Hurry Up, You Slugs!
HIGH So. Incredibly. Tense. Luring enemies into a killbox is so satisfying!
LOW Game-stopping bugs. Punishingly difficult. Repetitive commentary from my marines.
WTF How do Face Huggers see my squad SO QUICKLY if they’re in eggs?
When I first started playing Aliens: Dark Descent, I was overwhelmed by a tremendous feeling of tension.
My squad of heavily-armed (yet still squishy) Colonial Marines trudged through dark corridors with only the sound of their footsteps and the incessant beeping of a motion tracker to guide them. They faced off against stronger, faster, and potentially smarter foes. Every doorway could hold a full party wipe, and every success felt hard-won. It was exhilarating.
…But then came frustration.
After hours of play, I had squandered my precious resources and basically led my marines to an untenable, nigh-unwinnable scenario. With my newfound knowledge, I decided to start again and play more carefully. Unfortunately, by doing so, I realized that many of the encounters I’d thrilled to were far less organic than I’d originally thought, and Dark Descent often forced me into situations I should have been able to avoid. Beyond that, technical bugs began creeping in, causing lockups and crashes, or sometimes preventing me from executing commands for no discernible reason. It was maddening.
In fact, Aliens: Dark Descent went from a surefire pick for one of my games of the year to me simply hoping against hope that patches can save it from as many glitches as xenomorphs, including a showstopping error in a late-game mission that completely blocks a player’s ability to complete the campaign at all.
However, it starts off in a great way.
Dark Descent almost serves as a reboot of the entire franchise. After a series of events in the opening, the Colonial Marines crash-land on an infested planet deep in space, and must not only fend off the xenomorphs for survival, but also get their ship, the Otago, spaceworthy before the planet is overrun.
The story skillfully navigates the reality that while the players most have a good idea of what to expect, the characters do not. As such, their panic feels natural — they make rash decisions with dire consequences, and loyalties are tested from the most surprising directions. It may not be the most gripping sci-fi yarn ever told, but it offers decent thrills, some inspired twists, and is faithful to the franchise that spawned it.
Gameplay happens from an overhead, isometric viewpoint where the player provides commands at the squad level. Individual marines act on those orders independently (there is no direct command of individual troops) to the best of their abilities based on their skills and their mental state. This can lead to some frustration when a team sniper doesn’t take up the correct firing position to attempt the long-range shots required of them, or when a gunner is unable to properly launch a grenade into a room because their aim has been affected by terror and/or injury.
That said, aside from those instances where troops act goofy for a moment or two, it’s an effective squad management system that manages to immerse players in the world while simultaneously removing the need to micromanage. Commanding every move for individual marines would rob Dark Descent of the tension that is its stock-in-trade, and this hybrid system is smart.
Enhancing the combat is that marines make use of diverse weapons and equipment — things like the iconic motion trackers which double as luring beacons for aliens when destroyed, or the famous auto-turrets which can turn a dead end hallway into a killbox for charging xenos. Using all of the gear available and determining ways to escape prowling aliens (or even turning the tables on them) never gets old, and I’m grateful these moments exist, because Dark Descent does its level best to end players at every opportunity.
Aliens can detect a squad more quickly than I can detect them, often to an unfair degree, especially as the aliens can spawn at any of their tunnels, or when triggered by a squad’s presence.
For instance, when introducing Praetorian-class aliens, the first one simply appeared after my squad passed a specific map location, and there was no warning from the motion tracker before its arrival. It didn’t appear in a cutscene, but I suppose it may have been dormant right up until the moment the squad arrived in the vicinity. I loaded a number of saves and attempted the same section numerous times to experiment and got similar results.
Complicating things is that aliens move so quickly that it’s sometimes impossible to react, even with the innovative ‘slow time’ feature that’s supposed to give me the opportunity to observe and adjust my tactics. An alien can appear, slaughter and kidnap marines, and be gone in an instant, even when I’m prepared for them. Worse, boss enemies such as alien queens are damage sponges that can absolutely devastate a squad of even the most hardened troops.
Despite the well-represented ferocity of the aliens, I was still on board in a big way. Unfortunately, the experience just couldn’t hold itself together in ways that had nothing to do with the skirmishes themselves.
The threads started unraveling with instances when my troops simply did not respond to commands – as in, the keyboard presses simply didn’t register. Usually, reloading a save took care of those issues.
Then I began experiencing crashes when using some elevators, which serve as auto-save points. I was forced to revert to older saves to resolve these issues, which meant at least several minutes of going through difficult sections yet again, although any cutscenes can be skipped.
The last straw for many players, including our own editor here at GameCritics, is a bug that crops up during the late-game Pharos Spire mission. This glitch locks the ability to continue or progress, effectively ending the campaign without a resolution. Thought I haven’t personally encountered this, my recommendation (and my editor’s as well!) is for players to wait for a patch before playing this mission.
If all of its technical issues can be fixed, Aliens: Dark Descent will prove to be something special. It treats the franchise with respect and care — and when working properly — it nails the tension the series is famous for. Unfortunately, a full, completed release simply should not have this many technical issues, nor cause so much frustration that has nothing to do with the aliens themselves.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Tindalos Interactive and published by Focus Entertainment.It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4/PS5, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Strong Language, and Violence. The official description reads: This is a real-time strategy game (RTS) in which players lead a squad of marines attempting to escape from a planet during an alien breakout. From a top-down perspective, players explore compounds, search for survivors, and battle a variety of enemies (e.g., Facehuggers, Alien Queens, rogue human commandos). Players use pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and flamethrowers to defeat enemies; battles are accompanied by gunfire, cries of pain, and blood-splatter effects. One scene depicts a character pulled into a vent and killed, resulting in blood-splatter effects that stain the ground. Corpses are also depicted lying in pools of blood. The game depicts some instances of gore: characters’ chest cavities burst open by aliens; a boss enemy tearing a human in half; a character’s leg dismembered. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the game.
Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be altered and/ or resized. All game-related sounds have a visual component. All plot-specific dialogue is completely subtitled. Ancillary comments from marines (taunts, shouts, cries) and the growls and howls from the aliens are not subtitled.
Remappable Controls: Certain functions are remappable. Keyboard commands are fully remappable. Controller commands are locked to one configuration.