The squad that stays together, slays together
Over the years, we’ve seen a few different takes on the Aliens franchise. The xenomorphs have been tackled in shooters, Pac-Man-style mazes, and of course, raw horror. With Aliens: Dark Descent, the player takes command of a crack squad of commandos, heading into derelict depths of space that may or may not be crawling with the multi-mouthed creepy crawlies.
The question, really, was whether a narrow focus on just a squad of units, with individual talents and a high risk of immediate doom, could incorporate the tension and fear one might look for in an Aliens game. The answer is yes, it is extremely tense, and has some really cool ways of conveying the omnipresent fear of the xenomorphs. But it’s a little complicated.
Quiet space goliaths
Sitting down for my demo at PAX East 2023, I was intrigued by the premise. I’ve really enjoyed small, focused takes on the strategy genre. Developer Tindalos Interactive has previously worked on some Battlefleet Gothic games, and that legacy shows here. Right out of the gate, the atmosphere is superb. Even in a top-down, overhead view, corners felt dangerous and the shadows were imposing. Fog of war, a strategy mainstay, works incredibly well here as a tool for tension.
Ticking in the bottom-right corner is a minimap, complete with the Aliens signature heartbeat monitor. Each little pip heightens the mood, and once the xenomorphs are loose and on the hunt, it can really feel like you’re scrambling and hiding from a horde of the nasty hunters.
What starts out as a routine mission quickly descends into chaos as you try to work your way through a ship overtaken by the xenomorphs. So from the outset, Aliens: Dark Descent nails the setting. It’s the combat that adds a few more wrinkles.
All for one
Aliens: Dark Descent is a tactical action game, set in real time, with the potential to pause and issue commands. If you’ve played a real-time-with-pause game before, it will feel familiar. There’s just one twist: you don’t issue commands to individual marines, but to the entire squad.
Commands will let certain marines enact their own special moves, or automatically assign them based on proficiencies. Otherwise, ordering the squad means ordering the whole squad in Aliens: Dark Descent. Part of this helps, as a full squad can mitigate the damage that would otherwise overwhelm a single marine. When I was exploring, sweeping for information and extra munitions for an eventual holdout against the xenomorphs, it worked fine.
Eventually, Aliens: Dark Descent narrows the battles down and focuses them. In one section, I knew that the second I activated a certain machine, the entire nest would descend on me. This is a classic set-up that works great for the Aliens setting, and I had many interesting tools to hold off the horde. Auto-turrets could maintain killzones, welding doors allowed for chokepoints, and different vantage points meant I could maintain range and fire on enemies as they rushed in.
Once the swarm started up, though, it was an awkward moment of sitting and watching. There are abilities to use, like the flamethrower, but they felt a little awkward. A developer I spoke with afterwards mentioned this particular slice takes place later in the game, after some of those elements have been explained. Maybe they’re a bit easier to implement when the player’s more familiar with them.
Either way, this was the one moment I wanted to pause and shift around a bit. Setting up alternate angles for cover, or even getting a finer control of my marines, would’ve made me feel more in control. It’s a nitpick, but one I felt right away as the action got heavy. Despite all that, I still loved the holdout sections. While the mission had up to that point been a lot of eerie quiet punctuated by sudden xenomorph strikes, this was all-out chaos, looking on as I tried to mete out what resources I could to keep the waves of xenomorphs from overwhelming my hapless team.
Down to the wire
I eventually limped my way through the mission, perishing to a wave of aliens my few surviving marines couldn’t handle. Xenomorphs are intimidating, and I really felt like I was constantly up against difficult odds. The resource management is an especially interesting wrinkle; taking stock of ammo, ability points, and the turrets I had to cover retreats was a constant source of tension. These moments made Aliens: Dark Descent click a lot more for me.
Control woes aside, this is at least a novel take on the franchise. Tindalos Interactive and Focus Entertainment have the atmosphere nailed, and some of the resource and squad management meta-layers seem compelling too. I’m curious to see how this lands, as Aliens: Dark Descent will head to both PC and consoles, via PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. Console strategy games have their ups and downs, and maybe the focused squad controls will feel comfortable on a controller. I’m still really into Tindalos’ take on the Aliens world, and even after seeing my squad wiped out, I’m still curious to see whether the tension can carry over mission-to-mission.
We’ll see soon, as Aliens: Dark Descent arrives on June 20.