Aliens: Dark Descent Review
Keeping it together for another bug hunt
It is interesting when games look back at older action movies for inspiration. Last year, Starship Troopers: Terran Command offered a respectable RTS experience based on the popular 1997 movie. This year, Aliens: Dark Descent leaps back another decade to adapt the Aliens movie from 1986. Both games feature humanity taking on an aggressive alien threat, colloquially known as bugs, but the similarities do not end there. Both feature isometric real-time strategy gameplay, with Terran Command focusing on controlling a small army of squads vs. commanding a single squad (as one unit) in Dark Descent. Both are single-player only, priced in that middle zone between the AAA monstrosities and low-budget indies. And, critically, the two are incredibly faithful to the source material. Dark Descent bests Terran Command because it is more than the sum of its parts, thanks to good squad management, an interesting story, and fun combat against brutal xenomorphs.
Dark Descent begins on the Pioneer space station orbiting the planet of Lethe. Playing as Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes, you witness an outbreak of vicious alien xenomorphs that decimate the Pioneer’s crew. After Maeko successfully hides from the black killing machines, she recognizes their threat to humanity and initiates a quarantine protocol that will destroy any ship in high orbit. One ship in the firing line is the USS Otago, home to the Colonial Marines. The ship gets badly damaged and careens towards the planet. At the same time, Maeko is rescued by a small contingent of Otago’s soldiers that came aboard via a shuttle, and they follow the ship to the planet’s surface. With the Otago badly damaged and many soldiers deceased, Maeko takes on a leadership role to help repair the ship, manage the limited forces, and send out squads to explore Lethe for supplies. Unfortunately, the xenomorphs are also planetside, attacking settlements and growing an army by using humans as incubators.
The campaign offers more story than one might expect from a game of this type and price range. The twelve missions are unlocked in a linear fashion and between each are decent in-engine cinematics. Missions also contain a lot of story dialogue, as situations introduce obstacles or new avenues of investigation. Major characters are not one-dimensional, with the Otago’s crew initially unaware that Maeko caused their ship to crash. Likewise, the leading Marine (Harper) has strange headaches whenever the aliens become frenzied. Character conflict is good, exacerbated by the stressful situation. There are multiple narrative arcs, including a gang of cultists that worship the bugs. Smaller stories are found within each mission, stored on datapads or told by survivors. While some of the dialogue is clichéd and quips repeat far too often, it typically successfully reproduces the movie’s narrative style.
As Maeko, you decide which four (and later, five) Marines undertake missions and manage their progression. The management aspects are similar to BattleTech from 2018, and it works about as well, encouraging players to keep soldiers alive. At first there are not many to preserve, but additional manpower can be recovered by completing side objectives. Marines suffer both physical and mental damage. Flesh wounds heal, in time, and this can be accelerated by utilizing limited medical personnel. Trauma doesn’t stop another bug hunt, but fears can impact mission success; eventually a psychologist can quell the terrors. Soldiers gain levels which provide a choice of perks, and each trooper can be assigned to a class, like a medic or gunner. Weapons can be purchased and assigned, to increase combat options. Even alien research can be undertaken, if the squad performs a few dissections in situ. And before any squad is sent to battle, you allocate equipment: medpacks, tools that weld or unlock doors, and sentry guns.
At the start of missions, the xenomorph threat is low. The more aliens the squad encounters, the stronger their forces become. This increasing danger level introduces tougher xenomorph types, like a praetorian, that can devastate an entire squad if given the chance. Additionally, Marines suffer from general attrition: gaining wounds, losing armor, running low on ammo, and acquiring stress. The stress is a big deal, as Marines lose accuracy and may gain negative traits from past trauma. If anxiety rises too far, you can use a medpack to reduce it on an individual basis, or weld your squad into a room to rest them, which provides additional bonuses and saves the game. So the longer the mission clock runs, the harder it becomes to keep it all together, which is an excellent thematic fit for the franchise.
Crucially, you can extract a squad anytime and return to fight another day. No need to replay the whole mission. Any doors unlocked, survivors rescued, or objectives completed will stay that way for the next team. This creates an interesting dilemma. Over the 90-120 minute missions, players might be tempted to keep going to enjoy more combat and maintain pace, but at a progressively higher risk. Alternatively, make a call to extract when things start looking grim, to come back mentally and physically prepared. Aside from it taking a few minutes to get back into the fight, it wastes a day of in-game time, potentially increasing the global alien threat. The second-string team might have fewer perks and, since resources are limited, there is the option to return to earlier missions to scrounge for supplies.
The APC brings squads in and out of missions. It can be moved to a handful of fixed locations around each level, with the option to ferry the squad. It provides good offensive support and is where survivors can be dropped off for rescue. Additional APC locations are unlocked as part of mission progression, helping to reduce travel times for the next incursion. But for some areas, like inside mines overrun by aliens, squads will have to explore the claustrophobic spaces by themselves.
