I always get a little nervous when a new Aliens game is announced. The Alien Universe is very close to my heart, but the franchise is far from immune to disappointing video game adaptions. Quite the opposite. There are probably more bad video games set in the world of Alien than good ones.
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So when Aliens: Dark Descent was revealed during last year’s Summer Game Fest showcase, I was more apprehensive than excited. The balance shifted further towards nervousness when I discovered it was a real-time strategy game, a genre that I must admit I’ve struggled with in the past.
Nevertheless, when I got my hands on the PS5 version of Aliens: Dark Descent, I was determined to go in with an open mind. And it's a good thing I did. By the time I was halfway through the first level, my fears had already been assuaged. I'm delighted to report that the development team at Tindalos Interactive has crafted a gripping and intense Aliens game — but it’s not without its rough edges.
In Aliens: Dark Descent you must lead a group of Colonial Marines through an assortment of levels positively teeming with Xenomorphs and rogue Weyland-Yutani Corporation androids. That might sound a lot like Aliens: Fireteam Elite, but while that 2021 game was a third-person co-op shooter, Dark Descent is a top-down real-time strategy game.
I had serious reservations about this choice of genre at first. I was worried that a strategy game would lead to a slower pace, sucking all the tension out of encountering Xenomorphs. Instead of scrambling to survive, players would be forced to spend tedious amounts of time micro-managing menus. I’ll hold my hands up on this one, I was very wide of the mark.
Yes, you’ll spend a lot of time in Aliens: Dark Descent, tabbing through various menus in order to deploy a sentry turret or command your soldiers to use a med pack, but when you come face to face with Xenomorph, all hell really does break loose. And if you don’t keep a cool head, your entire squad can be wiped out in just a matter of minutes (and squad deaths are permanent!).
Aliens: Dark Descent can be pretty darn brutal, even in the normal difficulty setting, I've escaped from several showdowns with groups of just regular Xenos with my whole squad in seriously bad shape. I dread to think how tough the hardest setting must be. Kudos to anybody who beats the game on "No One Can Hear Them Scream" mode.
Battling hordes of acid-blooded aliens using your limited resources is tricky enough, but one of the game’s best mechanics is that your soldiers can also be overwhelmed with anxiety in the middle of a battle. Becoming overly stressed will cause them to take on negative perks like being more prone to missing shots or even ignoring your commands. It’s a great way to add further tension to enemy encounters. And it means that even when your squad survives a clash with the hive, visible mental scars remain and these could foil your chances of succeeding next time.
Admittedly, I’ve only had the chance to play Aliens: Dark Descent for a few hours so far, but I’ve been plenty impressed with how the game has managed to marry together the survival horror and strategy genres into something fairly unique. It’s even managed to keep my heart racing just as much as Alien: Isolation did back in 2015, which is a pretty big achievement.
Rest and regroup
In between missions, you can head back to your home base and it’s here that you can upgrade your marines, research new weapons or equipment and even customize your squad — I've named mine after the players of my favorite soccer team.
Returning to your spaceship base is the ideal way to destress in between intense sessions in the thick of the hive, and with so much to unlock and upgrade, I can definitely see Aliens: Dark Descent holding my attention for quite some time. But you can’t get too comfortable here, as there is a timer mechanic meaning that if you don’t complete missions without a set timeframe, the planet below you will get more and more infested with nightmarish creatures.
However, I do wish Dark Descent was a little more generous when it comes to doling out upgrades. I spent the best part of an hour completing various mission objections and getting into risky scrapes with Aliens, only to return to base and find that I hadn’t collected enough resources to upgrade pretty much anything, and none of my marines had ranked up either. This was a little demoralizing, especially at such an early stage in the campaign when you expect progression to come relatively quickly.
Not quite a blockbuster
You should note before playing that Aliens: Dark Descent isn’t quite a AAA game. So, you will need to tolerate some rough edges. Fortunately, it’s been priced accordingly with a very reasonable $39 launch price, and with this in mind, it’s a lot easier to forgive the stiff animations, the slightly off-putting character faces and the mediocre voice-acting in cutscenes. What’s a little harder to tolerate are the bugs and glitches.
I should note that in my playtime so far I’ve not experienced anything game-breaking, but I have endured an occasionally sluggish framerate (even in Performance Mode), a member of my squad getting stuck on level terrain, and an audio glitch during a cutscene. These are not major problems, but they do suggest that Aliens: Dark Descent is in need of some post-release TLC. Fingers crossed patches are in the pipeline.
Nevertheless, don’t let the game’s more modest production values and rougher edges put you off entirely. If you have any fondest for the Aliens IP, Dark Descent borders on essential. It’s a game that truly understands the appeal of the franchise, and makes encountering a swarm of Xenomorphs a highly terrifying experience — and that’s exactly how it should be.
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Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team.