Focus Entertainment is in a spree of releasing Aliens games recently. Cold Iron Studios’ Aliens: Fireteam Elite‘s success paved the way for Tindalos Interactive to develop its take on the Aliens franchise. Since its announcement last year, I’ve been excited about Aliens Dark Descent. Its nuanced gameplay shows some interesting direction.
Aliens, particularly James Cameron’s film, heavily rely on combat than horror, which puts Dark Decsent in a peculiar position compared to Fireteam Elite, Aliens vs. Predator, and even the infamous Aliens: Colonial Marines. All of them are shooters, and Dark Descent follows the path of its not-so-popular relative, Aliens vs. Predator Extinction – a real-time strategy game.
Aliens Dark Descent does give off that XCOM vibe. However, even if other critics say that the game is just a clone of Firaxis’ turn-based squad game, I respectfully disagree and that Dark Descent fleshes out uniquely with its gameplay and its faithful recreation of the horrors imbued in Cameron’s 1986 film.
Dark Descent’s story is set in 2198, years before the events of Aliens: Fireteam Elite. Chaos unfolds in Pioneer Station when a saboteur unleashes a Xenomorph outbreak. Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes, our leading protagonist, activated the Cerberus Protocol to prevent the infestation from spreading. In response to the station’s distress call, the US Colonial Marines squad led by Sergeant Jonas Harper is sent to secure and rescue the remaining survivor, successfully bringing Maeko back to the USCSS Otago.
With the Cerberus Protocol in effect, the ship was targeted by its automated defense grid, and the Otago crash-landed on the planet Lethe without knowing that the colonies were already infested by xenomorphs and occupied by cultists known as the Darwin Era. It’s up to Harper and Maeko to lead the squads from Otago to get the materials they need to fix the ship to escape the planet alive.
The plot isn’t anything special; however, Dark Descent’s narrative direction pays homage to James Cameron’s Aliens. It’s littered with interesting lore stored in the datapad, learning more about the colonists on Lethe and how the infestation began. That’s about it, again, the game’s story may not be award-winning, but it’s entertaining enough to keep you playing as a fan.
Dark Descent’s real-time squad tactics gameplay can be fun and engaging most of the time. However, the overwhelming set of tasks can be exhausting. Managing resources, your Marines’ stress level and traumas, and controlling the Xenomorph’s aggressive state aren’t as easy as you think.
Letting your squad reach their peak stress level will make them less obedient, and giving them orders becomes particularly difficult. Plus, their trauma level will increase after the mission. These traumas range from pyrophobia to claustrophobia, making them even more of a liability than an asset.
Managing your people’s sanity during a mission is a strenuous task, pushing you to be more strategic and careful. You can’t simply fight your way through the entire mission, and most of the time, you will spend avoiding the Xenos to keep your squad’s stress level at bay. Stealth can be an option to avoid enemies as your men can hide behind covers, leaving the enemies roaming the area before you take the shot with a silenced sniper rifle. This sounds like a lot, but this kept me engaged and entertained despite my stress levels shooting up. It’s not the kind of game that can be completed overnight.
You can build your four-man squad from your current list of marines like XCOM. One of the best things is that they can be customized; you can give them names and even promote them to a higher class, such as a Sergeant or a Gunner. Each of these classes gives unique perks that are beneficial during your mission. For example, promoting a soldier to a Gunner will provide them access to the Smartgun, and new upgradable skills that will let them deploy it into sentry mode.
Upgrading your marines requires much consideration, as your options are at the mercy of the game’s random number generation (RNG). You won’t get the same choices when you accidentally close the game and don’t get to save your progress. Speaking of saving your progress, the game won’t let you save any time, and you’ll have to rely on its auto-save feature, which will only happen when you finish an objective, return to your home base, advance to the next day, and rest in a shelter during a mission.
Once I had the upgrade choice to eliminate my marine’s negative trait. I decided to take a break, closed the game from the main menu, and assumed my progress was saved. Alas, hours after, I booted up Dark Descent and loaded up my save, then voila! All the upgrades I’ve done for my marines were gone, and when I tried to apply those new perks, I was given a different set of upgrades to choose from.
It’s frustrating that its core design to prevent players from save-cheating punishes us for quitting the game from the main menu. Quitting the game properly should at least trigger the auto-save feature to save my progress. However, Tindalos released a patch earlier today that addressed this concern; I’m glad they’re listening to feedback to improve their game.
Dark Descent’s combat adds much depth and excitement that turn-based tactics games don’t have. You’re constantly on your toes as random Xenos and enemies spawn from the vents or bug holes. You’re always encouraged to treat every area as dangerous. I love how the game features a slow-mo phase (or if you decide to set the option to pause everything completely) when you open up the squad’s skill menu to use a grenade launcher or command a marine to provide suppressing fire. It gives me a breather and the time to think whether or not I may need to use a shotgun or the flamethrower.
Facing the Xenos provides the most challenge as your squad’s stress levels increase rather quickly compared to fighting mercs and synths. This design honors the Aliens franchise horror atmosphere that you can’t just shoot your way through. Your men will be afraid, the eeriness will crawl up your spine as you play, and it’s great.
While the game’s gameplay design is almost perfect, its game-breaking bugs and unit pathing aren’t something to ignore. During the Pryce of Deception mission, a primary objective didn’t mark itself complete despite finishing the said task. After an epic cutscene, I was under the impression that the mission was completed, but after getting back to HQ, the next mission wasn’t available. I couldn’t proceed to Mission 11, and because of that, I had to redo the entire Mission 10 again from the start. It was awfully tiring and completely unacceptable. All the upgrades that I wanted after that mission when I promoted my marines weren’t the same, and that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
Plus, the unit pathing is just bad. There were certain positions from covers that I wanted my Recon marine to go, but he couldn’t, and I could not snipe off a sleeping Xeno or any enemies because a wall was in the way while the other marines in my squad had the enemies on their scopes. There’s no way to reposition your squad’s placements, and it’s frustrating enough that I can’t have that little flexibility. But other than the two major technical issues I had with Dark Descent, my experience was mostly smooth. I didn’t get any frame drops on 1440p at Epic graphics settings.
Despite my initial thoughts about the game being a “real-time squad tactics” title, Aliens Dark Descent captures the embodiment and horror of the franchise with its engaging gameplay and level design. The game doesn’t just keep you on your toes and raises your heart rate during intense situations; it also fuels the enjoyment you’ll get from playing it.
Aliens: Dark Descent
When the issues of a game are rolled and stomped by its greatness, then it’s something to invest on if you have some spare.
Unique combat design
Captures the horror atmosphere of the films
Highly polished in terms of frame-rate
Game-breaking bugs that prevent you from progressing