Aliens: Dark Descent Review (Xbox Series X|S)

Aliens: Dark Descent Review (Xbox Series X|S)

The Aliens franchise has charted a fairly choppy path across various mediums throughout its 44 year history. Whether in video game form with the likes of the execrable Aliens: Colonial Marines, or on the silver screen where Michael Fassbender whipped out a flute to put the final nail in the filmic coffin that was Alien: Covenant, things haven’t always gone smoothly on this particular bug hunt.

Of course, when Aliens is good, it’s just about as great as sweaty survival horror can get and it’s easy to see why, no matter how many times things go badly, game developers continue to return for another bite at this particular gooey egg sac. Indeed, we’ve just come off the back of a highly successful video game incarnation with Creative Assembly’s astounding Alien Isolation, an all-time classic horror effort that manages to perfectly capture the tension and terror of the very best of the movies.

Now, Tindalos Interactive, the French developer behind the excellent Battlefleet Gothic Armada series, has taken up the Xenomorph mantle by placing the Aliens universe inside a real time strategy game that looks to capture the essence of the horror franchise whilst also providing players with an absorbing tactical experience. It’s not the first time we’ve had an Aliens RTS, of course, but it’s definitely the first one we’d pretty much unreservedly give a great big acid-soaked thumbs up to.

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Yes, Aliens fans you can relax, Tindalos has managed to serve up a very good game with this one. It’s not without its issues, issues which could mostly (mostly) be resolved by a few tweaks and patches – and we’re already aware a day one patch is set to drop – but, on the whole, what you’ve got here is a tension-filled strategy effort that takes the established XCOM formula and makes some smart tweaks to better suit the style of action at hand. Aliens: Dark Descent delivers creeping dread, claustrophobic corridors, the nerve-wracking beep of a motion tracker as an enemy approaches and, at the end of it all, hordes of incredibly dangerous xenomorphs who will tear your squishy human squad to shreds given half a chance.

The XCOM influence is obvious from the get-go, with your base of operations acting in exactly the same manner here. You can switch between a handful of menus and sub-menus to travel between a barracks, med-bay, laboratory, command centre and so on, and these locations expand and offer up more options as you progress. Your colonial marines can be customised to a basic degree in terms of how they look and then named however you choose – perfect for dragging yourself and some real-life friends into the depths of hell – and there’s a steady and meaningful drip-feed of upgrades, new weapons, promotions and specialised classes to unlock as you progress through the game’s twelve large missions.

As days pass in HQ, as you take time out to heal and rearm, unlock bigger guns and research new tech via alien DNA samples, the infestation level on the planet of Lethe also slowly grows. Just as in XCOM, time is an important factor, you’re always under pressure and the situation is absolutely going to get worse before it gets better. It suits the Aliens universe perfectly. There are several difficulty levels to choose from that affect the amount of pressure you’re under too, with everything from a story-focused mode that makes things much easier, to a nightmare difficulty and the added option to go hardcore on how the game saves progress. Something for everyone, then.

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If you’ve played XCOM you’ll know the overall drill with the base-building, upgrading and progression side of things as the ebb and flow is generally the same. Missions give you experience and materials with which to promote and upgrade marines, meaning you’ll want to to keep them alive for as long as you can in order to turn them into genuinely useful propositions on the battlefield. Of course there’s a permadeath mechanic at work too, so things get properly sweaty as you struggle to keep your very best soldiers alive and kicking, and we’re not ashamed to admit that plenty of good old-fashioned save-scumming took place during our blast through the game’s rather large core campaign.

In the early hours of Aliens: Dark Descent, before you’ve got your hands on a robust armoury of weapons and gadgets, things can feel a little light in terms of tactics, as the core action eschews the individual unit movements of its most obvious inspirations for a streamlined system that sees your entire squad move as one. This initially seems to put a bit of a dampener on the options you’ve got for approaching battles, but it actually turns out to be a smart move that suits the style of the confrontations at hand. Having your squad move in unison keeps all of your firepower in one place, something that’s an absolute must when the Xenos come out to play, as one marine on their own will be quickly overwhelmed and dragged away to become a meaty alien incubator – if they’re lucky. It also allows Tindalos to deliver enemies that more closely live up to the ferocity of those found in the movies. Yes, you can destroy hordes of xenomorph drones here – it’s a videogame after all – but they’re never pushovers, attacking en-masse, flanking and overpowering you in seconds if you haven’t prepared adequately.

