For some reason, despite the fact that I rather like the Alien film franchise and absolutely bloody love the squad-based tactics best exemplified by XCOM, Aliens: Dark Descent wasn’t really on my radar. After a hands-off demo of the game, however, it’s rocketed into my most-anticipated list.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t on board before. It might have been because the Alien franchise has a fairly checkered history in games, and recently also in film – though of course, it also gave us Alien Isolation, so I shouldn’t write the franchise off without due diligence. Maybe, though, it is because XCOM is just so damn good that every time I see an XCOM-alike, I wonder why I’d play it over the strategy genre perfection put out by Firaxis in the form of XCOM 2.
But like I said, seeing this demo of Aliens: Dark Descent immediately drives home why I should shelve that attitude and give this game some love. There’s two key reasons – first is simply that it just looks really good. The second, however, is just as important: this game is much more than an XCOM clone with a movie license.
The connection to the Firaxis strategy reboot is undeniable, obviously. A glance at the structure of the game, where you return to a hub base to manage soldiers with light RPG progression elements, or the pre-mission launch screen, makes it especially clear. It looks very similar. But, dig beyond that, particularly into the flow of combat and exploration in the strategy scenarios – and suddenly you see how Dark Descent is putting a distinctly different twist on the idea of a squad-based tactics game where you fend off powerful extraterrestrial creatures.
Most different is movement, which is both real-time and free-form, meaning you don’t have time to think about decision-making in the same way and movement takes place in full 3D as opposed to on a grid. This ramps up the pressure as your marines push through cramped corridors, making use of motion trackers (this is the Alien universe, after all) to keep track of where aliens are stalking. You can get jumped at any time, and there’s no turns or pausing to save you.
Motion trackers are used to great effect to this end. There’s two kinds of motion tracker – the iconic alien classic, which sits in the corner of your screen at all times as a UI element that tracks the area immediately around your marines, and a deployable item that can be tossed out anywhere on the map. Between the two of them, you can have a constant read of what is around you, both near and further away – which is handy, but only lasts so long. The Xenomorphs will find and destroy your deployable motion trackers – and once they do, you’ll be paranoid that one is lurking around every corner.
Keeping track of the map is important, because you’re not just on temporary ‘battle box’ maps that exist only for firefights. You’re exploring a wider area, a base that you’ll gradually uncover. It’s almost a bit like how a planet might work in a Metroid game, even though it’s a completely different sort of game – and you’ll even be able to uncover shortcuts across the planet to that end. Perspective-wise, the map, real-time movement and camera perspective almost makes it look like a spacebound Diablo, at least for a moment.
The first moment the map was opened was one of the big eureka moments for me in this presentation: it really showcases how this title differs from its inspiration.
With lots of motion trackers placed, you can see dots representing the deadly aliens darting about, up and down corridors, patrolling rooms, and actively searching for your squad. There’s full-blown alert states – so when the enemy knows where you are, reinforcements will try to chase you down until you can lose them. Your party of marines will have to do things like weld shut airlock doors in order to block off aliens – but that’ll also change your own path through the base.
The cool element about the map is that there’s a sense of permanence. Even when you return to your hub, things you’ve placed like motion trackers remain. Aliens still patrol. And, yes, the poor marines you lose in permanent death remain there, their corpses a testament to your tactical failures.
There’s a lot of tactics to manage, too. You’ve got a squad of four that can be any of six different classes, each with abilities, weapons, and skills to consider. The two key stats to manage are health and stress – the former familiar and the latter a representation of the sanity of your marines. The more stressed they are, the worse their performance will be – topping out in outright panic, where a Marine is rendered practically useless.
Combat is real time, but you can slow things to a crawl, allowing orders to be issued. This also has the bonus of looking extremely cool. If you set up an ambush in a doorway, watching a hail of bullets slow-mo slam into a Xenomorph is extremely satisfying.
Hands-off demos are obviously not as useful as getting to play it, but at first blush from a half hour of gameplay. Aliens: Dark Descent looks great. It’s also a different sort of Alien-based experience – less the creeping horror of the first movie and more the intense action of the second. Xenomorphs are tough, but you’re still taking them down in relatively large numbers – in fact, you’re arguably most worried about being overrun.
With XCOM 3 probably a while off, there’s an open market for that sort of game – but I’m thrilled that Dark Descent is also clearly something quite different; a subtle twist on a structure that worked brilliantly. I look forward to actually playing it soon.