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Aliens: Dark Descent

Aliens: Dark Descent

Written by Jason Dailey on 7/4/2023 for PS5  
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During the first main mission of Aliens: Dark Descent I became trapped in a building when an onslaught of Xenomorphs descended on my squad of marines, all before I understood what an onslaught of Xenomorphs even was. A massive horde of alien murderers swarmed me in mere seconds, and in that moment I panicked. I didn’t order any suppressive fire, no doors to be welded shut, no shotgun blasts – nothing. I never stood a chance. A wounded member of my squad was being abducted and dragged off by a Xenomorph, so I did the valiant thing and sent the rest of the team chasing after them. Under my leadership, in that moment, those poor souls never stood a chance either. Just like that my squad was wiped, and I was staring at a loading screen while my heart pounded. I half-sighed an exasperated “okay” and re-deployed, determined to learn from my mistakes.

To be clear, Aliens: Dark Descent is not a scary game, but it certainly is a nerve-racking game – full stop. I’ve been trying to think of the last time I was this stressed out playing a video game and I’ve settled on Darkest Dungeon, which is fitting considering that Aliens: Dark Descent draws some inspiration from that game. But is this stressful real-time strategy shooter any good? The answer is yes, it is – if you can handle the pressure.

There are some adjustments you can make to better handle that pressure right from the jump; the game features five difficulty levels – story, medium, hard, nightmare, or custom. I have no idea why any sane person would choose hard or nightmare, and honestly in hindsight, I might have gone with story difficulty. For reviews however, I always opt for the standard difficulty (medium in this case) to make sure I am getting the experience the developers wanted me to have, which clearly is a stressful one. I bring up difficulty right off because it cannot be changed once you begin the game, at least not without starting completely over.

I was surprised at how good the story is in Aliens: Dark Descent, because frankly, strategy games are not always renowned for their narrative trappings. The story unravels after a rogue actor unleashes Xenomorphs on a supply ship called Bentonville, and naturally they invade the space station that it’s docked at. The outbreak forces the deputy administrator of the station to activate containment protocols and then abandon ship, crash landing on the planet Lethe, where the USS Otago becomes your (crash-landed) base of operations. From there you will complete missions with USCM squads to stop the Xeno outbreak and get to the bottom of how it all started.

While I’m a fan of the IP, I admit to not having seen every film in the franchise, but even so, Dark Descent is a tale that you can enjoy regardless of your understanding of the movies. What is not so good, however, are the game’s cinematics and character models, which both look decidedly last-gen. It really sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to how good the game looks otherwise, with detailed environments and excellent lighting that add to the atmospheric dread.

Each mission has several primary objectives, as well as secondary objectives that can reward resources, intel, and additional manpower. Most objectives are of the “go here, unlock this” variety, with a healthy dose of tense exploration and combat along the way. Fortunately, exploration and combat are the best parts of the game, which are glued together by the tense atmosphere. For starters, the environments are dark, and I mean dark. You can press and hold a button to shine your flashlight around the environment, which lights the way, but also highlights interactive objects and resources. You’ll be spending a lot of time in the dark too, because most maps are large, with many featuring multiple levels. In other words, you’ll be doing a lot exploring, and missions can take anywhere from 30 minutes to multiple hours. For example, the first mission after the prologue took me nearly five total hours to complete. Of course, part of that could just be me taking things slow, exercising an obsessive amount of caution over what could be lurking beyond the next door.

As you move about, your Colonial Marine squad operates as a single unit, with the best marine for the job being automatically sent to perform the actions when you order them. Along those lines, the squad AI was intuitive, with marines turning to cover doors for threats as you pass by them or facing the rear to cover as you enter a room. Both are cool little touches that I appreciated in a tactical shooter, if for nothing more than increasing the immersion factor. What elevates the tension to a near palpable level as you are exploring is the motion sensor, which detects movement within a certain radius of the squad. Movement is displayed as a white dot on your mini map, but the worst part is it beeps, and the beeping gets faster as the threat gets closer. Incredibly, the motion sensor simultaneously gave me a sense of comfort in knowing that something was nearby, but also filled me with angst by not knowing if I was going into fight or flight mode next.

Inevitably, you’ll eventually be fighting for your life, sometimes against just one enemy, and sometimes against handfuls. You’ll need to be quick on your feet when combat pops off, because unless you’ve established proper defenses ahead of time, staying on the move is key in most encounters. Letting enemies close the gap on you is a surefire recipe for a squad wipe, but thankfully your marines can walk and chew gum at the same time, if you will. Meaning they can engage with foes while walking, but not while running, which occasionally is necessary too. Moving your squad around the map is done by pointing-and-clicking; placing the cursor at a location and pressing a button is all it takes, and if you’ve played any RTS game, you’ll be immediately familiar with the game’s control scheme.

