I love the Alien franchise. Over the years, I have made peace with Alien III and even appreciate it; Alien IV can still fuck off but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. My brother and I used to watch a copy of Aliens that we got from our aunt when I was around 13 or so, and would literally — literally, literally — watch it once a day for several months. I even included several clips from the movie in a video project I helped make for our junior high history class. I wish I still had that video. I owned the original Alien: Colonial Marines TTRPG sourcebook (since lost to time), and currently own the Alien VTTRPG treatment, although (say it with me now) I haven’t had the opportunity to play it.
My history with the Alien franchise in video game format is much spottier. I used to play a lot of Alien Versus Predator in the LAN party days, but then I kind of skipped over the whole Alien Isolation era not out of apathy but because the concept of that game is terrifying to me. Even though I’ve become more or less inured to the Alien movies, being “in the shit” the way Isolation presents it is a completely different ballgame. I played Aliens: Fireteam Elite for a while and that’s a very good game, but Aliens: Dark Descent is really more up my alley as a squad-based tactical action game that leans heavily into all things Alien.
Talking about an Alien story never contains spoilers because, quite honestly, they’re pretty one-dimensional, right down to the character archetypes, attitudes, and one-liners. In Dark Descent you “play” as Deputy Directory Hayes of the Pioneer research station in orbit around the planet Lethe. After a delivery shuttle drops off a few crates at Pioneer, Hayes suspects something is up in part because the shuttle leaves 1/2 full, but also because everyone down on the shuttle’s landing pad is suddenly dead in some of the most violent ways possible. Of course a xenomorph has gotten loose, which forces Hayes to initiate the Cerberus Protocol, a quarantine operation that activates automated sentinel satellites to shoot any ships that approach or attempt to leave Lethe. This includes the shuttle, but also a refining ship and the USS Otago, a USCM ship that is in the area for military exercises. When Pioneer Station goes dark, a team of marines is dispatched from the Otago to investigate and show up just in time to retrieve Hayes. The damaged Otago crashes on Lethe with no comms and no way to leave the planet. From here, the game gets into its normal groove.
The Otago serves as a base of operations while on Lethe. If you’ve played XCOM then you’ll find this familiar. There are several stations on board the ship that Hayes can visit to handle things like research, manufacturing, medical, and Marine squad upgrades. Once all of that is done, a squad of four Marines with customized loadouts can be assembled and sent out on story missions.
Unlike XCOM, though, the squad moves as a single unit. We do not have direct control over individual Marines. This isn’t a bad thing, though, when you consider the xeno M.O. of hitting hard and hitting fast. A squad operating as a cohesive team has much greater value than individual soldiers do. That’s not to say that it’s pulse rifles all the way down. Pressing the space bar will either slow time or pause the game (something which can be decided in the settings) to give access to a series of actions that certain members of the squad can take: shotguns for close quarters, focused fire for spastic but suppressing gunfire, grenade launchers, deploying stationary motion sensors, or setting up sentry guns. These take Command Points, which are a replenishable resource. Which Marine takes the order depends on their specialization and their weapon loadout. The longer and the more sorties a Marine survives, the more XP he or she accumulates, which can then be used in the barracks to add perks and remove negative traits. Marines can also be customized in the barracks (anyone want a Marine named after them?) to get us all attached to our soldiers ahead of their inevitable deaths.
The first story phase has the squad investigating the prophetically named “Dead Hills” colony on Lethe. This is Hadley’s Hope v2.0: desolate, wind-swept planetoid housing a few thousand colonists in a neo-Wild Western-style settlement that’s now complete devoid of human activity on account of the xeno infestation. There are a multitude of buildings for the Marines to search, and the layout and map representation is pure Aliens. Rooms might be empty, or they might have chests that provide ammo, tools (for things like welding doors shut), and first-aid kits. Some corpses may offer the same, making exploration useful and optional, but also very stressful as the longer the squad is on the ground, the more agitated the xeno hive becomes.
I cannot overstate how “Alien” this game is. It’s wall-to-wall franchise tropes, both good and bad. The Marines have voice lines (often repeated ad nauseum), which are offered in the exact same spirit as those from the “first half of the movie” Marines in Aliens, all bravado and shit talking. Even the dropship pilot channels Corporal Ferro to a tee. There are power loaders, APCs and dropships, that sweet 1970’s retro-future tech, and of course Weyland-Yutani at the front and center as the shadow of Evil which most certainly has some hand in this shitshow. One aspect of Alien that’s become its hallmark, though, is the audio, and that is powerfully represented in Dark Descent. The pulse-rifles have the same meaty, attenuating staccato, and of course there’s the most horrifying sound in all of moviedom: the motion tracker tick-and-ping. Even the action music sounds like it was scored for the original movies but was kept in reserve for an occasion such as this.
It’d be one thing if the Marines just crawled through the colony and shot at xenos and huggies, but one system that’s gone into a lot of Alien games (video and also in the TTRPG treatments) is the “Hudson Factor” of how the stress these closed-quarter battles with shadowy death machines can turn these self-styled badass Marines into complete basket-cases. The team can suffer from stress which is brought on by encounters with the xenos and the circumstances the squad encounters. When left unchecked, something bad will happen — I don’t know exactly what because I never let it go that far, but I assume Something Real Bad — so sealing the team in a room by welding the doors allows the team to rest in order to get rid of their stress accumulation and regenerate some health and Command Points. They can also do so by taking drugs (A Weyland-Yutani product!). Management of the team in the field is critical to success, so resting is mandatory. Unfortunately, being able to seal the squad in a room requires that all doors to the room be sealed, and welding can only happen if the squad has enough tools on hand. Now it’s not just a squad health management, but also a resource management game on top of a survival horror game. Hopefully this helps explain why I need to stop playing this game about an hour before I want to go to bed.
Aliens: Dark Descent is quite the surprise to me, really. I pre-ordered it because A) I love Alien, and B) I got 20% off, but I didn’t actually know much about the kind of gameplay I would be getting into. With a smidge of base management, roster curation, and an obscene amount of stress-filled tactical exploration and combat, Dark Descent was obviously created by a team who knows their Alien, and aside from the ones I have to hunt, I have yet to encounter anything that I would consider a bug, which is not something I can usually say about any game at launch. I highly recommend this title without reservation to any Alien fan who likes squad-based action-combat; you will not be disappointed. For regular squad-based action-combat fans, you can do a hell of a lot worse, but it’s not as micro-managey as XCOM.