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Keeping your squad as a singular unit also feeds into the overall implementation of the game’s stealth mechanics. Slowly and quietly investigating environments is the order of the day here as the alien hive works on a sliding scale of awareness. Keep your squad tight, together and hidden from line of sight and you can manoeuvre around with fairly minimal contact. Make a bunch of noise and the hive becomes aware, increasing both the threat level and difficulty of a mission as Xenos hone in on your location to repeatedly terrorise your team.

As a result, it’s stealthy consideration and preparation that becomes most crucial in Aliens: Dark Descent, the actual battlefield smarts and ability to read a situation so that, when the excrement inevitably hits the whirligig, your marines stand a fighting chance. Each of your four-strong squad has their own weaponry and skills dependant on how you’ve equipped and upgraded them at HQ, and entering the skills menu during battle either slows down time or pauses it completely depending on what you’ve selected in the game’s menus. By default this is set to slowing down time, but we quickly opted for a full pause in order to really knuckle down and think on situations as we played.

Once you’re in this paused mode you can select individual marine actions; laying down suppressing fire, scorching entire areas via flamethrower so that enemies need to find another path, sniping from long range, using a shotgun to blast foes who’ve already closed in – watch out for acid splash damage – and firing off hugely damaging grenade launcher rounds. You’ve also got invaluable auto-turrets that can be positioned to cover large areas, giving you breathing space as they mow down incoming hordes, and mines which can be placed to soften up enemy ranks as they make a move for your position.

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All of these special skills require a clever and continual juggling of action points and tool points. Action points slowly regenerate over time and you’ll be able to give yourself more of them through upgrading, promoting and choosing the right team setup. Tool points (used to weld doors, fix machinery, hack etc), med-packs, ammo and so on can be picked up by thoroughly scouring areas during sorties or by spending resources at base to pack as much as possible before descending onto the planet of Lethe. It’s a clever setup, one that keeps you on your toes, and the vast majority of what you’re doing here is micro-managing a tiny amount of resources in order to keep yourself alive and sane enough to fight.

Indeed, the mental health of your marines plays a pivotal role in Aliens: Dark Descent, one that adds much to the claustrophobia and terror of the game’s combat. Missions into alien territory really do take their toll in multiple ways and your squad will suffer a variety of mental maladies as a result. When a soldier develops a phobia of fire, or is driven half mad with PTSD they aren’t as effective in battle and so you’ll need to consider how to spend your medic packs during missions. Yes, you can use them to heal up as normal, and there are various states of coma, unconsciousness and injury to sort, but you’ll also need to repeatedly burn through your available medical assets in order to have marines take tablets to keep their stress levels at bay. A stressed soldier develops mental issues that will require prolonged stays in your HQ’s psych ward to overcome, removing them from rotation and denying you their expertise for periods of time.

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There is a lot to think about, in short, and it makes for a game that very cleverly leans into the organisation and build-up before a firefight more than it does the actual combat itself. You can use cover and hunker down to take on the different human opponents you’ll come across during the story – or to hide from a sleeping Xeno – but for the most part it’s about slowly moving through wonderfully atmospheric corridors, nervously pushing through the fog of war and ensuring you’re ready for when an inevitable onslaught begins.

Once the aliens actually arrive, the action can almost feel as though it plays out automatically if you’ve got yourself set up correctly, and it’s always a relief to see enemies obliterated by a wall of turret guns whilst you hang back and occasionally fire off some grenades or lay down some suppressing fire. This is how it goes when you’ve been clever and careful. Otherwise it’s all about retreating in a panic, firing off your pulse rifles and smart guns as you make for the nearest room to weld shut doors and give yourself time to think. There’s no real way to go toe to toe with a Xenomorph, and the flow of the action here reflects this.

The welding of doors, by the way, is yet another excellent mechanic here, one that gives you a means to slow down an enemy assault, control the flow of how foes approach and give you makeshift rest spots to recover and get your marines’ stress levels down by taking a break. It also leads to intense scenarios that feel like they’re ripped straight out of the movies as you charge down corridors in a panic, perhaps slowed by the fact you’re carrying an injured teammate, welding shut doors and setting up turret guns to slow down a horde that’s on your tail as you go.