Marines engage automatically with alerted enemies on multiple fronts, but the real nuts and bolts lie in the skill menu. Opening the skill menu brings the action to slow motion by default but can be changed to a full pause in the settings if you prefer it. This gives you a moment to issue orders that can mean the difference between life and death. Laying down a cone of suppressive fire which slows enemies down, launching a grenade at an elite enemy, or squeezing off a shotgun blast at a danger-close enemy can all turn the tide of a fight. This all unfolds in real-time so you will need to constantly be on your toes.

The other catch is that the more noise you make, the more times you engage the enemy, the higher their level of aggressiveness will become. Going guns blazing 24/7 will result in you being hunted by Xenomorph hives more often or triggering one of those massive horde onslaughts I mentioned earlier. It is also important to utilize your transport vehicle – the ARC – as it is a massively powerful support weapon that can pull you through a tough encounter. For me, sometimes falling back to the ARC was the only thing that kept my squad alive. With all of that in mind, I was constantly making mental notes of choke points, exit routes, or rooms with a single door that I could retreat to, and weld shut if necessary. This is all part of what makes the game so tense in that it rarely lets you take a mental break.

That stress is not felt just by you, but also your squad of marines. The longer they are deployed on mission, the more enemy encounters they experience, and the more damage they take will eventually push them to their breaking point. Each marine accumulates stress, which eventually will lead to negative status effects such as poor accuracy or wasting ammo. This can be managed by welding yourself in a room and using the game’s rest feature, which reduces stress and saves your progress. But welding requires the use of a tool resource, which are in limited supply, so you will need to juggle when the right time is to take a break (or save the game). I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to use this save function strategically between objectives to ensure you preserve progress in the event of a squad wipe.

Regardless, at a certain point, you will be forced to make the difficult decision whether to press on or live to fight another day and extract your squad back to the Otago – at least what’s left of it. Thankfully, extracting does not reset mission progress, meaning that you can come back to the location and resume the objective right where you left off. As a rule of thumb, if you lose one squad member (and certainly two), it is probably a good idea to extract and regroup. Although be warned that each deployment burns an in-game day, and as the days pass the alien infestation grows, meaning that you will encounter greater numbers of enemies. There is a constant give-and-take, and always something to consider in Aliens: Dark Descent.

Back at the Otago, you can perform a variety of functions to prepare your squad for the next deployment. For starters, as your marines gain experience, they will be eligible for promotion, which in turn lets them gain new perks and abilities, as well as being able to specialize as a certain class. There are five classes to choose from once a marine hits level three – recon, gunner, medic, tekker, and sergeant. Each has its own distinct abilities, such as the recon class having the ability to wield a sniper rifle as their special weapon, or the tekker having access to a battle drone that can weld doors or be fitted with an SMG. Choosing classes, perks, and abilities that create synergies within your squad is paramount.

The Otago also lets you attend to injured marines in the Medbay by assigning physicians to treat them or sending marines to therapy who have picked up a negative effect from overwhelming stress. For instance, one of my squad members became terrified of fire and would gain 50% stress every time an incinerator was used in combat, or when an oil spot was ignited. He was traumatized and in desperate need of multiple days of therapy, taking him off the board for several deployments. Elsewhere, you can unlock weapons in the Workshop if you have enough materials, or research new technologies in the Laboratory like Xenomorph pheromones – which reduce enemy detection times. There is a decent variety of weapons to choose from including standard pulse rifles to revolvers and RPG launchers. I found it helpful to have a mix of class specializations and weapons in my squad, as it always helps to have the right tool when you need it. The catch is that you’ll never know exactly when you’ll need it, but it could be the difference between life and death. Having an eclectic pool of marines also helped during those times when one was out for days with an injury, or at worst, killed in action.

So, after having time to catch my breath from one of the most pulse-racing games that I’ve ever played, would I recommend Aliens: Dark Descent? Yes, but it’s not a blanket endorsement. If you are a fan of the Alien franchise, but you’ve never played an RTS or tactical shooter game in your life, I don’t know if this is the place to start – perhaps on the lowest difficulty. But if you’ve got the mental fortitude and right amount of patience, the game is a good spin on real-time strategy that brings something different to the genre. Licensed titles don’t always do their IP justice, but Aliens: Dark Descent is a clever and enthralling success both as a licensed game and as a real-time strategy shooter.

Aliens: Dark Descent is a tense real-time strategy shooter that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you prefer not to be stressed out playing video games, it is certainly not for you. On the other hand, if you have the patience and mental fortitude to withstand relentless Xenomorphs, it is a clever take on the RTS genre that can be tough to put down.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Jason has been writing for Gaming Nexus since 2022. Some of his favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports, RPGs, shooters, and simulators. His favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2, logging nearly 1,000 hours in Rockstar's Wild West epic. Jason's first video game system was the NES, but the original PlayStation is his first true video game love affair. Once upon a time, he was the co-host of a PlayStation news podcast, as well as a basketball podcast.

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