Aliens, the finest sequel in the history of cinematography, has been adapted into countless games since 1986. The train of interactive translations started with Aliens: The Computer Game, which graced the cassette decks of C-64, Amstrad CPC, and ZX Spectrum almost immediately after the silver screen debut. Thirty-seven years later, the sheer volume of titles squats there like a pile of discarded movie props in a desert landfill. There are but a few Alien-based/inspired games worthy of the name. Alien: Isolation is greatest among them, deserving a permanent seat at the table, and titles such as Aliens: Fireteam Elite fall into the “mostly OK” category. The rest, unfortunately, are barely adequate, with Aliens: Colonial Marines leading the chickenshit outfit.
I really didn’t expect much of Aliens: Dark Descent, primarily because its publisher, Focus Entertainment, has been a long-time poster child for mediocrity. The game turned into the most pleasant surprise of early summer, at least for me. Like a facehugger leaping from behind the couch, it formed an ad-hoc bond with my cranium, devouring the thirty hours I was saving for something else. It has several conceptual flaws, but the superb atmosphere and military-grade tension compensate for most issues. The pure cinematic flavor oozes and drips from it like saliva from the Queen’s dual set of jaws.
How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Aliens: Dark Descent is a real-time tactical RPG with huge, open levels, linear campaign, and a management side that evokes simplified XCOM. Its story revolves around the Xenomorph outbreak in orbit and on the surface of the planet Lethe, a backwater mining colony with few scattered settlements, industrial plants, and underground labs. You will deal with Aliens and the cultists who worship them, masterminded by a rogue Weyland-Yutani scientist who has a unique vision of hybridized Mankind. Managing the combat resources of USS Otago and its stranded complement of Colonial Marines, you will slowly descend into the dark pit of the transhumanist conspiracy.
The tactical side of the game involves controlling the squad of marines conducting various missions in the field. You’ll do that in real-time, commanding your unit as a single, uniform tactical entity. Instead of directing individual soldiers, you’ll issue orders and the appropriate Marine(s) will automatically fulfill them. It’s a simple but effective system borne of multiplatform necessity. Managing the fast-paced combat with the gamepad would be impossible with PC-centric micro-management.
Every mission is a multi-objective affair tied to a single location, explorable in real-time. You can extract the squad at will, retreating to Otago to replenish the ammo and med kits or to replace the battered Marines with fresh ones. Secondary missions are mostly related to searching for survivors, equipment, and resources, all of which augment your fortunes in subsequent deployments. Sounds too easy? Well, there’s a big catch. After each mission, the global infestation clock moves forward. After reaching thresholds, the alien threat becomes incrementally more deadly, so taking the sweet time is really not an option. You must push it, and push hard to keep the pace with the doom clock.
I only need to know one thing: where they are
Real-time combat greatly differs depending on who are you fighting. Human cultists will usually fire from cover, necessitating a bit of flanking, a well-placed grenade, or a burst from a flamethrower. They are dangerous only in groups, but even then, they can’t compete with your guys in a clean shootout. Occasional synthetics offer even less of a challenge. They behave like zombies, walking into kill zones without a shred of self-preservation.
Xenomorphs present a unique set of challenges. First of all, engaging any Alien save for sniping it from a distance or placing a mine in its path alerts the Hive, which launches the hunt, sending nearby xenos your way. The strength of those waves depends on the global threat level and, more importantly, local hive aggressiveness. Repeated engagements will increase xeno combat arousal from easy to medium and hard, occasionally spawning the massive onslaught wave. So, constantly seeking skirmishes with Aliens will inevitably lead to your doom. Dwindling ammo supply and skyrocketing stress will diminish your combat proficiency, leading to injuries, psychological traumas, and death. Higher levels of threat and aggressiveness will sometimes spawn tier 2 xenos such as Pretorian and Crusher. Those two present formidable challenge, but the Alien Queen represent the ultimate danger. The big bitches are, mercifully, related to campaign events and don’t pop up randomly.
We got four pulse rifles with about 50 rounds each
Sensible tactics in the field represent just one side of the proverbial combat medal. Managing the people and limited resources is the other half, and it’s often more difficult than fighting. Everything you carry in missions is limited, including auto-turrets (as seen in Aliens: Special Edition), tools (for welding doors, repairing turrets, and bypassing locks), and med packs. Unlocking higher tiers for gadgets and weapons costs materials, often found in the missions and (slowly) generated on Otago. Detouring from objectives and scavenging for ammo and stuff is an absolute must, especially during prolonged engagements.
At the start of the campaign, Managing Marines suffers from serious bottlenecks. You will have a few doctors that can treat wounds, and the Psychiatric hospital is not yet unlocked. Apart from physical wounds, your guys suffer from combat fatigue and stress, which has a cumulative and detrimental effect on their combat potency. If left untreated, they can develop dangerous quirks and phobias, lowering reaction time, accuracy, etc. You will eventually get enough personnel for healthy rotations, so the struggle becomes much more bearable. In the meantime, you need to pay attention to the cause and effect of mental disturbances. For example, you won’t be assigning a flamethrower to a Pyrophobic marine, lest you want to create an instant schizophrenic.
It’s like a day on the farm
If Aliens: Dark Descent had a non-linear campaign and more unpredictable escalation (like XCOM 2, for example), we would be talking about an instant classic. But even in its more constricted form, the game represents one of the best franchise adaptations in recent history. Its atmosphere of dread and anticipation is second to none, and contrary to Alien: Isolation, it provides the player with ballistic options for the explosive tensal release. A real winner, here.
- The game is oozing an authentic Aliens atmosphere.
- Beautiful visuals, and incredible audio.
- Constant tension you can cut with the knife.
- Less linear campaign would be much appreciated.
- Story takes a few non-canonical liberties.