Tindalos Inderactive/Focus Entertainment's Aliens: Dark Descent is a top-down, squad-based action and management game, set in the universe we first encountered in Ridley Scott's masterpiece film, which is now a franchise.
The game starts with an extensive prologue chapter (over an hour) that acts as an interactive tutorial. In it we take control of Deputy Administrator Hayes, who from one moment to the next finds herself fighting for her life, as the space station - owned by Weyland-Yutani of course - where she works is overrun by some strange creatures with murderous intentions (I'm not sure exactly where in the timeline A:DD is placed, but surely we're at least after Aliens. The fact that xenos are not common knowledge seems slightly unlikely to me, but it is what it is). At the end of the prologue we manage to land, along with a marine group, on the planet Lethe in the base ship The Otago, which is badly damaged, with repairing it and escaping xenos-infested Lethe being our long-term goal.
The story as a whole has no claim to originality, as the existing twists can't be surprising or interesting to the franchise devotee, who wonders not if, but only when the betrayal by some minion of the ruthless Weyland-Yutani corporation will happen, and when the scientist who sees the xenomorph and thinks, "magnificent, isn't it?" will go wrong.
From the crash landing onwards, the main game begins, divided into two distinct parts, the management of the base and the marines (in this part our character is still Hayes) and the completion of various missions by, initially four-member, Marine teams.
In total there are twelve missions that we will take on as we look for resources and answers to what is going on. Some of them are short, but most of them require two hours or more to complete, for a total campaign of about twenty hours.
But let's look at what we do in missions. First we pick our four squad members, who at first are clumsy rookies. Later on as they gain experience, they can choose class specializations with medics, gunners, sergeants and techies having abilities that are necessary for the survival of the squad. Then there's equipment selection, which again, at first the choices are limited but as the game progresses, the entire franchise's familiar arsenal will become available through research.
Once the main mission starts, our main concern is to explore each map (usually with multiple levels) with as few casualties as possible. Unfortunately, the "few as possible casualties" usually become particularly high instead, especially if we count not only death, but also the physical and mental injuries of our marines. The game is hard, even on the medium difficulty level, and although it offers great difficulty level customization possibilities, it is advisable to start prepared for the fact that any mission you manage to complete with only one death, and the survivors fighting it out even marginally, is a successful mission.
As may be obvious from the above, our team should do everything possible to avoid fighting xenos. Even the simplest confrontation always leaves our marines with some kind of permanent wounds, either from the damn acid splash damage, or from the increased stress level, caused by a fight in which we otherwise manage to avoid all other damage. There are ways for both healing and stress relief, but all require resources that are limited.
So playing hide and seek with xenos, with the help of the iconic motion tracker, is simply essential. And it's perhaps ironic that the best part of Aliens: Dark Descent, certainly for my tastes, is the part that has no aliens, at least not within our field of vision. The game properly accomplishes something I always expect from anything bearing the Aliens title, tension building. The anticipation of the moment when something will go wrong is more exciting than the chaos that happens when we get hit by xenos.
No matter how good we are at stealth though, it's unlikely we'll be able to avoid any random encounters. And even if we do, there are scripted events that make combat inevitable. I should note here that the cinematics in these events sometimes take the team out of position, a problem that I at least hadn't seen in years and thought had been overcome in modern games. Not to mention that this loss of agency by the player, even for a few seconds, leads to situations that they would never choose, e.g. like hell I would do a full frontal assault on Alien Queen if the cinematic didn't put me in front of her face, I would attempt a flank attack instead.
So it's time to talk about the battle system. I've heard and read quite a few people describe A:DD tactics as an RPG or squad-based tactics game. Fortunately, Tindalos itself promotes it as an action game, which I clearly agree. We don't have separate control of each marine, but the squad moves and acts as a unit, depending on what we've asked them to do. It doesn't work badly, but it certainly doesn't give the fine-tuned control that would be needed to implement tactics beyond shooting everything that moves. There are decisions that can and should be made when preparing for combat, such as setting up turrets, meds for stress control, door welding to reduce attack vectors, but when the fight starts, it becomes a massacre to the extent that it's hard to keep track of what's going on, let alone give orders - or rather, giving orders is easy, since there is a time delay, even pause (by selecting it in the options) when you give them, the question is whether the team will be able to execute them - it doesn't help at all how easily and in different ways the aliens can instantly incapacitate an otherwise healthy and able-bodied marine. Things get better when you manage to upgrade skills and equipment, but until you get to that point, it's a slog.
With the odds clearly against us, it is likely that we will not complete the mission with one deployment. The game allows for the possibility of retreating to Otago at almost any time, to regroup forces, or even change the roster. Of course, we can't overdo it, as the infestation level of the planet increases every five days or so, which makes missions even harder. And that's before a specific scenario event adds another planetary timer which, if depleted, leads to a immediate game over (this happens in the default settings, a recent patch added the ability to disable this death clock).
While we're in Otago, and probably waiting for our poor team to recover in medbay, we can spend various resources we collect in missions to upgrade the marines' skills and equipment, as well as research new technologies, such as a lifesaving extractor that can save a marine who couldn't escape from the hated facehuggers.
In the technical aspect, I will first mention the only negative thing, which is the quality of the character models. To be honest, their poor quality doesn't really matter during the missions, but as we wander around Otago and have close up conversations with the characters, it's noticeable.
Music and voice overs are at a good level. In graphics, a very good job has been done with an emphasis on creating a moody, menacing atmosphere. Even when we are in environments built by humans, there is a clear sense that even if xenos were not present, we are on an inhospitable planet. Most interiors are particularly dark, and the use of flashlight essential for those who want to explore.
In some respects I was the wrong person to review Aliens: Dark Descent, as I have a slight dislike for games where my team members are practically, and inevitably, expendable, picking up wounds and debuffs that I have to deal with beyond the end of the mission - yes, I'm the one who didn't like Banner Saga for those reasons. Ultimately though, this didn't stop me from immersing myself in the atmosphere of the game, and wanting to successfully complete the missions, despite the frustration that certain design elements caused me. This can only be described as a positive thing.
We would like to thank AVE Group for providing the review code.