The Alien franchise is synonymous with the science fiction horror and action genres. Achieving a balance between them likely isn’t the easiest thing to do, and when it comes to video games, we’ve seen our fair share that choose one side or the other.
After playing 36+ hours of Aliens: Dark Descent, I’m inclined to say it’s one of the best works to straddle that line since the 1986 Aliens film. There are so many moments that put a smile on my face because Dark Descent presents itself in an authentic manner. Unfortunately, such high praise is marred by glaring technical issues that twist that enjoyment into frustration.
The story of Aliens: Dark Descent follows Maeko Hayes, Jonas Harper, and the crew of the USS Otago grounded on the Planet Lethe. The planet faces a Xenomorph outbreak, and the fight for survival encompasses tough decisions. It’s not just Xenos you have to watch out for; nefarious factions are at play, too.
In moment-to-moment gameplay, however, you primarily control a group of colonial marines. It isn’t a new concept for any game based on the franchise. Where Aliens: Dark Descent differs is that it’s a top-down real-time strategy game. Missions take you to different locations on the planet, but each one forces you to explore the unknown. And that ratchets up the tension of the dreadful beeps on your motion tracker, indicating enemies are in and around every corner.
Aside from a few specific situations, there isn’t any way to kill the eponymous xenomorphs quietly. Making too much noise is easy and becomes a problem quickly, as it grabs the attention of any nearby critters. What’s far worse is the Xeno’s hive mentality — as soon as one detects you in its line of sight or by entering combat, they’ll alert the entire hive of your presence.
Xenomorphs will hone in on your location and aggressively begin hunting for a while. You’ll need to be quick on your feet and keep an eye on your motion tracker to avoid them as best you can.
If that wasn’t worrying enough, triggering a hunt and remaining in the Detected state raises the Xenomorph Aggressiveness Level. Not only does the hive become more aggressive as this increases, but it also leads to special events, such as a special Xenomorphs spawning or a Massive Onslaught, where you’ll need to fight off a horde of the monsters.
Encounters with any threatening forces aren’t just bad in the physical sense. While Marines can be wounded and even killed in action, you also have to note their stress levels. This mechanic can generate a random Trauma debuff, as well as introduce up to three random stress-related debuffs. Managing Marine stress is a vital part of every deployment, but it’s a tedious one.
That’s not to say you’re not equipped to take on Xenomorphs or any of the other threats on the planet. Your marines can adequately defend themselves and, over time, will gain individual experience that moves them into different classes and paves the way for new weapons and abilities. You’ll be able to help them further whenever you return to the USS Otago by training or having physicians tend to their wounds.
Something unique to Aliens: Dark Descent is that you don’t need to do everything in one go. It’s actually encouraged to leave missions and engagements if things become too hectic. Aside from the Aggressiveness level that resets each time, any progress you’ve made will carry over when you deploy on another day.
You can’t keep deploying indefinitely, though. Each passing day adds to a planet-wide Alien Infestation meter, which will make it more likely for you to encounter more Xenomorphs. Even more urgent matters will eventually be added as well, all amounting to a lot of pressure when it comes time to decide how far you want to push your marines and the best time to escape.
While the story was interesting, and I appreciated all of the original elements it introduces in the way of characters and enemies, two aspects kept me wanting more. The first was the general atmosphere and presentation. Admittedly, Dark Descent isn’t the best-looking game when it gets close to the models, but it nails that Alien vibe I remember loving as a kid watching the first two movies. Every character and one-liner only adds to the authenticity.
The second aspect that kept me invested was the gameplay. As intense as the scripted events or even a fight against an Alien Queen can be, there’s an entirely separate intensity when it comes to hiding from threats.
I can have a squadron of marines equipped with a variety of weapons and ready to take everything on guns blazing, but I’ll have them hide behind a table and hope the roaming Xenomorph doesn’t come close. I don’t have the tools to make a shelter or any meds to decrease their stress level, and I’m afraid of the ramifications for not looking after my Marines. Those kinds of moments can happen often, and for as simple as the gameplay loop is, I absolutely adore it.
Unfortunately, there are some things I really don’t like. Some of the non-xenomorph enemies just aren’t very fun, and one type introduced in the late-game is absolutely frustrating. Hearing the same voice lines over and over again was also something I quickly got tired of, even though a couple of them are entertaining.
What really ruined everything for me were the technical issues and bugs. I noticed them early on, but it only became worse as I played. Some of them were relatively harmless, such as the Command Deck telling me I had a Marine in the med-bay when there wasn’t one.
More annoying offenders included my marine being unable to heal because the game thought they were in the middle of an interaction, even though they weren’t. Quite a few times, I would loot a health item or some tools, and they were never added to my inventory. More than once, an enemy’s pathing also stopped working, leaving them in an annoying spot where I had no choice but to enter combat.
Some forced me to resort to an earlier save. As annoying as it was that my marines would sometimes get stuck on objects, sometimes they would clip through a wall or a crate, and I wouldn’t be able to get them out. My Tecker’s battle drone also repeatedly clipped through the ceiling in one mission until some passing enemies shot at and destroyed it.
The worst occurred after completing what I believe is the second-to-last mission. Upon returning to the USS Otago — and being surprised that there weren’t any follow-up cutscenes — I realized there was still a primary objective called “Reach the Upper Floors” I needed to complete. There was no objective marker or even any details. All I had was the general title.
This left me especially perplexed because I reached the upper floors halfway through the mission. I assumed it somehow didn’t trigger, since something similar happened in an earlier mission and required me to complete an arbitrary objective that I managed to skip over.
My solution was to load up my earliest auto-save (there’s no manual save), but I only found myself near the end of the mission with the same problem. I spent nearly an hour combing every inch of the map, trying to trigger it, but nothing worked. Dejected, I tried to leave so I could redeploy, and on the way, my marine got stuck in a wall and then a car.
Even after successfully leaving and redeploying, I couldn’t find any way to trigger the objective and advance to the final location. The auto-save system meanwhile condemned me to my fate. The story and my reason for playing simply ended.
Aliens: Dark Descent Review — The Bottom Line
- Fun gameplay loop when everything works.
- Authentic to the Aliens franchise.
- The abundance of technical issues.
- Some enemies are a chore to deal with.
- After two missions, you’ve basically heard every non-scripted voice line.
My time with Aliens: Dark Descent was so fun at the start. When I realized I was having more problems with technical bugs than alien bugs, I started feeling iffy, and then the soft-lock was the sour cherry on top. I wouldn’t put this quite in the same vein as the infamous Aliens: Colonial Marines because there are still a lot of great ideas and mechanics here. But it’s disheartening to see something so fun ruined by glitches.
My recommendation is to read how others feel and wait for updates. I don’t know whether my issues will be common or isolated, but I sincerely hope it’s the latter. If it’s the former — oof, game over, man.
[Note: Focus Entertainment provided the PC copy of Aliens: Dark Descent used for this review.]
Aliens: Dark Descent Review — Some Real Bad Bugs
Inside a clipped wall, no one can hear you scream.What Our Ratings Mean