The curse of sub-par games based on the Alien franchise seems to be over. Alien: Isolation is a superb blend of stealth and horror. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a fun co-op shooter that’s best played with friends. And now here we are with Aliens: Dark Descent, a real-time strategy game that’s surprisingly tense.
In Aliens: Dark Descent, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is up to no good again, transporting live Xenomorphs via cargo. Of course, things go wrong, and with the aliens unleashed, things soon go from bad to worse. A playable prologue does a good job of getting you up to speed with the game’s basic mechanics; moving from one point to another, taking cover, interacting with objects – that kind of thing. And after taking a drastic course of action to put a stop to the Xenomorphs becoming even more of a threat, you’re thrown into the game proper.
Crash-landed on a planet called Lethe, it’s up to you to direct a squad of marines across a range of missions. It may sound a bit dumbed down, a real time strategy game that gives you control of just one squad, but it’s actually a strength of Aliens: Dark Descent. You see, by controlling only that one squad, you follow their actions closely, leading to a tense affair that is genuinely unsettling at times.
The controls are simple, which is great for those playing with a controller. You can manipulate the camera with the left and right analogue sticks, and command your whole squad to move with the click of a button. Double-click it and they’ll run, which is handy for covering ground quickly, but puts them in danger if they suddenly run into a threat. For the most part, then, you’ll want to walk, slowly, especially if something pings on your radar. And yes, it’s got the iconic noise.
You have more control of your squad than that, though, obviously. There’s a button you can hold to activate their flashlights, for example, allowing you to easily identify things you can interact with in your surroundings. You can then select these objects and perform a range of context-sensitive commands. Some of these are low-profile, such as looting containers, but others, such as destroying barriers with C4, need to be carefully considered. Do you really want to make a loud noise that will likely attract the attention of a Xenomorph?
When you do encounter something hostile – not necessarily an alien – your squad will fire at them automatically. To be truly effective in combat, however, you need to issue commands. If one of your squad members is performing an action that might take some time, for example, it might be worth setting up overwatch with another. And if you get ambushed, it’s advantageous to quickly command a marine to blast the attacker with a powerful shotgun. The problem is, these actions require command points, which are limited. They regenerate over time, but if you get caught short, it could spell trouble.
There are other mechanics in play here that you need to consider as well, such as the stress level of your marines. If they get too stressed, their performance will suffer, so sometimes it pays to find a room, weld up its doors so that nothing can get in, and have a rest. And as you get further into the game, you’ll have more control over the formation of your squad. There are multiple unit types and weapons, and well as skills and a whole lot more. Sometimes your favourite marines will be out of action due to wounds or poor mental health, and so you need to make tough decisions.
Much of this management is performed back at your base, the grounded spacecraft Otago. It’s here you can perform a variety of actions in preparation for your next mission. The missions themselves are quite substantial, too, requiring you to complete many primary objectives, making the management of your squad even more important. You’ll also need to weigh up the value of completing optional objectives. The rewards may be valuable, but are they worth the extra danger?
Thankfully, Aliens: Dark Descent doesn’t need to be too harrowing an experience if you don’t want to it to be. A range of preset difficulties are available, as well as a custom difficulty option. On top of that, you can choose how lenient you want the game’s saving system to be, as well as whether time is paused or merely slowed down when you’re issuing commands. So, if you love the Alien franchise but aren’t very good at real-time strategy games, you can at least still enjoy the story here. While those who love challenging experiences can up the ante if they wish.
It’s safe to say that we’re very impressed with Aliens: Dark Descent. Developer Tindalos Interactive is clearly a fan of the franchise, and it’s plain to see that much love has been poured into this title. Aside from its engaging gameplay, the story had us gripped right from the get-go, helped along by excellent voice acting. The only disappointment for some might be that there are no multiplayer offerings, but it is priced accordingly. If you’re an Alien fan after some single-player thrills, this is well worth picking up – even if you don’t usually get on with real-time strategy games.