Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X
“Marines! We are leaving!” Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks had the right idea when, after straying into the heart of the xenomorph hive in 1986’s Aliens and losing half his platoon to snapping, translucent jaws, he bellows a retreat. Cut off from escape and stripped of almost all their ammo, the surviving marines stage a desperate rearguard action, hoping against hope that the armoured personnel carrier can break through before they’re entirely overwhelmed. It’s one of the most intense sequences in James Cameron’s seminal sequel, but in Aliens: Dark Descent, this frighteningly regular occurrence is just another glorious day in the corps.
Aliens has not had a storied history when it comes to video game adaptations. While Alien: Isolation did a stand-up job of recreating Ridley Scott’s original film, and 2001’s Aliens vs Predator 2 made a decent fist of that franchise mash-up’s cross-species brawl, only decidedly average co-op shooter Aliens: Fireteam Elite has come even close to capturing the mood and feel of Cameron’s film. It’s to the enormous credit of French developer Tindalos (Battlefleet Gothic: Armada) then, that this curious blend of survival horror, turn-based tactics and real-time strategy does exactly that. From the mid-eighties aesthetic of the computer interface, to slow-pans through the steel-panelled corridors of the USS Otago — complete with lumbering powerloaders — every detail of the game is lifted almost perfectly from the movie. As your marines disembark from their ARC (a more compact ‘recon’ variant of the film’s APC) amidst howling wind and lashing rain to investigate the deserted colony of Dead Hills, it feels for all the world like you’re stepping directly into the USMC-issue boots of Vasquez, Hudson et al as they make their first, ill-fated incursion into Hadley’s Hope on LV-426 — even if the events here take place nearly two decades later.
The game centres around Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes, a Weyland-Yutani company woman who gets in way over her head when an alien outbreak leaves her and a ship full of Colonial Marines stranded on the planet Lethe. In-mission, though, Hayes is reduced to a voice on the radio as you guide a small squad of four marines through the gloom-shrouded corridors of colony buildings and, inevitably, the biomechanical hives of the aliens themselves. While the game’s closest comparison is Firaxis’ XCOM titles, Dark Descent opts for a real-time rather than turn-based format, allowing you to really feel the pressure as enemies descend, your motion tracker wailing desperate warnings. While your marines will lay down fire as soon as they spot an enemy, your survival — and sanity — is maintained by the skill menu, which not only lets you to deploy special weapons and tactics like suppressing fire, flamethrowers and shotguns (for close encounters), but also slows time to a crawl, allowing you to micro-manage tactics without being completely overwhelmed by the xeno assault. Not that there’s as much to manage as you might think: the RTS interface has been streamlined for the console generation, making it easily playable with a controller but also dumbing down the tactical options slightly. Your entire squad moves as a single, monolithic unit, with members (you’ll end up with gunners, medics, techs, recon marines and sergeants) stepping up to perform specific tasks like hacking doors or setting up sentry guns as and when required. It’s a smart move and keeps you from having to corral lone marines who might otherwise wander off like wayward kittens, but does limit your ability to position personnel with any degree of accuracy.
The simplicity of the control system is something to be thankful for when the shit hits the fan, though, as the game is brutally difficult even on the default setting, with ammo severely limited and save points set agonisingly far apart. It’s a situation made even more punishing by the hive awareness timer, which advances every time you alert the aliens to your presence, and for sometime thereafter as they hunt for your team. At key milestones, the timer unleashes ‘onslaughts’, which see a massive swarm of aliens descend upon your position (you have around 20 seconds’ warning to dig in and prepare), as well as the arrival of powerful boss aliens. If that weren’t enough, the timer increases the overall difficulty inexorably as well, meaning that you can (and will) reach a point where your chances of survival dwindle to near zero. Luckily, it’s possible to exfiltrate at any given time, letting you bug out and call it even so you can lick your wounds, regroup, re-tool, and return the following day, the mission state enduring so you can pick up where you left off.
It's hard to overemphasise how much Dark Descent perfectly captures the aesthetic, atmosphere and claustrophobic dread of Cameron's film.
Time does not heal all wounds however, and, in a mechanic reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon, your Marines’ mental health can prove more fragile than their flesh. Too much stress during a mission can lead to debilitating psychological damage, leaving marines with negative traits like pyrophobia or a susceptibility to panic, all of which adds to the steadily ratcheting difficulty, and must be managed between missions by the marine psychologist (in between building weapons and researching helpful tech upgrades in a strategic layer XCOM players will be very familiar with). While the unforgiving nature of the game is central to maintaining tension, it’s also an occasional source of frustration. Even a single alien drone can absorb enough damage to close on your squad before you take it down, which is harsh (and hardly in-keeping with cinematic fidelity) but fair enough. However, you’ll also face an assortment of human (and synthetic) opponents and it’s less clear why an angry stevedore armed with a shovel can absorb a similar level of bullet hail before grinding to a bloody halt.
Also, while the game is, by definition, a bug hunt, it’s dispiriting how regularly those of a non xenomorph variety turn up whilst playing. Glitches range from the purely cosmetic to the game-breaking (events failing to trigger, buttons becoming unresponsive, the skill menu turning almost unusably sluggish just when you need it the most) and it’s not uncommon to lose half an hour of progress because a malfunctioning game mechanic has stopped you in your tracks. Add to that woefully trite dialogue, hammy voice acting and rudimentary character models (fine when viewed form above on missions, clumsy marionettes when inspected up-close during cutscenes) and the game feels like it could have used a fair bit more polish before being released into the world.
However, even taking all that on board, it’s hard to overemphasise how much Dark Descent perfectly captures the aesthetic, atmosphere and claustrophobic dread of the film. From the pop and crackle of the pulse rifles, to the perfectly replicated environments, and the Horner-lite musical cues, this is the closest anyone’s come to truly replicating the distinctive feel of Aliens outside a cinema. A love-letter to Cameron’s film, rather than a cynical license cash-in, Dark Descent does right by its source material. It delivers an immersive, nerve-jangling tactical horror game that allows you to credibly live out your dreams of enlisting in Aliens’ colonial marines. It’s not a perfect game by any means, which is frustrating given its enormous potential, but even in this somewhat janky state, it’s worthy of your time. Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen, because despite its shortcomings, this is hands-down the best Aliens adaptation so far.