finish things off. Doing so does require resting at base, though, which results in the general level of infection increasing. Towards the end of the game a more pressing time limit comes into play which gives everything a real sense of urgency.
In its best moments, Dark Descent absolutely nails the feel of the original films. The game looks perfectly in keeping with the general aesthetic of the Aliens franchise with the xenomorphs themselves looking better than ever. They skitter and jump across the ground with a feel of genuine menace, and there is an impressive range of different enemy types from the terrifying facehugger to the enormous Queen. The marines themselves are fine, though I did experience quite a lot of glitching in the character select screen, especially for classes that wore flowing overcapes. The levels are oppressive and labyrinthine with sparking electrics and flashing lights setting the scene. Light effects in general are excellent with your flashlight being essential in identifying interactive objects.
The visuals go hand in hand with the tension inherent in the game’s difficulty. Even when levelled up, your marines can be killed incredibly quickly if things go wrong. Whether being snuck up on by a facehugger or literally torn in half by one of the much larger foes, you can never rest on your laurels. Save points are relatively infrequent, but you can barricade yourself into some rooms and trigger a manual save.
Higher difficulty levels remove the autosave and will therefore provide even greater challenge but to be honest the default normal difficult is challenging enough for me. It’s a shame that there is no option to change the setting partway through the game, though, as it could lead to some abandoning the game, rather than being able to drop the difficulty down to see it through to the end.