When guiding the squad through levels, they move as one unit, to keep it simple. The game automatically selects the best Marine for any task: choosing the nearest to open a supply box or using the medic to heal. While it works okay, on occasion it falters, like when a single trooper takes a left while the rest go right. Cover spots do not always properly accommodate four, let alone five, soldiers. Many strategic elements are begging for individual unit control. Placing one Marine on the other side of a room would allow for better coverage. Single troopers could be used as bait while the others held a defensive posture, which could be balanced by increasing stress. And when rescuing civilians, they could have been kept out of harm’s way, or escorted by a sub-team while others explored.
Stealth is important because of the associated stress and damage suffered in battle. The franchise’s iconic motion tracker provides invaluable information about threats, beautifully recreated with the appropriate beeps. Additional recon can be gathered by accessing cameras or unlocking map layouts. Watching the mini-map like a hawk, moving the squad between side-rooms, and waiting for threats to traipse through major thoroughfares provides good tension. If the squad cannot hide behind walls, they can take position behind crates and dash between intermittent cover—some xenomorphs remain stationary to spot threats. This line-of-sight stealth is fairly mediocre because the hostiles can see a full 360 degrees and moving the whole squad of between small obstructions is clumsy at best.
Direct combat is more enjoyable, even if the Marines can only stand so much of it. Basic combat against the xenomorphs is best handled in long corridors or open rooms, since the bugs are fast melee attackers. Soldiers will automatically engage, although they can focus fire on selected targets. If things get hairy, a special command mode will give the squad more firepower. Enabling this mode slows down time or pauses it completely, allowing you to issue orders with command points that slowly recharge. One order tells a Marine to fire their shotgun, which is great for close encounters. Suppressive fire will slow down targets inside a small arc, brilliant at chokepoints. Other orders include an incinerator to lay down a cone of flames, mines that can thin the herd, and flares that temporarily boost accuracy.
Tougher encounters crop up every now and again to keep squads on their toes. Specific moments, related to the story, usually give a pop-up warning that things are about to get difficult and to prepare. Also, when the aliens have had enough of your brazen disregard for their species, they will send out an onslaught from one of their tunnels. These onslaughts give just enough warning to find a good spot to quickly set up defenses and hope to hell they hold. Sentry guns are ideal here, although they are vulnerable from behind and can be overwhelmed. If any sentry ammo remains, they can be retrieved to use elsewhere. With sentry guns, stealth, and several command options, there is a fine line between success and failure. Getting through a bunch of xenomorphs with a clean bill of health is always satisfying.
Not all threats are of alien origin. A few hostile human cultists come out swinging blunt objects, and they seem to endure more bullets than the xenomorphs. Other humans use guns and crouch behind cover, creating dull sequences of two opposing forces wasting bullets from waist-high cover. Although the grenade launcher command is handy for these standoffs, its limited use means large groups of human opponents are still a drag. Humans are also dumb, forming a leisurely conga line as they walk into sentry gun fire; at least the aliens try to flank. For some reason, the franchise keeps trying to push human opponents on the player, but like in Alien: Isolation, they’re a lost cause, and it is fortunate they appear infrequently.
Despite its lower price, Dark Descent is a wonderfully presented adaptation. It punches above its weight because such great care has been put into the world. Starting from the very first mission on Lethe, which feels ripped straight from the movie, the game oozes atmosphere. The Aliens look great and can lose limbs, dragging themselves toward gunfire before exploding into acid. When you enter their twisted hives, covered in icky black resin, the ribbed floors look awesome and are often crawling with skittering facehuggers. Marines can use flashlights, which helps to set the mood and even highlights supplies. From the pulse rifles firing to the aliens screaming, the game sounds are all on point. It is also great that the camera view can be fully rotated, to get the best angle for every encounter, and zoomed in to see more detail.
While shooting the bugs, you will unfortunately experience technical bugs. Some caused a halt in mission progression. A few squad members got stuck in a “busy” state and could not be healed or open doors. One random onslaught never ended, despite no more aliens appearing. Marines can get stuck on doorways and walls occasionally, which may have been less of a pain if there was single-unit control. The game does save fairly often on medium difficulty, but there will be spots where bugs (both alien and software related) will require you to replay a tough 5-10 minute section. More patches will hopefully ensure the only bugs you see are those you can shoot.
Aliens: Dark Descent is a pleasant surprise because it is an incredibly faithful and entertaining squad-based strategy game. It looks just like the 1986 movie and brings enough new to the table to keep things fresh. It has an interesting story, told fairly well both during and in between missions. Managing a group of Marines across the 20-30 hour campaign is satisfying as you kit them out and heal both physical and mental wounds. Combat is challenging and dynamic, rewarding careful positioning, stress management, and deployment of key abilities, although individual unit control could have elevated it further. While the stealth is a bit wishy-washy, it is still rewarding to avoid alien threats by watching the handy motion-tracker. And despite some technical blemishes, Aliens: Dark Descent is the quintessential bug hunt of 2023.