Aliens: Dark Descent is a real-time strategy game based on the popular movie franchise. Players take command of a team of Colonial Marines on an inhospitable mining moon overrun by the titular Aliens.
For over 40 years, the Alien movies have been terrifying and thrilling fans of sci-fi and horror alike. The alien creatures, with a grotesque lifecycle that starts by bursting from the chest of an impregnated human host, trigger a very primal fear. These relentless killing machines that lurk in the shadows are the stuff of nightmares. But as well as the alien creatures, corporate greed is also the villain, in the form of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and what it will do to make a profit.
The Alien movie franchise has provided plenty of gaming fodder over the years. Typically, they have tended to draw more upon James Cameron’s Aliens sequel, being action games with players hunting aliens, rather than the other way around. Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation is a notable exception. In that game, the player is hunted by a solitary, but unstoppable, alien xenomorph, a similar situation that the crew of the Nostromo faced in Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie.
Tindalos Interactive, with Aliens: Dark Decent, has taken an altogether different approach. This time we have a tactical real-time strategy game that somehow manages to capture the psychological terror of the first movie and the action of the sequel, Aliens.
Set after the events of Alien 3, Aliens: Dark Descent draws on a very familiar theme from the movies. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is up to its old tricks, again, trying to secure the alien xenomorphs for its nefarious gains. When a shipment from the mining moon Lethe is compromised in transit via Pioneer Station, the alien creatures are unleashed across the orbital platform.
This first sequence acts as a tutorial mission with players in the role of Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes. As you try to isolate the alien threat on the station, the game takes you through its fundamental mechanics. The tutorial concludes with the activation of a containment protocol using an array of orbital weapons platforms that not only destroy the fleeing spacecraft that smuggled the xenomorphs but also disables the approaching USMC ship, the Otago, sending it crashing to the moon below.
Rescued by marines, the station administrator is evacuated to the wreckage of the Otago, in which a temporary base of operations is set up. It’s up to the player and the team of marines that you command to rescue survivors from the moon's various installations and find out what is going on.
Instead of constraining the player’s choices, each mission provides an entire location to explore with a set of objectives to achieve. These tend to unlock as each task is completed. At any time, however, the marines can be extracted back to the Otago for rest, medical attention, or roster changes. Once the list of objectives for a location is complete, the next location opens up. You can still return to previous locations to collect any resources or equipment that you have left behind.
The game’s controls are pretty simple. On PC, the WADS keys control the camera with the middle mouse button camera rotation and the scroll wheel zoom. The right mouse button commands your squad to move or attack, with a double-click getting them to hustle. The left button pans the marines’ torches, illumining darkened areas, and orders interactions with objects.
The space bar opens the special actions menus, which can be set to either slow down time or pause the game in the options. I preferred to use the pause option. Setting the covering fire or flame thrower firing arc, placing remote sentries, throwing grenades, and setting mines are just some of the things that can be performed from these menus. Available abilities all depend on remaining resources and the equipment selected before departing the Otago.
For the most part, the game has players moving and commanding the squad as one unit. This constrains strategic opportunities but makes the game more manageable. You can command individual marines to halt, but as soon as they are released, they will rejoin the squad. Similarly, marines tend to split up to collect resources, returning to the last commanded location when done.
The game doesn’t pull its punches. It’s not an easy game, and the tutorial warns you of this, curtly telling you to pay attention. If you behave recklessly, it’s likely to end up “Game over, man. Game Over”. Whilst your squad of four colonial marines is armed to the teeth, if you let the aliens get within striking distance, they will slice them to shreds. Going in too gung-ho, which I often found unavoidable, will attract the attention of other aliens, and before you know it, there will be a full-on hunt after you.
My first proper mission went totally FUBAR. I was left to do an emergency evac with my only standing marine carrying the unconscious body of their only other surviving teammate. Whilst I did rescue a couple of colonists, they all died during the escape.
The game continuously toyed with my anxiety. Should I evac my tired troops after each successful objective? Should I carry on and risk losing personal, collected resources, or in the case of a complete failure, my progress since the last save?
An armoured personal carrier accompanies your marines on missions and can relocate them to different, predefined locations on the map. The APC can also be utilised if you get overrun by xenomorphs and need a bit of extra firepower or a dust-off back to the Otago if things get really bad.
There’s no shame in a dust-off mid-mission if your squad gets to live another day. Any resources collected are added to the Otago’s inventory for unlocking equipment, and your marines get a chance to rest up.
On the Otago, players can visit the barracks to check on the status of their marines (and visit the memorial to remember those that you lost), the workshop for new equipment, the laboratory for upgrades, and the medical bay to view the injured. The command deck is where you select deployments or additional offline missions that have their risks and rewards but cost a day. At the end of each deployment, players advance to the next day to continue, but with each passing day, the alien infestation grows.
Initially, my team was easily overpowered by the aliens. With traits like “coward” and “conspirator,” they hardly seemed like the right stuff. It was only with combat experience that the marines started to develop the skills to successfully take on an alien horde. With a more experienced, better equipped, later sessions had me staying in the field for longer. But with a weary team, full inventory, failing health, and elevated stress levels, the risks are still very apparent.
The game’s visuals capture the style of the Alien movies, Aliens in particular. The moon, Lathe, immediately reminded me of LV-426, with Dead Hill a decent proxy for the doomed mining colony of Alien’s Hadley’s Hope.
I found the game genuinely stressful to play, the use of shadows, darkness, and the ever-present blip of the motion tracker, keeping me on edge. Having no idea if my marine team was about to breeze through to their objective or be faced with multiple aliens getting up close and personal meant every step was with apprehension.
Between the anxiety and sometimes unforgiving gameplay, Alien: Dark Descent perfectly captures the action, atmosphere and tension of both Alien and its sequel, Aliens. It doesn’t quite surpass Alien: Isolation, but comes very close. In any case, the game deserves extra credit for its novel real-time strategy approach to the franchise.