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All of this stuff is enhanced immensely by some excellent audio and visual work, with intricate environments packed full of details from the movies, lots of accurate weapon sounds and plenty of quotes and references you’ll recognise if you’re a fan of the franchise. We also love how huge the missions are here, enormous multi-levelled areas with main and side objectives to work through, and the inclusion of an armoured ARC that can be used to quickly travel from place to place, mow down foes, rescue survivors and return to base to refresh is another smart touch. In fact, returning to base is pretty essential and the game has a nice sense of risk and reward to it as a result. Do you head back to HQ when you complete an objective in order to heal up and restock, or do you push your luck with less than a full squad to grab more resources for upgrading? If you can make your way back to the ARC in one piece the choice is yours, and levels are persistent in this regard, meaning that when you return to a mission you’ll find the area as you left it, right down to your now empty and broken turret guns in need of repair.

Scouring these huge levels is essential for collecting the vital resources you’ll need to upgrade and survive from moment to moment too, and the game further rewards investigation of your surroundings by giving you survivors to find; scientists, engineers and even friendly synthetics, who can then be shuttled to your ARC and returned to HQ in order to join your war effort.

We should also mention the variety in terms of Xeno enemies employed across the campaign. Tindalos has done a great job of sticking closely to the classic alien template with drones, facehuggers, huge alien queens and those absolutely terrifying Working Joe synthetics, whilst also managing to add more to the mix besides. This variety of aliens, mixed with a bunch of more forgettable human enemies and a need for stealthy movement as you manoeuvre through environments, results in a game that serves up a constant supply of tense missions that are a joy to spend time getting to grips with.

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With regards to the story itself, we don’t want to spoil anything here, but we have enjoyed what it brings to the table. It’s impressively gritty stuff with no outright good guys, plenty of bickering and corporate politics keeping main characters at each other’s throats, and enough new twists and novel reworkings of established lore to keep the whole thing interesting over its generous 40+ hour running time.

As we mentioned back at the top, however, it’s not all smooth sailing with Aliens: Dark Descent. Controls can be sticky and a little fidgety in places, especially with regards to placing your team quickly into concealed cover and in the operation of elevators. Menus can also be a bit frustrating from time to time, especially back at base where there’s so many aspects to browse through. Some folk may also find the graphics less than stellar in places – as atmospheric as it is, it’s definitely not cutting edge – and there is a little texture pop-in here and there. There’s also a lot of repetition in the lines of dialogue used both at HQ and whilst barking orders on the field of battle. We’ll be honest, we kind of found this endearing in the long run, but it absolutely should come with an option to turn it off entirely.

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In terms of the core gameplay itself, as great as it can be and as well as the various mechanics meld together to form a cohesive and flexible whole, there’s no doubt that there’s not as much depth here as you’ll find in some other RTS games. We totally get what Tindalos has gone for with its choices, it suits the style of the combat and allows the developer to pack its game with deadly enemies that live up to the Alien name, but it does remove some of the perhaps expected player agency with regards to direct control, opportunities to flank, split up and things of this nature. Being able to split ranks just wouldn’t work here, and so you lose a little bit of the individuality and depth with regards to each of the classes on offer.

On Xbox Series X you’ve got two graphical modes to work with, the usual performance and quality. We spent a bit of time with both and, honestly, there’s not too much of a difference here, give or take some sharpness in the image. We’ll need to see how the likes of Digital Foundry break down the nitty gritty, as we’ve found exact changes hard to see, and so for now sticking to performance should at least ensure the most responsive and smooth experience.

If you can get down with the style of what’s on offer in Aliens: Dark Descent, you’re in for a proper cracking time, especially if you’re a fan of all things Alien. This is a lovingly-crafted adventure, and a slick and suitably tense experience that’s been put together by a development team that very obviously knows how to make a super solid RTS. It’s a little rough around the edges at times, sure, and this is acknowledged in the game’s lower price point we reckon. However, overall Aliens: Dark Descent is still a big a success in our book, a tense and taut experience that will only improve as those slight rough edges are smoothed out, and one of the very best Aliens games we’ve played outside of Alien: Isolation and Aliens Infestation. It’s time to stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.

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