A unique genre blend yields relatively good results in this latest Alien game.
Aliens: Dark Descent is, first and foremost, a pretty good idea. Take the intense Aliens licence (note the important "s" on the end, emphasising that it's the more action-oriented corner of the expansive universe) and combine it with an isometric, strategic perspective. This gives you a greater strategic overview, yes, but it also emphasises the paranoia that comes with guiding yourself and your team through Xeno-infested environments - you can see more, but you're also more nervous about when things go from manageable to really, really, really bad.
Developer Tindalos has mastered the art of offering an advanced but manageable simulation via their two Battlefleet Gothic: Armada games, but compared to managing fleets of giant spaceships in interplanetary warfare, this is a tighter, denser and more fragile set-up. There are only the Colonial Marines, and you're up against poor odds, to say the least.
Dark Descent is an original story, in the sense that the game narratively does not act, interpret or exist as an extension of existing events. A major space station orbiting the planet Lethe is mysteriously overrun by Xenomorphs, a spaceship carrying Colonial Marines is shot down and crashes on the planet's surface, you control Mako Hayes and Jonas Harper, both of whom are trying to find out how this outbreak started and what dark forces are behind it. To reveal more would be a shame, but let's just say that the story and characters are neither completely useless, but certainly don't break new narrative ground for this universe. Some might be pleased that Ridley Scott's more philosophical roots from Prometheus in particular are nowhere to be found, but the charming self-awareness of Cameron's Aliens is also conspicuous by its absence. The story, and the relationship that develops between the two main characters, exists primarily as a glorified setting for more tactical action, and even though a few intermediate scenes attempt to introduce drama here and there, it falls flat relatively quickly. It's not a disaster, but is it particularly exciting? Nope...
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I don't know about you, but after the first trailer I thought we were talking about a turn-based, grid-based structure similar to Firaxis' XCOM game, but that's not what Aliens: Dark Descent is at all. In fact, it's a full-on action game from an isometric perspective, where you control up to five individual units as a group by moving them from position-to-position. This is far more intuitive with a mouse, and as far as I can tell you can't just move them with an analogue stick on a controller or use the WASD keys on a keyboard. As they move, you can light up in different directions with the group's flashlights, place turrets or make other strategic choices. They also shoot as they move.
This basically means that you're a sort of tactical high command, observing the battle from a more appropriate isometric angle, and then moving your team systematically through each lane. You can always use slow-motion to chain together various tactical decisions and watch the outcome unfold, but the idea of Dark Descent's gameplay loop is that you issue orders rather than being the one pulling the trigger.
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There are quite a few strategic options on the battlefield. You can weld doors behind you to prevent an ambush, set up the aforementioned turrets or guide enemies into a bottleneck with fire. You can issue individual orders to specific team members and then see satisfactory results, and overall, there's no real lack of strategic tools - quite the contrary. But at the same time, it can be a bit much, especially for those who end up playing on console, as quick, snappy movements and tactical decisions need to be made in an instant sequence, and the controls and layout often prevent you from doing so if you don't have a mouse and keyboard at hand. Having played on PC, I started with a controller and quickly gave up.
The excitement is there though, which in itself is quite a feat when you're not looking through the scope down at a ravenous Xeno, but when your team moves through a dark, abandoned base and sees the familiar flash of activity on your motion tracker, it has the same effect as other solid Alien stories have had - suspense at its finest.
While Aliens: Dark Descent isn't XCOM, Firaxis' game has been a primary source of inspiration, that much is clear. You return to the crashed spaceship Otago inbetween individual missions, upgrading your units' gear, sending the relevant soldiers to the doctor and taking a closer look at the next available missions. It's a great way to stay on top of things and makes you more invested in the units you currently have. However, it also means that losing them is particularly painful, because just like in XCOM, there is permadeath.
The main complaint is that while the individual systems work, and there's enough connective tissue between the various loops to make the experience cohesive, and at times even effective, it lacks a bit of good old-fashioned flair. All the pieces of a really good Alien game are here, but not all missions have the aforementioned excitement, and it doesn't help that the game's graphical prowess is extremely limited, with cutscenes involving faces that are supposed to move and feel real suffering in particular.
Furthermore, the actual formula fails to entertain throughout. Sure, you're excited the first few times a team of Colonial Marines scans the environment with their eyes fixed on your Motion Tracker in the lower right corner, but as one mission follows another, despite having to maintain a stress level, resources and using various tactics and abilities to get through unscathed, it gets monotonous after a while.
However, that shouldn't stop me from praising Tindalos for putting together an experience that's packed with great ideas and solid systems. Aliens: Dark Descent is first and foremost a good idea, and there's undoubtedly talent behind it, although this is a clear example of how a potential sequel that can optimise, raise production values and perhaps approach each mission more critically to ensure crucial variety would be ideal.
7 / 10
A solid mix of ideas, systems and genres. Nice atmosphere. Good music. Quite atmospheric at times.
Ugly cutscenes. Slightly forgettable story. Maybe a few too many ideas?