As a paid up member of the “I love Xenomorphs” fan club, i’m used to crushing disappointment. Aliens: Dark Descent, a turn-based strategy being developed by French strategy outfit Tindalos Interactive, looks like it might actually be pretty good, delivering an atmospheric tactics game that seems like it’ll deliver a mix of pulse-pounding action and brown-trousers terror.
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Our hands-off preview shows colonial marines cautiously exploring a gloomy industrial complex, flashlights picking their way through the darkness as your small team of commandos looks for supplies and hopes, desperately, to survive another mission. Their panic is reasonable, the survival rate for pop-culture characters that run into a Xenomorph is so low it’s practically in the decimals.
Between missions you’ll return to a hub world and engage with some light RPG elements that will see you levelling up characters and brushing them off before you send them back out on another mission in the bowels of the sci-fi base.
Talking us through the game, publisher Focus Entertainment says that the story is set 20 years after Alien 3 and that the terror will be more survival horror, with the terror coming from the big scary Xenomorphs rather than the metaphysical wank that the Alien franchise has devolved into – sorry, not sorry, if that’s your bag.
Let’s address the Xenomorph in the room, though: small groups of soldiers splattering extra-terrestrials while undertaking high-risk missions. So far, so X-Com, right? However, Dark Descent is a million miles away from Microprose’s strategy classic and the Firaxis reboot that keyed an entire generation into turn-based tactics. Here, the action is real-time, although you can slow time to a crawl when you want to hand out orders when the going gets tough.
The biggest draw for me isn’t just the Aliens license, which allows the developers to do cool mechanical tricks with familiar gadgets like the motion tracker – which has the same ghostly ping you remember – sentry guns and even the ability to weld and unweld doors. The most exciting part of the game, for me, is the persistent world.
That base you’re exploring? It’ll continue to be there for the length of the game. You’ll be able to weld and unweld doors at the cost of precious resources, which you can use in a pinch to funnel Xenomorphs away from yourself. However, it also means you’re blocking a route for yourself on future runs, changing your own path through the labyrinthine base. Weld all of the doors to an area shut and you’ll create a rest space that you can use to take a minute and recover from the fighting, taking care of both their stress and health.
Elsewhere, motion sensors you’ve placed will let you keep track of the Xenomorphs patrolling the base, ghostly little dots roaming the electric blue map of the structure. Keeping track of these guards is important because as soon as they detect your squad, your suicide mission is about to get that much more doomed as Xenomorphs descend on them from all directions.
The fighting in the game looks like crunchy, messy gunfights that are a million miles away from the slick precision of turn-based combat, a good sign considering this is the pre-recorded video the team has chosen to show off the game. Despite the technological advantage, these marines are still likely to get overwhelmed by the black tide of bugs. I’m morbidly curious to see whether I have what it takes to keep my marines alive when the time comes, when the game releases in 2023.