Aliens: Dark Descent review

The concept of a top-down RTS set in the Aliens universe doesn’t leave all that much to the imagination. It’s easy to envision grey industrial facilities with strip lighting and low-lying fog, inside of which a squad of cautious Colonial Marines slowly step forward. “We’ve got movement!” one yells, prompting a drop-down menu of available actions. Then, with short bursts of fire and high-pitched shrieks, a frenzied battle occurs. A blur of claws, acid burns, and muzzle flashes. Especially when the 2021’s Aliens: Fireteam Elite is still fresh in a lot of gamers’ minds, it’s something most can likely visualise.

You can imagine my surprise, then, to find that Aliens: Dark Descent exceeds and differs from pre-conceived notions, almost to the point where it’s able to push the genre forward. Perhaps not significantly, but it certainly feels fresher and more innovative than most RTS, particularly the relative few publishers deem worthy to bring to consoles.

Aliens: Dark Descent Xbox screenshot

The first (space) port of call is the hour-long prologue, which acts as a tutorial while also establishing the plot and introducing us to Administrator Maeko Hayes, who manages to escape the slimy jaws of death following a Xenomorph outbreak during a cargo drop. Where this cargo came from, and who freed the specimens, forms the basis of the storyline – and for quite some time, until more dramatic events duly unfold. Despite being set 19 years after the events of the movie trilogy, our burly marines are experiencing the infestation anew, slowly understanding the severity of the threat. Even the Xeno’s reproductive cycle is a mystery to the Marines initially. While this does help establish a sturdy foothold, putting our platoon on a path of discovery, it’s also retreading a lot of old ground.

Once the prologue is out of the way, Dark Descent throws you into the thick of it – complete with a message from the developers noting that the experience is intended to be challenging. What this essentially boils down to is unscripted moments of chaos where things can go wayward within seconds if you aren’t prepared or have let your marines become weary. Taking cues from XCOM 2, each Marine is intended to stand out as an individual. They can be named and customised, and each has a trait – such as being reckless, paranoid, or a jinx.

Throughout missions they become both stressed and tired, meaning you need to pay attention to their current state of mind. It’s possible to weld doors closed and rest, which can buy enough time to complete one more objective. Eventually, you’ll need to retreat to the APC – used to get around the large open maps, and summonable on command – and go off-planet to recuperate, rearm, level up, and perhaps switch out the squad.

Aliens: Dark Descent Xbox screenshot

This means that missions cannot be completed in a single run; they’re intended to be long lasting affairs. Taking place above and below ground, some have well over a dozen objectives, along with extra equipment stashes and collectible data pads to look out for. A typical mission will likely see you retreat at least twice, from my experience, at which point the alien infestation can either grow or settle while waiting to redeploy. Whilst off-planet, Hayes must make decisions while the squad rests too. These events are text-based, and may see supplies increase or decrease, or a Marine’s well-being suddenly improve or worsen. If you’re really lucky, a new recruit may even join your team.

When heading into battle, supplies must be stockpiled – including ammo clips, repair tools, sentry guns, and health packs. Running short of any of these can be fatal. Fortunately, loot lockers are common and an algorithm appears to provide whatever you’re in need of most. As for weapons, Marines are armed with pulse rifles and a pistol as standard. Only gunners who’ve survived a few missions can carry smart guns, with flamethrowers and mines later added to the inventory.

Sentry guns are motion trackers are integrated well – the motion tracker is an integral device, used to induce tension. An on-screen map shows Xeno movement patterns, giving a heads up if something is close by. Annoyingly, though, the Marines rattle off increasingly predictable dialogue whenever a blip shows on the radar. While many quips are homages to the movie trilogy, some also managed to induce an eye roll. Yes, this includes the all-timer “It’s quiet…too quiet.”

Aliens: Dark Descent Xbox screenshot

Your squad of four marines moves as a single unit in real-time, with the right analogue stick used to shine a flashlight. Marines automatically open fire if a Xeno approaches, and there’s a focus on attacking from afar – up close attacks result in acid splashback. The action also automatically goes into slow-mo, giving ample time to issue commands. Marines can throw grenades and accuracy boosting flares, fire a wide-spread shotgun slug, use vital suppressing fire, and activate a motion detector that doubles as an exploding decoy. These actions all consume command points that recharge over time. Individual marines can also be ordered to heal, reload, and switch weapons – none of which are advisable mid battle. Wounded survivors can be carried back to the APC for extraction, forcing the marine on heavy lifting duty to rely on their pistols. In the heat of battle, menu fumbling can occur. It seems that the developers were aware of this, implementing a ‘Kill That Bastard’ command to target any urgent threat.

While gunfights are a little messy and sporadic – and the sight of a Xeno running alongside fleeing marines like a loyal dog unintentionally amusing – the Xeno AI is generally impressive. I had Dark Descent pegged as a strategy game whereupon uncovering ‘fog of war’ you’ll find a bunch of Xenos waiting and poised to attack. That, mercifully, isn’t the case. The Xenos are both alert and aware of your presence. They move around the map via air ducts, launch hunts to track you down, and can become riled if your sentry gun dwindles their numbers. It’s also possible to lay low, avoiding their line of sight (a literal line shown on screen) and welding doors to close routes. Xenos will even try and drag downed marines back to their hive, which never fails to induce a sense of panic.

Aliens: Dark Descent Xbox screenshot

Dark Descent genuinely feels as if it spent a long time in the planning stages, with the developers working out how to best implement ideas only the Aliens license can bring. As such, it’s easy to tell this was an opportunity they didn’t want to squander. In addition to the iconic motion tracker, using the APC to get around the maps is neat – it’s steered automatically and will fire on enemies, even when parked outside a facility – and the sentry turret successfully grants a sense of firepower superiority, with proficient placing giving a huge advantage. The story perhaps doesn’t make the best use of the license, relying on well-worn tropes, but it does allow for some nice-looking cut-scenes close to resembling CGI.

A lot of games that are purposely challenging come with the caveat that they require a degree of commitment. While I don’t necessarily think that applies here – I was always able to steady progress – it is worth keeping in mind that Dark Descent is a slow burner and not something you’re going to blitz through in a few evenings. The first mission alone took close to four hours, and that was on top of the hour prologue. Around 15-20 hours are required to see everything.

The biggest downside to the experience, other than a few bugs mostly involving menu navigation, is that things can quickly escalate. If you’re two Marines down, chances of survival diminish and you’re better off loading a past save. This can impact the sense of progression, especially when save points are often around fifteen minutes apart. RTS fans are likely used to reloading saves, but for those who rarely touch the genre on consoles, it might seem a little…alien. Nevertheless, Aliens: Dark Descent is a compelling, if slightly wavering, mixture of ambition and good intentions. If it gets its claws into you, they’ll be in deep.  

Aliens: Dark Descent is developed by Tindalos and published by Focus. Available now on PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC.