Life on other planets has always been a fascinating subject with a potentially horrifying reality surrounding it. This idea has been visited time and time again in movie, book, and video game form, with titles such as Alien popping up, creating deep, unique franchises that offer a darker look into the possibilities of finding other living beings in our universe. Aliens: Dark Descent is a return to this illustrious franchise, where a tactical approach is needed in this real-time strategy game, following up on 2021’s Aliens: Fireteam Elite and 2014’s Alien: Isolation.
As the assistant administrator on a Weyland-Yutani vessel, Maeko Hayes is tasked with helping run things. When a ship from the planet Lethe brings up cargo containing a shipment of Face Huggers, things go south quickly, and Administrator Hayes decides to make the tough choice to activate the Cerberus Protocol—a defensive system that disallows any ships from entering or leaving that area of space in order to contain a hostile alien force.
After sending the U.S.S. Otago planetside and being rescued by a squad of Colonial Marines, Hayes must help them save the colonies on Lethe while trying to find a way away from the Xenomorph threat on this planet. With limited resources and the clock running out, can they save lives, stop the Xenomorphs, and get out alive?
“In terms of stories surrounding the Alien franchise, Aliens: Dark Descent does a good job creating a scenario where the dread from the Xenomorph’s ever-growing infestation lends itself to the chosen genre.”
In terms of stories surrounding the Alien franchise, Aliens: Dark Descent does a good job creating a scenario where the dread from the Xenomorph’s ever-growing infestation and the need to manage supplies and usable Marines lends itself to the chosen genre. While you won’t be playing Aliens: Dark Descent for its thrilling story, it creates a nicely-centred area of operations and a sense of urgency.
As a real-time strategy game, Aliens: Dark Descent has you move your squad through a mission with several objectives, where you’ll need to avoid or fight your way through several different types of enemies while extracting safely at the end. The “real-time” aspect simply means everything moves along without pauses (although there is a slow-down function to give yourself a breather, as well as a difficulty option that allows for full pauses), as you have to quickly make decisions and position your squad according to the situation.
While I can appreciate the hasty nature of real-time strategy, where the ever-ticking clock is in the back of your head as the Xenomorph threat slowly increases, it does go against a lot of how I like to personally play games, where checking every nook and cranny is vital to my mental health. Aliens: Dark Descent wants you to make tactical decisions with lives on the line, which makes sense contextually as well as as a gameplay function. Deciding to focus on the objectives at hand to clear the map rather than checking these rooms down the hallway might feel wrong, but continuing forward is crucial to successful runs.
“Aliens: Dark Descent wants you to make tactical decisions with lives on the line, which makes sense contextually as well as as a gameplay function.”
That thought goes the same for the gameplay. Stress is a huge part of Aliens: Dark Descent, where the longer you’re in the field, the less efficient your Marines will work. While you can weld doors shut to create safe zones to rest in temporarily, using up materials in order to do this over and over again to keep yourself afloat isn’t advantageous to the mission. Medkits can be used to help in this department as well, but all in all, getting in as few firefights as possible with proper movement and stealth and evacuating as soon as you can are the better ways to go about things.
Due to all of this, Aliens: Dark Descent can be quite difficult, especially in the early game where your Marines aren’t kitted out or upgraded. Changes in difficulty settings and accessibility options can make things much easier for those looking to just relax and enjoy the story, but even then, you’ll need to keep your squad moving or fail miserably over and over again. That challenge will be something that some crave and enjoy taking on with maxed-out difficulty, but those not well-versed in strategy titles—especially the real-time variety—may find themselves frustrated here and there.
“… Aliens: Dark Descent can be quite difficult, especially in the early game where your Marines aren’t kitted out or upgraded.”
As mentioned above, getting your Marines up to snuff is a huge part of not only being able to play the way you want to but in moving quicker and killing more efficiently so you’re not squad-wiped or starting the mission over. Different weapons, classes of Marines, and vulnerable traits must be balanced and built out to create a team that works for you, and that works well together.
Players who prefer to keep the wheels turning might prefer abilities, like the Shotgun, that allow for quick blows on the move, while others may like to set up firing lines with flames or suppressive fire and go with that approach. Either way, until you reach those options, you have to be flexible with what you have.
My biggest complaint with Aliens: Dark Descent is the squad-based movement and positioning. While it makes things simpler, especially so on console and when you’re playing in real-time, I regularly found myself on PC wanting to get better angles, wanting to spread my squad out or leave someone in a position to cover my other troops or to do, really, anything other than just waltz everyone in behind the same wall of cover and hope for the best while frantically using abilities to keep the Xenomorphs from surrounding them, especially when ammo is sparse and must be found and abilities take time to recharge.
“My biggest complaint with Aliens: Dark Descent is the squad-based movement and positioning.”
The dark, gloomy settings and art style match well with the fear that builds trying to avoid the Xenomorphs (or whatever other enemies you come across, like other soldiers or the all-new Xenomorph-Human hybrids). Everything is dark, and creeping through hallways while checking your radar or deploying motion detectors to check for movement keeps you on edge at all times—ready to spring into action with real-time combat. The sound design pushes this even further with creepy noises and creaking metal, even if the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the horror like Alien: Isolation’s first-person immersion does.
The way that the main base, the U.S.S. Otago, functions is similar in a lot of ways to the XCOM series. Upgrading and levelling Marines, researching better armour and weapons, and managing health and morale are the key functions when settled in at the crashed vessel. While the extent of research and upgrades isn’t as extensive as you’d find in XCOM, it’s the same idea. Getting a group of Marines to the point you’d like them and then having a quick mistake cost you half your squad is gutting, making the need for a quick, strategic approach all that much more important.
Aliens: Dark Descent is a great strategy game set in a beloved horror franchise. The pace of the gameplay can take some getting used to for those who like to take their time, the lack of full tactical control over individual units, and the early-game difficulty are complaints that I think, at the end of the day, are easily overshadowed by the rest of the package on offer. Fans of the Alien franchise, as well as strategy aficionados, will easily find tons of replayability and fun in Aliens: Dark Descent, while first-time entrants to the genre might need to start elsewhere to get up to speed before jumping in here.